There is no shortage of intelligent people that can give you thorough, insightful analysis of Saturday’s Belmont Stakes from any angle imaginable. You’re not reading one of them. I’m the Haiku Handicapper.
For the past decade, I’ve been analyzing major races and cards in the form of haiku – a Japanese poem that traditionally features 17 syllables arranged in three lines of five, seven, and five. Haiku appears to be simple enough – anything that short can’t be too hard – but the challenge of describing a horse and his chances in a race to such a rigid degree of brevity requires both a firm command of language, and a willingness to throw that command out the window to make a line work. Some people do crosswords or sudoku to keep sharp, I write haiku.
The limitations in syllables can also be liberating. Because I have no illusions of actually providing in-depth handicapping information beyond what I can cram into 17 syllables, this allows me the freedom to tip the scale in the other direction, and lean into wordplay and humor. Or, in the case of Guyana Star Dweej in the 2012 Belmont, I just typed the word “No” 17 times.
The picks are real and the analysis is based on the facts, but there’s no space to take oneself seriously, so I try not to. This game is supposed to be fun, at least some of the time.
Fortunately, my weird horse racing poetry has drawn a cult following among those who occupy the overlap in the venn diagram between fans of horse racing and fun with literacy. They’ve helped carry the Haiku Handicapper from an experiment on my blog to something that’s been published by the Daily Racing Form, Thoroughbred Times, Arabian Finish Line and now This Is Horse Racing.
So how did we get here? The answer’s simple - I lifted the idea from Ed DeRosa.
I was an intern for Thoroughbred Times during the summer of 2008, between my junior and senior years at Central Michigan University. With the position came my first work email address, which inevitably led to my first of many office-wide mass emails. Most of them were forgettable announcements, but one that Ed sent out stuck with me.
Ed, then the publication’s news editor, was going on vacation, but instead of dryly giving out his departure and return dates, he made the announcement in the form of a haiku. Bland emails aren’t his style. I don’t remember any of the lines, but I remember being impressed.
I returned to CMU that fall with a newfound confidence in my ability to write about horse racing, so I started a blog called The Michigan-Bred Claimer, focusing primarily on the sport in my home state with an eye on the national scene.
After getting a taste of the thing I wanted to do when I grew up, my college classes felt more like roadblocks than lessons. The blog served as both my outlet for that creative frustration and a reminder to potential employers that I was still in play.
As the 2008 Breeders’ Cup approached, I was sitting on a bench in Moore Hall waiting for my Journalism 500 class to start and brainstorming unique ways to handicap the Classic for my blog. Given that my experience, access and name recognition were at a minimum, any attempt to do a straightforward analysis would get lost in the heap of professionals and amateurs doing the exact same thing. I needed to offer something nobody else had.
I scribbled out a few ideas on a notepad, but they all fell flat once I put them into practice. I don’t know what got me thinking about Ed’s vacation email in that moment, but I decided to try writing a haiku about each of the race’s entries.
I’d spent plenty of college lectures with a poorly-hidden set of past performances on my desk, but I couldn’t even pretend to pay attention that day (the professor’s lecture most days was just going through a stack of newspapers and talking about the happenings of the day. Don’t worry, I still got an A in the class. Stay in school, kids!). Hitting the right syllable count on with a good line gave me the same little surge of dopamine that comes from hitting a golf ball square off the tee at the driving range.
It took some time to get The Haiku Handicapper off the ground, but I was fortunate to be in a boom period for horse racing blogs, and the emergence of Twitter was not far off. With it came an audience of racing fans that were looking for some irreverence to go with their in-depth analysis. Ten years later, a lot of things have changed personally and professionally, but The Haiku Handicapper is still doing his thing.
One final note for the creative writing majors out there: After much reading on the art of haiku, I have since learned that many poems do not adhere strictly to the 5-7-5 structure, and most folks agree that the work should reference nature or the seasons to technically be classified as a haiku. What I write is actually closer to the haiku’s literary cousin senryu, but “The Senryu Handicapper” doesn’t have the same ring to it. Try not to cringe too hard when you read it.