A top handicapper never forgets that first Big Pick.
Not necessarily the pick that paid the most. Or won by the most. Or the selection that shocked the world. The one every horse handicapper remembers is the pick that put them in the game.
Jill Byrne, the up-and-coming television host and handicapper for the TVG horse racing network, as well as a track handicapper at Churchill Downs, has just such a memorable pick — and remembers exactly how she came to make it.
“It was Derby Week of 2001,” recalls Byrne. “I was standing on the front side at Churchill Downs, on my pony, watching the horses working in the morning. I had my radio. Then Monarchos came by. He wasn’t working, just galloping. But when he came down the stretch I saw his body get low to the ground, ears up, just an effortless explosion of talent. I saw this horse, how he was so effortlessly happy. Everything about him said, ‘I’m ready!’ ”
Byrne wasn’t a full-time TV talent then. She was just starting out — “tagging along,” as she calls it — helping the experienced sports reporter Jeff Lifson produce daily stories for TVG’s The Works show, a special that airs every morning in the two weeks preceding the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup. Byrne was helping Lifson identify horses and horse people, with an occasional spot of airtime for herself.
Her Derby pick would be little heard and hardly heeded amid the typhoon of talk that blows through every Kentucky Derby. There are always more experts than there are horses, but — you may have noticed — very few actual winning picks.
Jill Byrne with daughter Devon and husband Pat,
a top Thoroughbred trainer.
But Byrne had this one right. “I got on the radio to Jeff and said, ‘You need to be here right away. I just saw the Derby winner, More Nachos! That was the nickname we’d given him: More Nachos, as in Monarchos,” she says.
“When they brought him to the paddock for the Derby, he had this look, ‘Hey, I own the place!’ He was ready to go do something special.."
Jill Byrne had seen the light, and on record.
“Everybody was pretty much on Point Given that year, but I threw him out,” she says. “Point Given worked really fast (in preparation for the Derby), but he ran with his ears back, the rider hitting him with the whip.”
The colt would go on to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, but in the Kentucky Derby fourth was the best he could do — disappointing the fans who bet him to odds of 9-5, and the so-called experts who touted Point Given like there was no point looking anywhere else.
Instead, what Byrne had seen — and reported on TV — came true when Monarchos swept from next-to-last to win the Derby going away. He was clocked in 1:594/5 for the 11/4 miles — second fastest to Secretariat’s 1:592/5 in 1973. That’s the kind of pick that’ll put you in the game. A pick that pays $23, leading off a $1,229 exacta — with the favorite off the board.
“She beat the favorite and got the big price,” says Courier-Journal handicapper Rick Cushing. “That makes you different.”
Byrne grew up with horses — at home in the Virginia horse country and at Belmont Park, in New York, where her father, Peter Howe, trained two Eclipse Award champions.
“I was riding show horses from when I was two years old, and then rode steeplechasers,” says Byrne. “Anytime I had vacation time off I would be at Belmont or Saratoga at the barn with my dad. I went to boarding school in upstate New York so I could be close to him at Belmont, and gallop horses.”
She married trainer Pat Byrne, and the couple and their daughter Devon, a student at Louisville Collegiate School, settled in Louisville. Pat Byrne himself became a trainer of two Eclipse champions — including Favorite Trick, 1997’s Horse of the Year.
“I met Jeff Lifson when he was covering Favorite Trick for WHAS-TV 11 here in Louisville, and David Loignon, who was then a producer at WHAS who also went over to TVG,” Jill says. “Coming to the Derby in 2000, Jeff would see me on my pony at the track and at our barn. He asked if I’d like to do a little piece with him for The Works show. He would ‘interview’ me about the horses I liked on the track. I worked that Derby — and the Breeders’ Cup — gratis, for no pay, kind of casual.”
Gradually Byrne got more airtime, and viewers picked right up on her tell-it-like-it-is style. “Sometimes I would turn them off of some horses that were well-regarded, and the gamblers kind of liked that,” she says. It gave them a totally different view than they had before. It really started more full-time in 2001 at the Breeders’ Cup in New York, working as kind of Jeff’s sidekick. I kept watching and learning, and the TVG people were always giving me pointers.”
TVG producer Michael Canale groomed Byrne for more airtime.
“She was a horseman, and that’s invaluable in our sport,” says Canale. “She started by helping us spot horses. It’s just so hard to keep track of the horses when so many are on the track in the mornings, coming out of the gaps all along the backside. Jill just knew everybody and everything about it. Gradually she’s gotten more and more airtime until now she’s moved into an analyst’s role, a major analyst and co-host that we want on every day.
“She’s just gotten so good on the air. Viewers like her, and the camera likes her. You could say Jill has just . . . evolved.”
Which is certainly appreciated by her colleagues. “Anybody can sit up there and read the ( Daily Racing ) Form ,” says Todd T. Schrupp, who hosts most of the network’s big events. “We can all read the Form . But what is your uniqueness? What is your personality you can bring to the show? Jill brings a depth of experience few others can match.”
