PLEASANTON -- I'm not much of a gambler, nor do I know much about horse racing. So, what better way to combine the two deficiencies (and spend some of my bosses' money in the process) than by betting the ponies at the Alameda County Fair?
So I won't be flying blind, I enlist the fair's horse racing publicist, Dennis Miller, a longtime sportswriter who is also an expert horse handicapper. Miller and track announcer Frank Mirahmadi co-host the fair's free daily handicapping seminar, where they go over each day's racing card, presenting their top picks.
Miller says he has been handicapping horses since he was a young boy, when he had to rely on adults to cash in his winning tickets. He runs the seminars year-round, studying past performances, watching videos and keeping notes. Pleasanton's dirt track favors quick starters, he says, but, of course, nothing is a sure thing.
"We just try to get you an educated opinion," Miller says. "We can't guarantee winners; if we could, I wouldn't be here right now."
Jeff Garcia, of Brentwood, has been a regular at the fair's races for 25 years. He's usually the first one in attendance at every seminar, mixing the experts' picks with tips from others in the know.
"What are you looking for?" I ask, as he pores over his racing literature.
"A winner," he says.
A racing spectator for 36 years at the fair, Mike Mullineaux, of Pleasanton, relies mainly on speed ratings found in the Daily Racing Form, spending hours on facts and figures.
"Everybody has their own system," Mullineaux says, holding up the magazine. "This is my Bible."
Then there's Mike Zierau, of Pleasanton, who makes his picks based on how often the horse's numbers end up in the winner's circle. He usually places 10-cent superfecta bets and boxes them -- meaning if he picks the top four horses, he can win big no matter the order of finish. Two years ago, on a $2.40 superfecta bet, Zierau took home $4,600.
It's a gorgeous day for racing. The air is warm, and there's a steady breeze cooling the grandstands. The first race is a mule race, which even experts agree are nearly impossible to handicap. Mirahmadi likes #5, Bar JF Easy Money, while Miller is set on #1, a female named Eye of the Hawk.
She has the same name as a beer I like, so I'm confident she'll win. Armed with what I've gleaned, I head for the betting window. I place a couple of $2 exactas and one 10-cent superfecta bet. The horses begin entering the gates, so I make a dash for the press box. Suddenly, the mules are off, their hooves kicking up clods of dirt on the straightaway. In a flash, it's over; Eye of the Hawk has the win, but there's a photo finish for second with the #4 and #5.
Either way, I have the exacta locked. I'm paid $28.40 for my $2 bet. I'm feeling thrilled about my good fortune when photographer Doug Duran finds me hanging out in the seats under the press box, beaming. He congratulates me, and we go in to collect my winnings. Not bad for a bunch of mules, I think.
For the second race, Miller likes the #5 horse, Cajun Hippie. The others on the panel like him, too, along with Sailor's Brother.
I've decided on three horses for the superfecta and ask who Duran likes for the last one. We agree on Homeland Hero, the #4. But for some reason, when I get to the betting window, I blurt out a 5 instead of 4. It proves to be a disastrous mistake. The horses fly out of the gate across the field, and as they make the turn, the crowd rises to its feet. A man with dreadlocks sprints up to the rail, yelling, "Go get 'em, One! Go get 'em, One!"
The horses finish as I predicted; the problem is I had given the teller the wrong number. I didn't hang my head too low, however, because I cashed in another exacta ticket, winning $14.80 for a $2 bet.
All told, I'm having a good day, so I try a third race. The experts like the #5 horse, Parea, along with Jammin' Lady Louli. I bet conservatively, a 10-cent superfecta and an exacta. Unfortunately, the underdogs prevail. The race is a wash, but I don't care, I'm walking out ahead, pocketing $24. As I leave the press box, I thank Miller for the advice, helping me hit two exactas on the day.
"That's how they hook you," he replies with a mischievous grin.
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.
The Alameda County Fair, and horse racing, ends Sunday. Fair hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Admission is $10 (ages 13-61). seniors $8, kids (age 6-12) $6; kids under 6 are free. Racing and the handicapping seminars are free .The seminars are at 11:30 a.m., and races start at 1:15 p.m. The fairgrounds are at 4501 Pleasanton Ave., Pleasanton. For more, go to www.alamedacountyfair.com or call 925-426-7600.