On the day Deep Roots was entered in a turf race at Arlington Park, Omar Razvi had the flu. But some horses are worth getting out of bed for.
Razvi, a 29-year-old cabdriver who grew up in Rolling Meadows, drove over to the track that morning to get his bet down. He was feeling cocky. He'd won two grand the week before, so he bet $250 on Deep Roots to win and put her in a bunch of exactas and trifectas. "The mare on this horse was Grass Roots," he said. "That horse was the mother of Lemon Grass, who was a big winner on the grass. So because her half brother won on the turf, I figured she could win too." He needed the money. Razvi is also a small-time owner at Arlington, and his stable wasn't winning a thing.
That afternoon, June 25, he watched the race on TVG, a satellite horse-racing network. Deep Roots went off at 16-1. She was bumped hard coming out of the gate, and turning into the stretch she was still four lengths behind the runaway leader, Highland Facts. Then she started sprinting as if she were on high-speed film, and Razvi didn't feel so sick anymore. As Deep Roots drew alongside Highland Facts, he started jumping up and down and screaming "Come on! Go!"
Deep Roots paid $35.40 to win. The exacta paid $240.80. The trifecta paid $2,014.80. Arlington Park paid Razvi $10,000 when he cashed in his tickets.
He's been into the horses since he was a student at Rolling Meadows High School. One afternoon his mother gave him $150 to pay the air-conditioning repairman. The repairman decided to spend the money at Arlington, and invited Razvi along. They bet together and split the winnings. There's nothing worse than winning $200 on your first trip to the track. Razvi was hooked.
For over a decade he did his betting at the windows. But last spring he became a serious gambler--he started buying horses. His first purchase was Sassiness, who'd been such a loser her owners let her go for $3,000. "They had given up on this horse," he says.
Sassiness was 0 for 15 at Arlington, and in the first months Razvi owned her she added three notches to that streak, finishing fourth in a mile race, fifth in another mile race, then ninth running a mile and an eighth.
The day after his $10,000 win Razvi blew the money on a second horse, Northern Catch, who'd begun his career with much promise, winning a race at Florida's Gulfstream Park while ridden by Pat Day, the best jockey in America. Razvi bought the horse from Brereton C. Jones, the former governor of Kentucky. As soon as Northern Catch arrived in Chicago, Razvi asked a friend who works with horses to take him for a gallop. "This horse is bad, real bad," the friend said as soon as he hopped off. "His knees buckled. I think he's got bone chips. Get out of this horse as soon as possible."
Northern Catch's first performance at Arlington was a last-place finish in a turf race. The second time he was entered in a race he was pulled off the track just before post time because his jockey was afraid to ride such a wobbly-legged animal. Razvi started calling him Northern Crutch.
"Right then I was at breakeven," he said. "I had to win a race."
Horse racing is called the "sport of kings" because it costs so much to keep a stable. Maintaining a racehorse runs about $1,600 a month--whether the horse is a champion like Empire Maker or a plug like Northern Catch. They all eat the same amount of hay.
Razvi was in a tough spot. He earned his money driving a cab, so he could afford only the slowest horses--the "claimers." The Kentucky Derby gets all the attention, but most horse races are claiming races, in which every entrant is on sale for a specified price. The cheapest race at Arlington is the $5,000 claimer. It's also the race with one of the smallest purses--$11,000 to be divided among the top finishers. The only way to make money on a claimer is to win right away and hope someone buys your horse.
Northern Catch clearly wasn't going to rescue Razvi's stable. But Razvi's high school friend Lucky, a small, intense ex-stable hand who got his nickname because of his misfortune at the betting windows, had a bright idea. He suggested that Razvi run Sassiness in a six-furlong race, which is only three-quarters of a mile. "I figured this was her last chance--to be a come-from-behind sprinter," Razvi said. "That's what she's bred for." Mike Dini, her trainer, suggested that if she didn't win she should be shipped to Great Lakes Downs in Muskegon, Michigan, a bush-league track for horses too slow to win in Chicago.
On June 20 Razvi ran Sassiness in a six-furlong race, and she rallied from eighth place to finish two lengths behind the winner, Miss Tacky Trump. The owner wins 20 percent of the purse when a horse finishes second, which in this case was $2,200--enough to keep Sassiness eating for another month. Razvi thought he'd found the filly's niche.
On August 1 he entered Sassiness in a six-and-a-half-furlong race, hoping the extra half furlong would give her enough time to run down the leader. Before the race, as the horses were led around the walking ring, he stood in the paddock with Dini. Lucky was there too. So was the high roller who often lets Razvi sit in his private box.
Razvi wasn't optimistic. When he saw me coming he drew his finger across his throat and said, "It doesn't look good today."
I said I'd figured that out. I was betting on Minister Lake.
Lucky nearly hopped down my throat. "Don't ever say that in the paddock!" he shouted. "You should never talk about someone else's horse."
"But Sassiness is 0 for 18 at Arlington," I said.
"You and your statistics," he said scornfully.
Sassiness's jockey, Eddie Perez, strode into the ring, wearing the silks of the Razvi Limited stable. Razvi designed them himself: they're black with crossed silver scimitars and a crescent moon, symbols of his Muslim heritage. Perez shook hands with Razvi and his friends, then Dini boosted him onto the horse.
