The confrontation between Spectacular Bid and Affirmed at Belmont Park Saturday will be more than a great sporting drama. It is a fascinating intellectual puzzle.
Both horses have compiled brilliant records throughout their careers, but they have done it in ways that provide few neat lines of comparison between them. Spectacular Bid and Affirmed may not be evenly matched; one of them may be so superior that he can make a runaway of the $350,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Before the race, journalists and trainers and Jimmy the Greek will all be pontificating about the horses' relative merits. But the people at Belmont Park with the most informed opinions won't be asked for them. New York has a small population of professional gamblers who keep a low profile but who are the sharpest handicappers in the world.
I asked five first-rate professional bettors in New York to evaluate the Jockey Club Gold Cup. To my surprise, a consensus emerged: Affirmed will win the race, and he may win it big.
Charlie is the best horseplayer I know; he may be the best in the country. He once worked as a harness trainer, and his experience in that game taught him to appreciate the importance of the way a race is run -- the pace, the tactics, the ground that horses lose on turns. Charlie carried that knowledge over to the thoroughbred sport, and relies mostly on his own visual impression to make a comfortable living from five month's work a year.
"The two horses are going to be looking at each other for a mile and a half, or else the jockeys are crazy," Charlie said. "If they do run like that, somebody's going to quit. This is no horse race; it's just a test of guts.
"Spectacular Bid has phenomenal ability but he's never been under constant pressure all the way. He's been so much better than the horses he's been beating that he's passed them like they've been standing still. But I don't think he's going to be able to blow past Affirmed. I know Affirmed is honest and tough. When the horses hook up, I'd have to take Affirmed on strength alone."
Ronnie differs from the majority of professional gamblers, who are patient and selective. He will bet like a madman, sometimes making several $1,000 plays in an afternoon. He can do this because he has a wide range of handicapping tools; he understands figures, pace, horses' appearance, racing tactics.
"I think Spectacular Bid is a very good 3-year-old. Affirmed is a super-star.
"I made Spectacular Bid a star at distances up to a mile and an eighth, but after that, his ability takes a downward turn. I didn't buy all that stuff about the pin causing his defeat in the Belmont Stakes.
"I wasn't much impressed by Affirmed as a 3-year-old, either. He always got the perfect trips, he was always in the right part of the track when he beat Alydar. But Affirmed came back a much better horse this year. He's been carrying the weight and he's not getting perfect trips. Two weeks ago, in the Woodward, I bet Coastal against him because I didn't think Affirmed would handle the track. But he got all that slop kicked in his face and beat Coastal on Coastal's kind of racetrack. On a fast track, he'll thrash Spectacular Bid."
Harry is a nondogmatic handicapper. He treats the game as one of prices and percentages and edges. He appalls purists with such tactics as five-horse boxes in triple races and show bets on 1-to-5 shots.
"How can you separate those two?" Harry asked. "If I had to make a choice, I'd lean toward Affirmed because he's won at a mile and half, and because Spectacular Bid has never been in a real stretch duel. He's had all his races won turning for home.
"To me, though, I can't see risking serious money on the basis of things like that. The only thing that could get me interested would be the price. I think they should be about the same odds, but if one of them were 2 to 5 and the other 6 to 5, I could get interested."
Joe doesn't fit anybody's sterotype of a professional gambler. Quiet and scholarly, he abandoned a Ph.D. program to pursue his life's passion, but still does some college-level teaching to give him periodic breaks from the track.He bets conservatively, emphasizing horses' appearance, trips and figures in his handicapping.
"I've always had a prejudice against Affirmed," Joe said. "I felt he always got the best of everything because he's a rateable speed horse. Alydar could have beaten him last year with perfect trips, but he wasn't so much better that he could overcome Affirmed's advantages.
"I think Spectacular Bid is enough better. He is a horse who is just as manageable as Affirmed, and that's where he has the big edge over Alydar. I really feel Spectacular Bid is going to beat him convincingly."
Paul has done little in his 27 years that society would describe as honest work. He has gambled for most of his adult life, doing it successfully at an early age because he possesses the even temperament and self-discipline that usually comes only with experience. He, too, has a harness-racing background in which he learned to become an expert race-watcher.
"Affirmed has got the big edge in condition. He's coming off a mile-and-a-quarter race two weeks ago. He's better prepared for this. Spectacular Bid is coming off a mile-and-an-eighth race four weeks ago. I think Delp got too cute by skipping the other race.
"In the Gold Cup, the two of them are going to go head and head. I'd take Pincay over Shoemaker; he's the stronger rider. I still haven't seen Spectacular Bid slug it out head and head, but I know Affirmed can do it."