Schrupp says he likes the shows to have the feel of a group of buddies sitting in a box at the track, talking over the horses they’re going to bet. And Byrne fits right in with the buddies in the box. “She could sit there all day and talk about what she and her husband have done in the sport, but she doesn’t.” Schrupp says. “She’s got a warm personality; she’s the type of person I’d like to hang out with in my group of friends.”
Byrne’s spontaneity is especially on display when she co-hosts live “remotes” at Keeneland, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar, the popular California resort track near San Diego. She talks on-air to trainers and jockeys, but always keeps an eye on the horses themselves, offering what she calls “visual information.” Those live reports are part of a larger racing show originating in the Los Angeles TVG studio that encompasses action at several tracks running simultaneously across the country. Canale says Byrne has the ability to operate within the split-second demands of the professional television reporter working on-location. “I can tell Jill (through the headset) that we have just enough time for two or three questions. She instantly adapts to that, framing good questions within just the right time frame.”
But what gives Byrne a special edge is her knack of spotting horses who are ready to run — and horses who aren’t.
“Sometimes,” she says, “I’ll have my pick made for the show, and the graphics people will have that all ready for the screen, but then I see something in the paddock that changes my opinion completely, and we’ll go right with that.”
Horseplayers watching the telecasts (TVG airs in Louisville on Insight cable channel 57) may be wired by Internet into the betting pools at the track, and can swiftly adjust their betting if they like what she’s saying.
For decades, serious horse players pretty much lived and died with their own handicapping — scribbling notes and forming systems based on myriad arcane facts and figures contained in “past performance” lines of the Daily Racing Form . But a few years ago the notion came up that what the horses were saying might be as important as what the numbers said.
On-site handicappers such as Caton Bredar, then at Gulfstream Park in Miami, suddenly developed small legions of loyal fans who wanted to know how the runners looked in the paddock before a race. A little video called The Body Language of the Racehorse , by Bonnie Ledbetter, became a mini-best-seller. A niche group of fans began to see racehorses as equine athletes, with good days and bad days that they signaled with their physical bearing.
Enter Jill Byrne, who may be the best in the business at spotting a horse ready to win. “From being involved with horses at any early age, I feel like I just kind of know it from the ground up,” she says. “My sister Debbie and I practically lived in the barn. When you do that, you develop such a close physical relationship with the animal — their looks, their body language. Being ‘hands-on’ with these beautiful animals, you can tell what they’re thinking. How they act as far as their physical soundness. How they portray themselves.”
Now there’s an interesting idea: paying attention to how racehorses “portray themselves.” Which they definitely get a chance to do on The Works . In the week leading up to the Derby (and the Breeders’ Cup in the fall), Schrupp hosts a TVG panel at Churchill Downs that includes trainer-analysts Frank Lyons and Tom Amoss, who scrutinize the filmed workouts and morning training of Derby and Oaks contenders — with Byrne prowling the backside to bring viewers close to the horses and horse people. It’s a very lively hour of TV (from 11a.m.-noon, replaying each evening at 8 p.m.).
Byrne has also earned a coveted handicapper’s seat on the set in the L.A. studio during the summer. She commutes to California for four days each week to do those shows, then flies back to Louisville to be with her family for a couple of days. Byrne also offers picks and comments in Churchill Downs programs, as well as live TV analysis before each race.
She’s good at it, says Cushing. “When I’m at the track I make it a point to read her comments. She’s sharp.”
But Byrne’s signature selections will always be those she finds up-close with the horses. Like Tiznow in the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont. Byrne ranks that selection right up there with Monarchos. Tiznow had won the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in 2000, defeating European champion Giant’s Causeway by a neck. The following season Tiznow was again the favorite for the Classic, but seemed to go sour on training as the Belmont renewal approached.
“Everyone was kind of throwing Tiznow out because he’d refused to train in California,” Byrne recalls. “But a few days before the race, we saw Tiznow out walking all around that huge backside at Belmont Park. Then, on the track, all of a sudden he started to gallop, just skipping over the ground. I said, ‘This horse loves it here at Belmont.’
“On the last Works show Jeff and I did a bit called ‘Tiz Now or Never.’ People had thrown him out because of the bad press he was getting for the way he’d been in California. But they didn’t give him credit when he started to do things right.”
Of course, no self-respecting selector simply sticks to making a pick. Byrne added the icing. “Frankie Lyons and I saw Sakhee (a European star slated to go in the Classic against Tiznow) and we said Sakhee had no chance,” she says. “He’d never run on dirt and he looked like a typical European turf horse when he got here. He was picking his legs up like they do on turf and was almost hitting himself in the chin.”
So Byrne was on definitely on Tiznow, and definitely off Sakhee. They ran the race and Tiznow came running like a house afire down the lane and just nipped Sakhee by a nose in a photo finish.
“Thank God Tiznow got his nose down on the wire,” says Byrne, reliving a sigh of relief.
Not a big margin of difference between a horse she picked and one she threw out. But in horse racing they don’t measure a Big Pick by how far they win. A nose is all you need.