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Ethics and Absurdity at Belmont Park

The sport has heroes, but the odds look meaningless.

by Barnabas
June 9, 2004

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"Getting bigger and bigger in Elliott's rearview mirror, however, was Birdstone, with Edgar Prado aboard, a 36-1 shot. They were rolling down the middle of the track. Elliott asked for that one last gear, the one he had found at Churchill Downs and at Pimlico Race Course. It wasn't there." – New York Times, June 6, 2004

The ethics today is called sportsmanship. It is ethics at a high level—honoring the truth with respect and generosity.

Perhaps the book and movie Seabiscuit renewed, after  some years,  my interest in horse racing. I watched the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, before I learned of President Reagan’s passing. The undefeated Smarty Jones, ridden by Stewart Elliott, seemed destined to win both the race and the "Triple Crown," having already won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. The expected outcome was not to be; the huge crowd who came expecting one historic event got another when Edgar Prado on Birdstone won the race by passing Smarty Jones in the home stretch.

While it was thrilling to watch, I was even more thrilled by the response of the two jockeys. "I'm very sorry that happened, but I had to do my job," Prado said. "I'm happy and sad — sad because I was looking forward to a Triple Crown.This sport needs heroes."

What a classy thing to say! And Stewart Elliott, who paid tribute both to his mount and the winner, matched it. He said of Smarty Jones, "He ran and he ran" Then he said of Birdstone, "That horse just came and ran us down."

The sport needs heroes, and it has them. Smarty Jones and Stewart Elliott came as heroes to Belmont, where Birdstone and Edgar Prado joined them as heroes. Winning the Triple Crown is heroic, but no more heroic than a longshot outrunning both its opponents and its odds.

The absurdity is in the odds assigned to Birdstone: 36-1. It makes a non-fan like me wonder if the odds mean anything at all. Though I don’t understand the math involved, I have been given to think that the odds bear some relationship to the amount of money being wagered on each horse: the more money wagered, the shorter the odds. (I’m not saying this is the only factor, because I don’t know. I tried to look it up on Google last night, but all I came up were bookies asking for my bets.)

Still, there should be some intelligible reason for betting on one horse instead of another – everybody else doing it is not an intelligible reason for doing anything. If the reason were intelligible, odds of 36-1 would qualify the beast for dogfood, and 70-1, for glue. (Two years ago Prado won the Belmont riding a 70-1 longshot.)

The winners in 2002 and 2004 got into the race anyway, and proved in the event that they belonged there. So the absurdity is not in them, but in the odds-making process. Few bettors believed in these winners because of the wagering of others who knew no more about it than they did.

Parallels pass through my mind.

  • Lemmings leaping into the sea.
  • Voters going to the polls.
  • The Stock Exchange opening its doors.

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