01/18/2013 6:31PM

Florida Postcard: Eclipse Weekend


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- It’s cool and cloudy and the beaches are empty but you’ll hear no complaining from this snowbird revelling in South Florida horse racing, poker and greyhound racing with Saturday’s Sunshine Millions and Eclipse Awards still to come.

The Eclipse Awards are Saturday night at Gulfstream’s Sport of Kings Theater on the second floor of the clubhouse, the first time a racetrack rather than a hotel ballroom has been the site of the event. Gulfstream has stepped up financially and promotionally to try to make it a bigger and more accessible celebration, including a few days of lead-up events open to fans and benefitting racing-related charities. I wasn’t here for the Tuesday golf tournament (I don’t golf) or Wednesday’s slots tournament (I don’t slot) but was in my seat at 6:30 pm sharp for the inaugural Eclipse Poker Tournament Thursday in the card room at Gulfstream.

The game was Texas Hold’em, the buy-in $150 for $4k in tournament chips, the worthy beneficiary the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund. A gatefull of veteran and former riders was there, including Eibar Coa, Angel Cordero Jr., Laffit Pincay Jr. and Jose Santos. Seating was by the luck of the draw and I drew both Coa and the winner of last year’s inaugural PDJF poker tournament here – that Texas-born sharpie, trainer Todd Pletcher.

I lasted three and a half hours, half an hour longer than the defending champ, but still good for only 56th place out of 113 entrants. I got knocked out when (pardon the jargon ahead) I flopped a low flush, pushed all-in, and got caught on the river by some guy who called with two pairs and hit his full boat.

That is not a good bad-beat story, but I have come to believe that there is no such thing as a good bad-beat poker story because there is only one such story repeated again and again: I started out with better cards but the other guy got lucky and I lost. At least with horse-racing bad-beat stories there can be colorful details involving a terrible ride, a horrendous stewards’ decision, even an alligator crawling out of the infield lake and spooking your otherwise cinch winner.

This makes horseplayers more fun to play poker with than poker players. Horseplayers have seen it all and expect the worst. Poker players treat each instance of the inevitable laws of randomness and probability as a fresh outrage.

As for the Sunshine Millions, the plural doesn’t really apply to Saturday’s six races for Florida-breds, which offer a total of $1.3 million in purses, and you have to count next Saturday’s four statebred races for Cal-breds at Santa Anita to get the total up to $2.1 million. The split is probably for the best, as the whole California-vs.-Florida thing never really made sense or took off.

With five of tomorrow’s six fields drawing only 6 to 8 runners before scratches, and a bunch of races where one or two legit graded-stakes horses tower over the rest, the races are unlikely to yield many big payoffs. Still, a matchup between handicap-division stars Mucho Macho Man and Ron the Greek in the $400k Sunshine Millions Classic  is pretty strong for a statebred race the third Saturday in January. Here’s the cheat sheet:

The Eclipse Awards are a little short on suspense this year. My Miss Aurelia vs. Questing for Champion 3-year-old Filly strikes me as the closest equine contest. While I voted for three different older males for titles – Little Mike for Turf Male, Fort Larned for Older Male and Wise Dan for Horse of the Year – I suspect Wise Dan will win all three.

Another change this year is that there’s going to be a band onstage, which has been instructed to start drowning out award winners if their acceptance speeches exceed 90 seconds. So if someone wants to bet you on whether the thing will exceed the scheduled 2.5 hours this year, take the under.

Now I must go dismantle some jumbo stone crabs and watch some greyhounds. When in Rome...