Derby Betting System No. 6: The Catholic Connection

This time Billy gives area Catholics a reason to get behind Nick Zito’s Dialed In on Saturday. Thanks again to LouisvilleCatholicSports.

By Billy Reed

I was trying to figure out why I think Catholics might wager more than other religious denominations when –Bingo! – I figured it out.  No telling how many Catholic parishes have used gambling on the old parlor game to both socialize and raise funds for church-related projects.

Nick Zito has Dialed In in the 137th Derby

I doubt that any studies have been done about the correlation between Bingo! gambling and other forms. But if Bingo! players ever do visit a casino, I’ll bet most would confine their wagering to slot machines. I just can’t see Bingo! players getting hooked on poker, roulette, craps, or blackjack.

When my dear friend Mike Barry was running the old Kentucky Irish-American newspaper, he devoted about half the space to making fun of Republicans and the other half to sports, particularly the gambling aspects of it. Mike facetiously called himself “The World’s Greatest Handicapper” and, to prove it, ran a photo of himself in which a huge hole was evident in the sole of a shoe.

Geez, I miss Mike. He was the first to refer to Churchill Downs as “Bottom-Line Downs,” and that was long before current management took over. Mike was the champion of the track’s $2 bettors, and he absolutely would hate the callous disregard that current management has both for the little bettors and the small-stable horsemen.

Although his paper only circulated around 10,000 copies a week, mostly to Catholics in the Louisville area, Mike was so witty – and could carve up Republicans and other fat cats so deftly – that he had some readers in high places, most notably John F. Kennedy when he was President of the U.S.

Because of Mike, I probably started thinking subconsciously about converting to Catholicism long before I did it. I remember running into one of the Archbishops one day at the track, not to mention various assorted priests. I’m not sure, but I think it was one of them that introduced me to the “Holy Ghost” wagering system: If the same number wins two races, it will win a third.

Col. Matt Winn, the shrewd promoter who built the Kentucky Derby into the world’s most prominent thoroughbred race, was a Roman Catholic. During his tenure as track president (1902-’49), Winn also served as the first commander of the first Knights of Columbus Council.

After Winn died at 88 on Oct. 6, 1949, his funeral Mass was held at The Cathedral of the Assumption in downtown Louisville, and his coffin was draped with a garland of red roses virtually identical to the one laid across the winner’s back after the Derby.

No track executive since Winn has ever been the face of the Derby more than John Asher, the current vice-president for communications. A former radio personality at WHAS 840, Asher is inescapable during Derby week. He writes most of the stories for the track program, puts out daily barn notes for the media, does interviews and selections for the track’s in-house TV network, gives countless radio and TV interviews, does every speaking engagement for civic or private groups, and writes a column for the St. Matthews Voice-Tribune.

Like Col. Winn, Asher is Catholic. He would be a great pick to follow in Winn’s footsteps as track president because he loves the sporting and historical aspects of the Derby more than bottom line. It’ll probably never happen, though, because he’s indispensible in his public-relations role.

No Catholic jockey has ever promoted his religion as much as Pat Day promoted his evangelical form of Protestantism. An abuser of drugs and alcohol early in his career, Day became a born-again Christian in 1984 after having a religious experience in a motel room. He happened to have the TV tuned in to a religious program, and, says Day, “Suddenly the spirit of God took over my body and soul.”

Ever since, Day has used every opportunity to talk about his spiritual values and to urge lost souls to accept Jesus Christ as their savior. His fervor has turned off some in the media and the public, but many more have come to admire his sincerity and service. Today, more than five years after his retirement from the saddle, Day works for the Racetrack Chaplaincy Program and gives religious-based motivational speeches to various groups around the country.

Because racetrack media guides don’t include a jockey’s religion, it’s guesswork as to which ones might be Catholic. It’s safe to assume that most of the Hispanic riders grew up Catholic, but, to be sure, you almost have to watch to see which ones cross themselves before or after a race.

The most visibly Catholic trainer is Nick Zito, who invariably peppers his interviews with references to his Catholic upbringing in Queens. More than any other trainer, Zito used the word “blessed” to talk about his career and his horses. He also knocks on wood a lot.

Zito’s first Derby starter was Thirty Six Red, who finished ninth in 1990. The next year he won the roses with Strike the Gold and repeated in 1994 with Go For Gin. That gave him two wins in three attempts. Since then, however, Zito has run 18 horses in the Derby without getting his third victory.

He was THE story before the 2005 Derby because he had five starters, a quarter of the 20-horse field. But not a one hit the board (finished in the top four) in the race won by Giacomo, a longshot that paid $100.60 for a $2 win bet.

Barring the unforeseen, Zito will saddle the Derby favorite Saturday in Dialed In, a powerful colt who came from far off the pace to win the Florida Derby. Although he has only four career starts, Dialed In appears to have the pedigree, the talent, and the heart to finally get Zito his third whiff of roses.

I know Mike Barry would pick Nick to win. They became friends when Nick came to town with Strike the Gold. In fact, Mike picked Strike the Gold to win, a fact that was stripped across the front page of the Voice-Tribute in headline type ordinarily reserved for earth-shattering news.

After Strike the Gold fulfilled Mike’s confidence, I took him to the backside a few days after the Derby to photograph he and Zito holding up the newspaper. As it turned out, that was Mike’s last Derby. He died a winner the following February.

So Dialed In should be a popular choice among Louisville’s large Catholic community. It’s probably not a bad idea to bet him on top of the Hispanic or Cajun jockeys in Exactas.

That bunch would include Robby Albarado on Animal Kingdom, Pat Valenzuela on Comma to the Top, Javier Castellano on Derby Kitten, Garrett Gomez on Master of Hounds, Victor Espinoza on Midnight Interlude, Jesus Castanon on Shackleford, Alan Garcia on Soldat, Ramon Dominguez on Stay Thirsty, John Velasquez on Uncle Mo, and Rafael Bejarano on Watch Me Go.

If you bet $2 Exactas, that would cost you $20, and you would get a handsome payoff if one of the longshots finishes second to Dialed In. Whatever happens, though, I promise you’ll get a bigger thrill than any Bingo! game you’ve ever played.

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