Jeff Siegel could be forgiven on Sunday for violating the traditional proscription against boisterous rooting in the press box. Few press-box denizens ever have had as much at stake in a sporting event as he did in the Santa Anita Handicap.
Siegel had bought a horse named Martial Law, put together a syndicate to race him, and then spent $40,000 to make him a supplementary nominee and entrant in the West Coast's biggest race. The tote board mocked his judgment: Martial Law was 50 to 1.
But the colt stalked the pacesetter, took command an eighth of a mile from the wire and -- as the press box rocked with cheers -- drew away to a victory in the Big 'Cap. The winners' share of the $1,050,000 purse was $550,000.
Siegel's success came as no surprise to anyone who knows him. He is an exceptional student of racing -- probably the best handicapper in the West. I can attest to this first-hand, having sat next to him during two seasons at Santa Anita. Siegel's opinions were frequently the only thing that kept me from destitution.
While most successful bettors can be defined by their particular focus on the game -- speed handicappers, trip handicappers, etc. -- Siegel's skills are far-reaching.
He computes speed figures. He watches races, and horse's trips, intelligently. He is a keen student of workouts and their implications on horses' form. He can judge a horse's physical appearance. And he is so well-connected in California racing circles that he can collect plenty of inside information to blend with his handicapping judgments.
Siegel edits a publication, the Handicappers' Report, that offers commentaries on workouts at the California tracks, plus speed figures and observations on the races. He also does handicapping for four newspapers, including the San Diego Union. He is a serious bettor -- especially in the Pick Six. But he has long felt that the best way to employ his judgments on horses would be buying, selling and managing them.
For years he has put together small syndicates of friends and acquaintances to buy thoroughbreds, but two years ago he and two other men, Barry Irwin and Jamie Schloss, formed the Clover Racing Stable to put together small syndications of racehorses on a regular basis. The Martial Law deal was typical.
"A bloodstock agent had purchased Martial Law out of a horses-in-training sale in England, and offered him to us for $65,000," Siegel said. "We were familiar with the pedigree; his sire was Mr. Leader, who's a terrible turf sire, and we thought he might do better on the dirt. He'd been running six furlongs, and the Mr. Leaders do better at a distance. So we put together a syndicate of 14 owners based on a $100,000 price."
Martial Law made a fair U.S. debut in a sprint, then won a one-mile allowance race on a muddy track by six lengths. Not many people would have viewed him as a candidate for a $1 million race on the basis of this performance, but Siegel wrestled with the decision of spending money to nominate him.
"Martial Law got a real big speed figure winning that race, and he exploded in the last eighth of a mile doing it. A lot of people thought it was the mud that moved him up, but the horse had trained very well before and after the race on a fast track. And I thought the favorites in the race were a lot of overrated horses."
After making the decision to spend $40,000 to run Martial Law, Siegel conceded, "The first thing I was hoping was not to get embarrassed." But he was convinced he was right, and that those 50-to-1 odds were ridiculous. As so often happens in California racing, Siegel's judgment was vindicated.