The Phoenix called this one right.

All those front page and sports stories during the last few weeks - just for a horse?

Well, this isn't just any old horse.

Smarty Jones lived up to the hype and many of those of us at this paper, as were much of us in the area, cheered the Philadelphia Park 3-year-old to the finish line.

I first learned to love the ponies after reading two dozen Dick Francis novels back-to-back. Francis is a former steeple chase jockey from Europe and writes eloquently about the Sport of Kings.

Several years ago, I stood and yelled for a horse named Grindstone from the infield in Kentucky where he eventually won the Kentucky Derby. It was Grindstone by a nose. Those horses ran a loop around us.

I read aloud from Hunter S. Thompson during a traffic jam before the race just outside Churchill Downs and scared my traveling companions about what it would be like to attend such a tradition filled event.

We sat jam-packed with our knees to our heads in the Kentucky Blue grass as hundreds of Bourbon and Mint Julep drinkers walked on top of us. Many fell down. Some got up and others stayed where they fell.

We saw about five seconds of the actual race over the heads of those in the crowd and watched the rest on large televisions. Dozens of women climbed onto the shoulders of friends and exposed themselves to the 40,000 residents of the infield.

Imagine just about anything that might happen with all those people jammed together and you'll discover that Thompson's description was tame at best.

The best way to play the ponies is from a comfortable seat on a nice day at a race track on a non-event day. You'll find hundreds of open seats and the horses reach the starting post an almost leisurely every 25 minutes.

This time gives a spectator plenty of time to watch the other bettors in hopes of glimpsing a Charles Bukowski look-alike. There is nothing like standing at the paddock and watching the horses prance around in person just prior to a race.

With the price of a concert ticket to see Springsteen or Fleetwood Mac at almost $100 a show, a day at the track is a bargain. Know what you can afford to lose and don't take a MAC card. A minimum bet of $2 is a chance to yell, "Go # 4, Go!" along with hundreds of others chanting numbers at varying degrees of impatience and excitement.

More likely than not, I've driven home with my father or companions without enough cash left in our pockets to purchase a cup of coffee although we still got out and got some fresh air.

Get lucky, win an exacta or two, and you might even come out ahead. Do that at a concert without finding a wallet.

The easiest way to play the ponies is to do at an off-track betting parlor. Don't even consider playing along at home on TV with a phone bet account.

Sit at an off-track bar, eat a good reasonably priced meal and just try to control yourself with 15 races running every 25 minutes. There is something special about watching two races at once with a betting interest in both.

The real draw to horse racing is the way that the betting works. With slot machines, it's down to the simple decision of which machine to play and how much. Black jack calls for a decision or two per hand and some skill comes into play but with both you are playing against the house.

Pari-mutuel wagering calls for bettors wagering against each other. If a thousand dollars is played on a ten horse field and one horse attracts $500 of the action then it is the favorite. If that horse wins, everyone who picked him shares in the pool. (Be aware that this is after the track has collected at least 14 percent off the top). Everybody who bet the winning nag will collect part of that grand depending on how much they bet.

If a horse only attracts $100, then those bettors will add five times as much in their pockets since the money goes to less people.

A 50-1 shot pays so much because there are less people to collect if the pony wins because before the race less bettors favored the long shot.

I've traveled to Belmont Park four times to witness horses fail to win the third leg of the Triple Crown. I'll be there again this year with all the celebrities and politicians on a nice afternoon in Elmont, NY.

This will not be a big day for betting, but instead a chance to witness the pageantry. I saw my inspiration Dick Francis there one year and couldn't think of any place I'd rather be if Smarty Jones has a chance to win it all.

New Yorkers are known for betting the chalk and will flock toward a favorite. Usually though, horse racing is a thinking person's game with so many factors listed in the track program.

Everything from blinkers to the jockey being two pounds overweight come into play.

If it's Smarty striding for the Triple Crown, I'll likely yell his name as the horses come down that oh-so long stretch to finish 100 feet from where I'll be standing.

Adding money to a race is just a way to make it a bit more interesting. It's still all about those huge, temperamental beasts, those amazing horses. Go Smarty, Go! I want to be there for that parade down Broad Street.

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