I went inside to bet. Razvi and Lucky had told me to meet them down by the rail, but I couldn't find them in the crowd. When the gate opened, the favorite, Just A Sheila, bolted out of the gate, running the first quarter mile in 21 and four-fifths seconds. Her 16-year-old jockey did nothing to restrain her, and she passed the half mile in 45 seconds. That's an exhausting pace even for good horses. These were $5,000 claimers, and the rest of the field struggled to keep up. By the stretch almost every filly was exhausted. Except one who'd saved some energy by starting the race in tenth place.
I spotted Razvi and Lucky when the track announcer shouted, "Sassiness in the black now, coming with a blitzing run! It's Sassiness to win!" They were the only guys jumping up and down and screaming. A seven-to-one long shot doesn't have a lot of fans. I ran down to the rail to meet them, then followed them into the winner's circle.
"Who was it who told you to run that horse in a sprint?" Lucky was asking Razvi. "Huh?"
Looking up into the stands, Razvi formed an X with his arms, imitating his stable's emblem. The gesture was aimed at a friend who'd told him Sassiness couldn't win.
"We did it, Lucky!" Razvi said. "We did it!"
"Calm down!" someone told him.
Lucky wheeled around and barked, "Hey! You have no idea how much this means to this man."
As the owner of Sassiness, Razvi received a pewter cup and a check for $6,600. He posed for a winner's circle photo with his horse, his jockey, his trainer, and a young woman in tight pants whom no one could identify after the picture was developed. Owners are in a generous mood after a victory, so they'll let anyone stand next to their horse.
Afterward Razvi and Dini walked through the tunnel between the track and the paddock. "Well," said Razvi, "that'll pay your trainer bill this month."
A few days later, while drinking beer at a bar across the street from the track, Razvi told me, "It's a real high addiction, getting into the winner's circle at Arlington. Plus, I was at breakeven before that race. I've got $4,500 in bills from I-PASS, and I just put a $2,500 down payment on a new truck. I have to win now. I would never attempt supporting a family while I do this. It's just me, a truck, and three horses."
Owning claiming horses isn't a sentimental game. You buy a horse, run it a few times, and hope to win more than you paid for it. Some trainers claim a horse for $7,500, then "run it for the nickel"--enter it in a $5,000 race, hoping that it'll win a purse against the easier competition and get claimed by a bargain hunter. The owners churn horses, so they can't treat them like pets.
Razvi treats them like pets. Every evening he would stop by Sassiness's stall in a barn behind the racetrack to feed her peppermints from the palm of his hand.
A week and a half after Sassiness's victory Razvi entered his third horse, Fleet Boss, in the third race at Arlington. He'd bought the horse for $7,500, and now he was trying to sell him for the same price. A win would bring him a big profit. But standing in the paddock with Dini, he looked glum.
They were watching Wayne Catalano, the top trainer at Arlington, inspect Fleet Boss. "The Cat Man couldn't follow that horse fast enough," Dini told Razvi. "He wants to claim him and run him for the nickel. He's trying to win the trainer title." By which he meant win more races than any other trainer at Arlington.
"It's been good to know you, buddy," Razvi said as Fleet Boss joined the parade of horses cantering toward the track. Then he added, "I kind of got attached to that horse."
Horseplayers who "play the board"--handicap a race based on the betting action--would have been enthusiastic about Fleet Boss. When the first odds were posted, he was the 9-5 favorite.
"Save your money," Razvi advised his friends as they walked to the private box where they would watch the race. "If it was 10-1 I might tell you to bet it. But not 9-5."
As post time approached, Fleet Boss's odds grew longer and longer--3-1, 4-1, 9-2, and finally 5-1. The crowd didn't have a high opinion of Fleet Boss, which suggested that the early odds had been the result of one very large bet.
The crowd was shrewd. Fleet Boss reared up the moment the gate sprang open. Then Towering Storm, who was breaking from the next stall over, slammed into his flank, shoving him off stride. Fleet Boss never passed a single horse.
Razvi's mouth tightened with each furlong. His face suggested he was losing more than a horse.
After the race the announcer said, "We have a claim in this race. Number five, Fleet Boss, for $7,500 to the Mike Reavis barn."
A cell-phone call to Dini revealed that Fleet Boss had torn off a chunk of his hoof. But that was now the problem of the Mike Reavis barn. A claim on a horse must be entered before a race. When the gate opens, the animal is yours, even if it winds up with a torn hoof.
Razvi went to the bar to order a screwdriver. When he returned to the box he pulled a stack of worthless tickets from his pocket and threw them on the floor.
"I fuckin' lost money on this horse," he said. "I bought him for $7,500. I paid his feed bill and his trainer bill--and he didn't pick up a check. Sassiness is running on Thursday. She'll probably get claimed. That'll be the end of my stable. I need to go back to my taxi."
I didn't see Razvi again for a while, but I continued to follow his horses. Northern Catch was claimed by some sucker for $5,000. Razvi had claimed him for $12,500, but he finished only third in his last race for Razvi Limited. Razvi lost a lot of money on him. And Sassiness returned to losing. No one would buy her, even for the nickel.
One humid afternoon during a $5,000 claiming race I saw a horse named Go Go Hasty stagger under the wire--victorious, but so exhausted her jockey reined her to a halt instead of cooling her down with a short jog.
"They're going to have to give that horse a long rest," someone next to me remarked.
Over the loudspeaker, the announcer intoned, "We have a claim in this race. Number six, Go Go Hasty, for $5,000 to Razvi Limited."