A Derby Story 

My Syndicate

Raised in the West End, like most Louisvillian I had an early introduction to the Derby. My first Derby memory came in 1952 with Hill Gail’s Derby. I remember watching the race on TV with my parents. I was 7 years old. The next year, 1953, we were watching again on the TV when Dark Star upset the great Native Dancer. Dark Star paid $51.80 to win. What would it be like to win a Derby bet like Dark Star, I wondered. Perhaps this nugget of curiosity was the beginning of my interest in winning Derby Superfectas in the somewhat distant future.

The next Derby I remember watching on TV was the 1955 Derby when Swaps, one of my favorite Derby horses, upset Nashua. The race came with a pageant and grandeur that differentiated it from day-to-day life. I gradually became aware of how the Derby cast Louisville into the international spotlight and liked that. I still had not figured out that anyone that wanted to, could see the Derby in person. That realization would take at least another 10 years.

In 1963, I graduated from Flaget, and on May 4th of that year I was in Cherokee Park celebrating the day after our Senior Prom with a picnic with friends and prom dates. We had little interest that year in the Derby, or we would have found our way to Churchill Downs instead of Cherokee Park and Big Rock. Chateaugay won the Derby that year with little notice from this Louisvillian. Prom dates or horses? Which comes first. And Chateaugay was a son of Swaps, a Belmont winner and came in second in the Preakness. A near Triple Crown winner, son of one of my favorite Derby horses, and I was at Big Rock on Derby Day. Chateaugay paid $20.80 to win, but did I have a bet on him? No, I was at Big Bock with my Prom date.

My first trip to the Derby did not come until four years later in 1967. I signed up to sell mutuels. You talk about a long day. Had to be at the track at 7 AM as I remember. It was a gray and wet. Rained for a good part of the day. The track in its wisdom, put this first time mutuel seller at the $2 show window in the 3rd floor clubhouse. Then they told me of the clearing rules. I was responsible for any shortfalls that might occur on my watch. If I did not balance correctly, I.e., equal dollars for equal tickets sold, I was to make up the shortfall. Of course, if I had a positive balance after clearing, consider it my bonus. As I found out during the day, the more the patrons drank in the 3rd floor clubhouse, the more my clearing came out positive. I do remember having patrons come back for change that they had forgotten while betting. My fellow clerks thought I was foolish returning their forgotten change from their wagers. But I still received my “bonus” at the end of the day. Proud Clarion won that Derby. Paid $62.20 to win. More importantly to this mutuel clerk, he paid $12 to show. Proud Clarion was another Derby winner that escaped my notice.

It wasn’t until 1971, that I attended my first Derby as a fan. Infield of course. A couple of friends from Houston joined me and my girlfriend in the infield. We found some empty grass and put our blanket down and had a good time gawking at our fellow infielders. Saw some racehorses; saw some Derby horses, twenty in fact; had a good time; and did not bet on Canonero II, a field horse that paid $19.40 to win. I never bet field horses.

The next Derby I attended was 1974. This year was an upgrade on my infield experience. Went to the Clubhouse turn, on the rail with my friends from Texas and my new girl, now my wife, Lanna. Had a great time, got too much sun and watched Cannonade, along with 22 other horses, round the first turn on his way to his Derby win. Cannonade was another Derby winner that escaped my handicapping.
Through Flaget high school and into my college and post college years the Derby and horse racing in general were a pleasant presence in my life. I wasn’t a gambler. I didn’t have the phone number of a bookie like some of my friends. But I began to see myself as possibly able to figure out the winners of horse races. I was a math major and the combinations and permutations and numbers that abound in horse racing through past performances, and exotic wagers such as exactas and trifectas taught me more about probabilities than what I learned in statistics class.

With the Derby growing in my sports interest, I became a racing fan. Not really a horse player who follows the horses on a continual basis. And not a handicapper whose wagering depends not only on past performances but in-depth horse, trainer and track dynamics beyond the time I’m willing to invest.

On days I visited Churchill Downs or other Kentucky tracks I was studious in considering my betting options. I didn’t mind taking a shot at a big payoff if it appeared reasonable to me. I hit such a bet occasionally and would walk away from the track a winner my share of the time. If I lost for the day I lost the money I had assigned as entertainment money. I was, after all, a banker by profession.

My betting philosophy served me well on Derby Days. I’ve never attempted to summarize my net proceeds from my years of Derby bets, but I expect I am in the red for my career.

Over time, especially with the advent of Superfecta betting on the Derby in 1996, I began to realize the opportunity Derby betting afforded for receiving big payoffs, especially Superfecta wagers. The average Superfecta payoff on the Derby since the year 2000 is in excess of $150,000. But I also realized that my chances of cashing such wagers were remote in twenty horse fields unless I invested more money than my betting philosophy allowed. Clearly the odds are against cashing a Superfecta ticket when there are 116,280 possibilities for a winning Superfecta ticket in a 20 horse race. And since Churchill Downs does not allow 10 cent Superfecta bets on Derby day, (the minimum is $1.00), making a Superfecta bet with any reasonable chance of winning was going to take a lot more money than I was willing to bet on my own account.

Surely there were other friends and relatives who felt the same as me about trying to win some big money at the Derby. I devised a plan to sell shares of a syndicate that would make exotics bets on the Derby and spilt the proceeds. The shares would sell for $10 each.

I emailed my proposal for the syndicate to friends and relatives. As I suspected, many were of the same mind set as myself. I decided to make the syndicate a superfecta betting one exclusively. To date the syndicate has been active for at least four years. Over eighty shares have been purchased in each of the years. Although we have not hit the big one yet, we remain confident that it is in our future. You cannot win the lottery if you do not have a ticket.

And when we hit it, what fun it will be!

Don Zeillmann – Louisville Banker -retired, founder of the annual Derby Syndicate

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