In bygone days, attempted betting coups were among the most intriguing and colorful parts of the racing game. They have largely vanished because of the prevalence of illegal drugs at U.S. tracks. If a trainer is trying to cash a bet, he can use a needle or summon an unscrupulous veterinarian to obtain an edge, so there is no need to invest the time, planning and creativity necessary for a successful coup.
I was thinking about the disappearance of betting coups the other day when I saw Norman Casse at Gulfstream Park. A Florida horse breeder and the CEO of the Ocala Breeders Sales Co., Casse was at the track to present the trophy for a $1 million race that was part of the Sunshine Millions. Despite his respectable credentials, Casse loves nothing in life more than cashing a bet, particularly if he outwits the rest of the world doing it. While he wouldn't resort to out-and-out dishonesty, he would be delighted if he could keep a horse's virtues well concealed. That's the essence of an elegant coup.
In the era before full-card simulcasting, anyone who hoped to cash a bet had to do it at a track with a big crowd and big betting pools. The mother lode of betting pools was at Churchill Downs on the day of the Kentucky Derby, and every year Kentucky wise guys angled to put over a coup -- often in a blatantly larcenous fashion. Casse, too, dreamed of making a score the first Saturday in May, and he saw his chance after he acquired a colt named Shot 'n Missed. The year was 1981, but he still remembers the events as if they happened yesterday. And so do I.
"We bought him at a sale," Casse recalled, "and when we got him home he had breathing problems and we had to operate. When he was a 3-year-old he had little shin problems. By the beginning of his 4-year-old year he still hadn't run. One day at Gulfstream we took him to the gate and worked him -- and he went six furlongs in 1:111/5! He could run!"
Casse immediately started planning a trip to Churchill Downs, and that winter he confided his scheme to me. He knew that every wise guy tried to darken a horse's form by giving him a bad race or two before cashing a bet on Derby Day, and that all the other wise guys were on the lookout for such a pattern. "I'm going to fool them all," Casse said. "I'm going to win a race -- narrowly -- at a minor track and then take him to Churchill." On the Derby day card, Casse knew, there was usually an allowance event for horses who had won a single race in their careers; nobody would pay much attention to a colt with an unimpressive victory at a cheap track.
The name of Shot 'n Missed appeared one day in the entries at Greenwood, a small track in Canada, and when I heard the results I knew Norman Casse was a master of his art. Shot 'n Missed had finished second -- but was placed first, at odds of 7 to 2, after the winner was disqualified. (Casse said his colt had encountered another fast, well-meant runner in the race, and that rival had fouled him into the stretch.) But the scenario couldn't have been better for making Shot 'n Missed an innocuous presence in a Churchill Downs allowance race.
As Derby day dawned in Louisville, Casse had visions of glory. Shot 'n Missed figured to be at least 10 to 1, maybe higher. Casse had the right horse in the right race on the right day.
He didn't have the right luck.
Shot 'n Missed's odds were high in the early wagering, but they began to drop steadily. Soon the drop turned to a free-fall, and throughout the track, people were buzzing that the colt from Canada was a "good thing." How did the cat get out of the bag? In a final tuneup for the coup, Shot 'n Missed had trained in company with a stablemate named What It Is and outworked him. What It Is came back to win the Derby Trial Stakes, and clockers were waiting for Shot 'n Missed to run.
As post time approached, bettors were stampeding to the windows, and Shot 'n Missed was 5 to 2 when he entered the starting gate. The colt was too sharp for his own good. He exploded from the gate, but so too did another fast rival; Shot 'n Missed's jockey, Darrell Haire, caught up in the excitement of the day, got into a head-and-head duel, racing the first quarter mile in a suicidal 214/5 seconds. Shot 'n Missed fought tenaciously all the way, but in the final furlong faded to finish third.
With hindsight, Casse realized just how unlucky he had been. Shot 'n Missed won his next three races. He developed into an ultra-consistent, stakes-quality runner, finishing in the money in 27 of his 29 career starts. Such a fast horse should have been a cinch to win a bottom-level allowance race. Yet despite months of planning, Casse's coup had failed totally -- as ambitious betting coups of the past frequently did, for the best laid plans cannot always overcome the unpredictability of the game.