Track Superstitions: A Historical Look at the Role of “Luck”
By Eliza McGraw
Horsepeople are famously superstitious. The horseshoe, the most common symbol of luck, is equine-related. And The Blood-Horse magazine still lists a calendar of zodiacal signs for people who believe in astrologically based breeding and weaning: loins, neck, heart. The chart assists in making “husbandry decisions,” it says. But at the races themselves, there is no chart. Instead, there are personal, capricious rules. As Ed Madary writes, prohibitions include: Don’t eat peanuts in the shell. Call the stall between 12 and 14 12A, not 13. Don’t ship a broom from one track to another.
If horsemen believe in runes and signs today, they come by it honestly. Judging by some of the articles in historic racing articles, racetrackers have always been as full of superstition as groups of actors who refer to Macbeth as “the Scottish play.” For example, in 1894, Earle H. Eaton wrote in the Auburn Telegraph that a ship named Dr. Rice came in early to New York harbor. Right away, convinced that the double name was a harbinger of success, bettors hurried to put money on a horse named Dr. Rice, who was running in the Brooklyn Handicap. He won.
Eaton’s article also mentions a British racehorse owner named Lord Rosebery who had great faith in his horse, Ladas. But one day, Lord Rosebery saw a dead hedgehog. Ladas lost his race that same day, and Lord Rosebery was convinced that it was the dead hedgehog’s fault, that the dead hedgehog was, as the article said, “a hoodoo.” So Lord Rosebery almost scratched Ladas for the English Derby when a hedgehog ran across his path before the race. But then he decided that since this hedgehog was alive, and the “hoodoo” hedgehog had been dead, he should run his horse. Ladas won, so the live hedgehog was, in effect, a good luck charm.
A few years later, the Daily Racing Form reported, a trainer named Tom Nepper mislaid a watch charm shaped like a gold stirrup. He knew right then that Charm, the horse he was training, wouldn’t win a race at the 1897 Harlem meet. Charm went off as the favorite but indeed lost to a horse named Lone Princess. And in 1899, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, owner Barney Schreiber vowed not to allow his horse, Bannockburn, to be photographed in California. Schreiber blamed the camera for an earlier horse’s failure. “‘Marplot could win a race when I had him in the east,’ he said, ‘but after he got here and had his picture taken in every paper he was not worth 10 cents.'”
Schreiber could have been a case study for a 1918 Daily Racing Form piece called “Many Turfmen Believe In Signs,” which details some of the more esoteric superstitions: “To meet a funeral is extremely bad luck, although the meeting of an empty hearse is a sign of success.” Bad luck: black cat, cross-eyed man. Good luck: cross-eyed women, piebald horses, strange dogs following you, giving money to a blind beggar, a jockey asking to have a girth tightened, and dreaming of a horse. You shouldn’t, however, bet on the dreamed-of horse the first time he runs. If you wait until his second race, he will win.
One British plunger, described in a 1921 DRF article, carried an 18-carat gold disk with specific numbers engraved on it in six rows of six. The numbers added to 111 whether read vertically, horizontally, or diagonally. Others carried Egyptian scarabs, jade rings, and pieces of coal. “It is astonishing how many people believe in luck,” says the article’s anonymous writer, “but from observations extending over a long period I have arrived at the conclusion that what many backers call their lucky times are merely the occasions upon which the averages are adjusting themselves.”
Yet some horsemen buck the odds. In 1924, fellow owners gaped at John Madden’s blithe treatment of the number 13. Not only did Madden plan to ship horses from Churchill Downs on April 13, but he actually considered the number lucky. This was partially due to an incident that took place in 1901, when the Madden stable left Churchill Downs for Morris Park on April 13, which fell on a Friday that year. There were 26 horses total, 13 in each train car. Shipping 13 horses on Friday the 13th. . .but, as it turned out, 1901 was a banner year for the Madden stable, and he regarded 13 as his lucky number after that.
And in 1998, Bob Baffert’s father, Quarter Horse trainer Bill Baffert, agreed to attend the Kentucky Derby, even though he was convinced that he was what he called “a carload of salt” for his son’s stable. He didn’t want to taint the fortune of Real Quiet, the fast bay horse they called “The Fish” for his slender build, but he also didn’t want to miss his son’s triumph. Real Quiet won the Derby.
Sometimes all you need is a little luck. . .or a little hedgehog.
While Barney Schreiber might not have allowed Bannockburn to be photographed, he did commission a painting that’s been in the family for over a hundred years.