Sunday morning, Julio Canani hedged his bet. He went to church. He hadn’t knelt in a pew in 23 years, since he left Oxampampa, Peru, to train horses in America, because “the last time I go to church, they charge me a dollar.”
Sunday morning, though, he stopped off at a house of worship a few blocks from the race track, because something--or someone--was telling Julio to say a little prayer before the big race. It might have been Santa Anita herself.
Sunday afternoon, a horse Julio trains went out and won a million-dollar race, at odds of 50-1.
“Besides my kids being born, this is the greatest thing that ever happen to me,” he said. “At least I can make my car payment now.”
Sunday morning, Jeff Siegel placed his bets. Not at the mutuel window. In the newspapers. He had handicapped the day’s races, including the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap, for four California papers that carry his syndicated picks. And this is how he saw the great race going down:
NASR EL ARAB Deserves top billing
SUPER DIAMOND Old-timer exudes class
GOOD TASTE Coming up to corker
CHEROKEE COLONY Switch to McCarron
MARTIAL LAW Beat softer in breeze
Yes, fifth. Fifth out of 11. That’s where Jeff Siegel pegged Martial Law for the finish line. Not in front. Not in the money. Not in the photo, unless they used a wide lens. Fifth. Middle of the pack.
Fair, he thought. Fair to everybody. The way Siegel figured it: “I didn’t want to pick him to win, because I didn’t think he would. But I didn’t want to pick him to run last, because I didn’t want to blow my credibility entirely. “
See, Jeff Siegel owns Martial Law.
Yes, owns him. Owns him with a bunch of partners. Ten partners. Fourteen partners. Varies, whoever’s telling the story.
“We’ve probably got people here now who think they’re partners,” Siegel said in the winner’s circle, when flowers were draped around the neck of Martial Law, one of the longest longshots ever to win the richest handicap in thoroughbred racing.
For the Clover Racing Stable, it was quite a day at the races. Early in the afternoon, another of its horses, one called Galba, was the longshot winner of the $100,000 New Orleans Handicap at the Fair Grounds in Louisiana, paying $63 to win. Sweet.
Then, an hour or two later, the decidedly anonymous Martial Law won a race previously won by the likes of Seabiscuit, Spectacular Bid, Affirmed, John Henry and Alysheba. He paid $103.60 for a two-buck ticket. He outran 40-1 and 80-1 shots to the wire, in a horse race that more or less (no offense) went to the dogs. The exacta paid $3,717. Gracias, Santa Anita.
For Jeff Siegel, things could not have gone better.
Well, maybe a little better.
“I didn’t bet one nickel on him,” he said.
That’ll teach him not to follow those newspaper handicappers.
Martial Law ran in England for a while, then was brought to Santa Anita last winter. Siegel and his partners thought they had a decent horse. Not the fastest horse in the world, but no hobby horse, either.
They gave him to Canani to train. Julio worked with him. One day Siegel stopped by, and the trainer told him: “You know, this is a better horse than you think.”
The partners started thinking. With the Santa Anita Handicap coming up, they wondered whether they should send their horse against slower horses for a cheaper purse, or go for broke.
The “early bird” nomination deadline of last August had passed, and with it the $500 entry fee. Then the Dec. 1 deadline passed, with its $2,000 fee. Then the Jan. 12 deadline, with its $2,500 fee. If the Clover folks wanted to enter Martial Law in the Big ‘Cap, it was going to cost them a “supplemental” nominating charge of $25,000.
They talked it over. They debated until the final afternoon. They consulted their trainer.
“I’m not going to tell you he can’t win,” Canani told them.
Siegel and the others voted to be brave. “We decided if we lose, we’ll have a good time, and if we win, we’ll have a good investment. Truthfully, though, we were prepared to get laughed at.”
On deadline day, Siegel told the trainer as he walked his horse that they were entering Martial Law in the Big ‘Cap.
“You know,” Canani said, “even the horse turned around and gave us a dirty look.”
Race day: Siegel was excited, and happy that UCLA’s basketball game with top-ranked Arizona was played the day before. If Siegel is not the No. 1 UCLA fan in the country, he would certainly make the Associated Press Top 20. He follows their football and basketball teams, home and away, even though he attended San Jose State and Cal State Northridge.
Siegel was excited because it hadn’t rained, and he figured Nasr El Arab might run better wet than dry. And Super Diamond, another favorite, was 9 years old, no spring chicken. Martial Law’s chances looked better and better, even though his odds remained lousy.
The handicapper-owner watched them run from the press box. Six furlongs along, jockey Martin Pedroza had the horse third, and Siegel said: “Now at least we won’t be embarrassed. We’ll at least finish fifth.”
On the far turn, Super Diamond faded from second. Martial Law moved up. Siegel’s eyes popped open.
“Work him, Martin!” he started screaming. “Work him, Martin! Work him, Martin!”
Pedroza worked him right across the finish line--first.
Hey, good investment.
Siegel found a newspaper and looked up his comments.
“‘Beat softer in breeze,”’ he read, next to Martial Law’s name. “Not exactly memorable.”
He put it down, then picked it up.
“Ah, but look at this, though,” he said, and pointed.
Beneath the chart, the handicapper had written: “Longshot--Martial Law.”
Maybe that got somebody to put a nickel on him.