How Bill Murray’s trip to the track led to personal holiday joy

by Dave Briggs

Bill Murray may be a Zen master, but his handicapping advice in the 2014 movie St. Vincent is more of a mixed bag of spiritual direction.

Murray’s character, Vincent, takes his 12-year-old degenerate protegee, Oliver, to Belmont Park and tells him a horse’s odds are determined by “some bookie out in Vegas.” Such a poor understanding of the pari-mutuel system probably explains a few things about the hapless Vincent and his previous fortunes at the track, best illustrated by his habit of closing his eyes and holding a rolled up program to his forehead.

“Are you praying?” Oliver asks.

“Praying?” Vincent asks.

“That’s what it looks like.”

“I thought we talked about you not talking,” Vincent says.

Vincent does better telling Oliver “not to get ahead of himself” and gives a decent explanation of a trifecta. Though, “high risk, high reward” isn’t entirely accurate for those that like to play them at less than a dollar. Naturally, Vincent doesn’t discuss the takeout on exotics.

“Sounds improbable,” Oliver says of trifectas.

“Well, if you’re going to gamble, you might as well have a chance to win big,” Vincent says.

When Oliver selects a longshot trifecta based on horse names and odds he calculates to be 800-1, Vincent is quick to ask him if he has any money.

“I have $7.”

“What is that, lunch money?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, you might as well learn the hard way,” Vincent says, as he plucks the cash from Oliver’s wallet. “I’ll throw in some, too. That’s called mitigation.”

“What’s mitigation?”

“That’s where you throw in $7 and I throw in $3.”

*** Spoiler alert ahead… Though, do I really need to warn people about a movie that came out six years ago? If you haven’t seen the movie, yet, you should. ***

When they cash Oliver’s tri, Vincent dispenses some of the best betting advice of all: If you win big, pretend like you lost in case someone to whom you owe money is watching.

While Vincent goes to cash, Oliver scoops a plastic bag out of the garbage to hide the money and the two go sprinting to the parking lot like a couple of kids just sprung from school for summer vacation.

All in all, considering movies often get horse racing wrong, it’s a decent scene about handicapping and the passion therein. That Murray — a personal favorite — is the star makes it positively delightful.

The horse racing scenes were filmed at Belmont during the 2013 Man o’ War Stakes and Murray, always up for an interesting human interaction, even presented the trophy to trainer Shug McGaughey after John Valesquez rode Boisterous to a 2 1/4-length victory in the $600,000 Grade 1 stake.

Endless tales of Murray’s real-life encounters with regular people — crashing engagement photos, joining in with a band at South by Southwest, washing dishes at a stranger’s house party — are spontaneous and infectious events of pure humanity as delightful as his most famous roles.

I was reminded of the handicapping scene in St. Vincent while re-watching the star-studded, but mostly-awful A Very Murray Christmas on Netflix, which debuted not long after St. Vincent.

Murray may be my favorite actor and spiritual Sherpa, but he’s had his share of clunkers and A Very Murray Christmas — which is mostly a musical — is among them in my mind. Though, it does have a few redeeming qualities that extend beyond the fact Murray is funny and/or compelling in even his worst projects.

Paul Shaffer and Maya Rudolph are in it and French band Phoenix — portraying hotel kitchen staff — at Murray’s request play a Christmas song that “nobody knows.”

Just like that, as if out of a dream in which I’ve won the Hambletonian and Murray is presenting me the trophy, comes another confluence of several things I love. Phoenix, with help from Murray on backing vocals, launches into a cover of an unreleased tune called Alone on Christmas Day by Mike Love, the lead singer of one of my favorite bands, The Beach Boys. Love didn’t release his version until after it was used in the Bill Murray special, but both the original —a Ronettes-inspired ditty dripping with Beach Boy signatures —and the cover by Phoenix have become Christmas favorites for me (though neither tops my love for Fairytale of New York by The Pogues)
(Check out the Phoenix version of Alone on Christmas Day here and the original here).

I like to think of it as a gift Bill Murray gave me for Christmas; another treat to go with the simple pleasures of Dr. Peter Venkman, Phil Connors, Carl Spackler, John Winger, Tripper Harrison, Steve Zissou and many more.

During a season of reflection in a year best forgotten, at least we have Bill Murray. His turns at the track and at the mic are just two recent reminders of the joy he’s spread.

May you give and receive the same this holiday season.