May 25, 2020

Yoga helped make me a better horseplayer

Yoga Mat
Yoga Mat (Wikimedia Commons)

Brisnet Betting Guide Exclusive by Peter Thomas Fornatale
This column appears in the Sept. 28 edition of the Brisnet Betting Guide.
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After a recent yoga class at Yoga Mandali on Broadway in Saratoga, I said hello to a Grade 1 winning Kentucky-based trainer who happened to be on the mat next to me. We chatted about the meet and how we’ve both used our yoga practices to help heal our bodies and strengthen our minds. When the trainer learned that I write and broadcast about racing for a living, a look of fear flashed across his face, “You’re not going to tell anyone I do yoga, are you?”

Yoga has been an important part of my life for the past 10 years. It’s helped me in so many ways – including making me a better horseplayer. I can hear your snickering, but hear me out. In a game where fortunes are won and lost by tiny margins, and where split-second calls and human error can turn great decisions into lousy outcomes, it’s important to keep the bigger picture in sight at all times. Yoga can help with that.

We’ve all seen what happens when a horseplayer goes on tilt. The first Grade 1 meltdown I recall came courtesy of a friend of a friend in the old Carousel bar at Saratoga, circa 1998. The friend of a friend was having himself a day, nailing race after race. In his wisdom, however, he wasn’t betting the races individually. He had everything wrapped up in the Pick Six. He sat 5 for 5, and had three horses in the last leg, one of whom won at 8-1. He was dancing around the Carousel, counting the $50,000+ he’d won as the horses started walking back. That’s when we saw the light on the tote board start blinking. Long story short: after an interminable inquiry, his horse was taken down for interference. That’s when the chairs started flying around the Carousel. In the end, security escorted him from the plant.

The Tusk Incident

More recently, on August 1, 2017, there was what came to be known as the Tusk incident. It also took place at Saratoga, this time in the room known as the DG Lounge – the patio above the Shake Shack. A certain industry insider friend of mine had been touting Tusk all day, “He had no pace to close into last time, he had a terrible trip two back,” he said. “Today is the day and Tusk is going to roll!” he proclaimed to everyone within earshot, all day long.

At some point one of the people he was touting Tusk to pushed back, giving him the case AGAINST the horse. “He’s not that good,” my guy was told, “Those races were against much weaker.”

In the end, despite all his explication about Tusk’s certain victory, my friend decided NOT to back the animal. Do I even need to tell you the rest of the story. Tusk rolled at 7.6-1. The resulting high-volume tirade with language that would have made Redd Foxx blush – complete with stomping around the lounge – was reportedly heard as far away as Watervliet. At least the furniture stayed in place this time around.

Situational Help

Yoga can help with these situations. One of yoga’s goals is to help us breathe in uncomfortable positions, both literally and figuratively. In doing so, we’re encouraged to reconnect with what’s really important, the bigger picture I mentioned before.

This has major applications for horse racing. I recall sitting in the stands at the finish line at Fair Hill races on Memorial Day weekend 2010. I had an odd view of the finish line but I was pretty sure watching live that the 9 had snapped my 7 for third right on the line – a disappointment because had the 7 held on I was likely going to win the entire tri pool at Fair Hill (not a ton of money there, but still thousands of dollars).

The caller read the order of finish and to my surprise and great joy informed the crowd that the 7 was third. I was overjoyed, fists pumping, feeling for once that I’d been blessed by the racing gods who’d slapped me around so much over the years. That ecstasy lasted about 90 seconds until the caller came back on the mic, apologized profusely, and confirmed that the 9 was indeed third. I was apoplectic – just when I thought I was out they pulled me back in! I felt an uncontrollable desire to rant and rave and stomp. But I remembered my yoga practice. I walked down the stairs, sat under the grandstand by myself for a few minutes and took a series of deep, slow breaths. I was back in action the next race.

There are, no doubt, a lot of ways to lose in racing. The easiest way to go broke is to go on tilt. There isn’t much of a future for a horse-player who can’t control his or her emotions. Some people are wired for equanimity. I’m not that way – I’ve had to work as hard as I’ve ever worked on anything in this life to feel centered and calm, to not get too wrapped up in the story-line that moment, and instead to try to step outside myself and see what it looks like when all the moments are strung out together. It’s an ongoing struggle – that’s why they call it yoga practice. But I guarantee yoga has saved me a lot of money.

If you’re walking around Saratoga next summer and you see a guy with his eyes closed in a cross-legged position sitting by himself somewhere in the backyard, you don’t have to call the paramedics. That’s just me breathing through another bad beat.

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