Playing the Polar Ponies

Winter Racing at Aqueduct—Not the Sport of Kings

On a day not fit for man or beast, Sadie Is a Lady is looking good in the Big A paddock. So are the other nine maiden three-year-old fillies, snorting and prancing through a chilling rain as their owners huddle about and mumble hopefully on their chances in the first race. Sadie, a smallish, brown New York-bred, is seeking to improve on her lackluster debut a few weeks earlier—dead last, some 23 lengths back. Here, she seems ready, eager even, although given her 40-1 price, it's obvious few bettors are biting. "Who knows?" says her owner, Stan Ettinger, of Pont Street Stables. "Maybe she'll like the mud."

Ettinger hasn't bet on Sadie and says he won't until she "proves she can run," but that doesn't keep Richie, one of several co-owners, from heading to the windows to wheel her in the daily double. "How do I wind up with 50 bucks on this stupid horse?" he moans. Ettinger shrugs, smiles—as the Pont Street syndicate's managing partner, he's good at that. "This is still new to her," he explains. "I don't know if she'll move forward enough to please us [or Richie, anyway], but we're not looking to win. Maybe she can pick up a purse. Even fourth, I'd be happy. At 6 percent [of the $41,000 prize], that'd be $2500, or a month's training—which is great."

Thoroughbreds, of course, aren't born knowing how to handle starting gates, or how to run counterclockwise around an oval, for that matter. It's an odd learning curve. Maiden races, reserved exclusively for previous non-winners, ultimately yield all classes from Secretariat to Stewball. You'd think that by averages every horse would have its day, except for the sobering fact that roughly 50 percent of those that reach the track never win—ever. "Hey, we had Lucy Does the Hula, and she ran 12 times before winning," says Ettinger. Like movie people cross-referencing old films, horsemen bring up steeds past. While the owner has to be a realist, Sadie seems all right warming up, totally oblivious to a track surface that is something out of day two at Woodstock.

Proud papa: Stan Ettinger and one of  his "earners," Tallulah Darling
photo: Pete Kuhns
Proud papa: Stan Ettinger and one of his "earners," Tallulah Darling

At post time, Sadie accepts the gate and breaks well before veering toward the inside through the slop. She spends most of the remaining five furlongs stuck in sixth place, never makes a move, and hits the finish line a mediocre, mid-pack seventh. After conferring with his mud-splattered jockey, trainer Del Carroll explains that Sadie'd been startled early on by a horse on the outside, which caused her to bang her head on the rail. "She's a little brain-dead to begin with," he says, "but at least she didn't stop dead. There's light at the end of the universe."

Ettinger, meanwhile, now the optimist, assures his partners that their filly's outing was a "great improvement over her first—she wasn't a lot of lengths back," prompting Richie to quip, "Stan, it wasn't gonna get any worse."

Whoever tagged thoroughbred racing the Sport of Kings couldn't have had Aqueduct Racetrack's winter meet in mind. The acres upon acres of vast empty parking lot, the flocks of seagulls squawking over discarded pizza, the near-abandoned bars and grills, the handfuls of angry railbirds bundled against the freeze as they curse the jocks in a timeworn ritual, the gritty riders themselves leading cheaper mounts through abbreviated post parades—it's a curious picture for a supposedly moneyed game. The cavernous Queens joint was built in 1959 to hold 80,000, which it actually got for a pope visit a few years back. But in mid February, attendance higher than four figures is about as common as finding a Derby prospect in a claiming race. The New York Racing Association's media guide notes that there are 1009 urinals at Aqueduct. On some arctic days, that's got to work out to at least one per patron.

In a gentler era, the New York racing scene shut down every year until spring, as the Whitneys and Vanderbilts took their pastime to sunny climes. While top horses and trainers still winter down south, the seasonal hiatus ended in 1975 with the creation of the Big A's chemically treated winterized inner track. Since then, die-hard bettors have enjoyed year-round action; more recently, they've been joined by thousands of punters across the country who regularly fill NYRA coffers thanks to simulcast satellite hookups (the economic basis for opening the track during wintertime in the first place). But most important for non-blueblooded horsemen like Stan Ettinger, the Big A's big chill offers a chance to thrive while the major outfits are out of town.

"It's a tough game," says the 72-year-old Ettinger, formerly in ladies' accessories. "But this is our lucrative time, when the big stables are gone. In the winter of '99, we were the third leading stable for purses earned per start. We were in the money 85 percent of the time—hardly ever missed a check."

Ettinger founded Pont Street back in 1989, with three partners sharing one horse. Since then the syndicate has grown to over 80 partners who split varying percentages of a dozen horses—with Ettinger having a stake in each one. Every equine requires a separate account, starting with a purchase agreement. From that point on, investors may be called on for more funds—for stable fees, vet costs, etc.—or, when fortune knocks, they'll get an occasional payout. When Ettinger talks about being "in the money," he's referring mainly to a succession of second-, third-, fourth-, even fifth-place finishes that allow assorted Pont Streeters to meet expenses or at least keep the bills down. NYRA payouts stretch from first place (60 percent of the purse) down to fifth (3 percent; typically, Sadie's maiden race—restricted to New York-breds—offered a total purse of $41,000). "I tell potential investors, 'Please don't be looking to make a living,' " Ettinger says. "You break even, you're ahead of the game. As a British sportsman once said, 'Ninety percent of owners lose money—the rest are lying.' Most of our guys just enjoy themselves."

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