By Ted Kleine
There is no more mind-bending task than trying to make money at the track. Becoming a chess grand master is easy in comparison. Earning a medical degree is a cinch. Getting into Harvard is easier than making your living at the track: Harvard rejects 91 percent of all applicants each year, while the average American racetrack makes losers out of 98 percent of the gamblers who walk through its gates. At the end of the year, only one out of every 50 horseplayers can total up his bets and say, "Yeah, I beat the track."
I've never been able to say it. Last summer, Arlington International Racecourse kicked my ass to the tune of $700. I did better at Hawthorne, which holds its races in the fall. I went to the track diligently, at least three times a week, and after two and a half months showed a balance of...minus $13. Not a bloodbath, but I had to ask myself if it was worth spending all my afternoons at the track--a cesspool of cigarette smoke, surly ticket clerks, horse manure, shredded tickets, hot dogs vile enough to burn an inch off your stomach lining, and losing gamblers screaming rabid obscenities at horses and jockeys--if I was just going to lose money. Some days I would spend two or three hours hunting for winners in the Daily Racing Form and still leave the track with an empty wallet. I was beginning to question the horseplayer's maxim that "the best thing in the world is to win money at the track, and the second best thing is to lose money at the track."
If I was going to win, I decided, I would need a mentor, someone who treated the track as his own personal automatic teller machine and would pass his genius on to me. After several months of searching, of sidling up to racetrack regulars and asking, "So, you make a living at this?," I found one.
His name was John Goritz, and I ran into him on the second floor of the grandstand at Sportsman's Park. I was sitting under one of the banks of TV sets that broadcast races from around the country, waiting to watch the Fountain of Youth Stakes from Gulfstream Park in Florida. A three-year-old phenom named Pulpit was running, and the horseplayers at Gulfstream had bet him down to even money, despite the fact that the colt had only run two races in his life. I thought only a sucker would bet on a horse that green, and I planned to put my money on one of his rivals, Arthur L. I figured Arthur L. would get the lead and hold it all the way to the wire. And I was panting at his odds: 7-1.
Then I heard a loud voice from the table behind me declare, "Pulpit can't lose this one."
Everyone at the track has an opinion, and I turned around to see who this one belonged to. The seer was 30-ish, a short, pudgy guy with thinning red hair and the tough-looking face of an extra from On the Waterfront. He wore a dingy Raiders jacket, an old purple T-shirt, and jeans as baggy as a rhino's skin. Propped up on the table in front of him was an enormous blue backpack, a frayed, nylon collegiate model so stuffed it looked like a tortoise shell.
"I just don't see anyone in the race who can beat Pulpit," he was telling a friend, his voice rapid, nervous (imagine Danny Bonaduce with some of the gravel smoothed over). He looked up at the TV monitor just as Pulpit emerged from the tunnel. The glossy black colt stood for a moment on the grass apron alongside the track, preening like an equine prince, then pranced out onto the dirt.
"Look at him," John sputtered. "He's dancing! That's how Cigar used to look before a race! Oh, he looks great! He looks like a great bet! He's sweating a little, but his mother used to sweat a lot, too."
I knew nothing about the perspiratory tendencies of Pulpit's mother, and I wasn't going to back a horse just because he high-stepped in front of a crowd. The Budweiser Clydesdales did that, and I doubted if any of them could outrun a fast mule. Ignoring John, I ran to the betting windows and laid down five dollars on Arthur L.
Just as I'd predicted, Arthur L. immediately took the lead. Pulpit came out quickly, too, but a quarter of a mile into the race he had dropped back to fourth.
He can't handle a challenge, I thought. As Pulpit disappeared from the TV screen, I congratulated myself on my handicapping and prepared to collect $35.
But Arthur L. began to tire. After three-quarters of a mile his head was bobbing up and down, and his eyeballs popped out as though a devil were prodding his flanks with a pitchfork. After a mile he was through, burned out, and Pulpit was charging out of the pack to take the lead. "Pulpit is the real deal!" the announcer hollered as the colt crossed the finish line, too young and talented to realize there was anyplace to finish but first.
The Fountain of Youth was the last race of the day for me--Sportsman's had canceled its card due to a dangerously muddy racing surface, and all the east-coast tracks were winding down. I stuffed the Arthur L. ticket into a pocket of my satchel, where it joined all the other worthless slips of paper I'd bought that afternoon, and walked over to John's table to congratulate him.
At the end of the day most horseplayers chuck their programs into the trash and slump out to the parking lot. But John was working. With a pair of gleaming scissors he was dismembering a copy of the Daily Racing Form, cutting out results charts for tracks all over the country. He worked like a tailor at a bolt of cloth, paring away the edges of each page with sharp snips, then laying it atop a stack of sheets on the table. He had emptied the backpack, and I could see several cellophane bags filled with neatly trimmed newspaper clippings: the Sun-Times horse racing results for every day since 1993. An age-softened Coca-Cola folder contained charts from all the local harness tracks.
"You've got a ton of shit here," I said, impressed. Half the horseplayers at Sportsman's Park couldn't even read the Racing Form. They relied on dollar-fifty tip sheets or newspaper touts for their picks. But this man was a scholar. He had spread out in front of him the most thorough horse racing archive I'd ever seen.
"I've been making my living out here for eight years," he told me as he continued to work his scissors.
Eight years seemed like a long time for him; his quick and anxious manner made him seem boyish. And the longshoreman quality of his face was balanced by a look of innocence: imagine Ernest Borgnine crossed with Beaver Cleaver.
"Eight years?" I said. "This is all you do? You don't have another job? You survive just by playing the horses?"
"I hit the twin trifecta at Hawthorne for $24,000 last year. That's the only thing that's keeping me going. I don't make a lot of money at this. A lot of times I starve."
He cut out the last chart and began loading papers into his backpack.
"Are you going to be out here tomorrow?" he asked.
I was. As a freelance writer I had pretty flexible hours, and I went to the track every chance I got. Sundays were prime days.
"Come out here tomorrow and I'll teach you how to look at the horses. That's the key to this whole game. I used to work with horses, and if you know how to look at them, you'll own this fucking place."
I couldn't meet John at the track that Sunday; the cops towed my car and I had to go downtown to bail it out. But I found him the next day, after the second race. He was sitting up on the second floor not far from one of the gangways that lead out to the bleachers. His handicapping archive was spread out in front of him, and he was making notations on his Form with a red pen. He looked exhausted.
"I was up until five in the morning handicapping the Fair Grounds," he said, referring to a racetrack in New Orleans. I looked down at his Form. Every horse's record had been marked up with a private code of ovals, lines, numerals, and letters. "I got home at six o'clock last night, and I spent 11 hours on this. The weather report said it was gonna rain, so I handicapped for slop, and it's not even raining there. Jesus. It better start raining soon."
I looked up at the TV broadcasting from the Fair Grounds. The track was still dry, but the sky was the color of a bruise, and the wind was billowing the jockeys' silks and making the horses' manes wave like pennants.
"As soon as it starts raining, I'm gonna kick ass there," he said. "I've got a horse later on who's gonna do great in the slop."
Despite the handicapping god's refusal to empty the clouds over New Orleans, John was winning. In fact he was beating up on three tracks at once: the Fair Grounds, Gulfstream, and Sportsman's. I, meanwhile, was already down $34, having lost the daily double and then bet $30 to win on Sally's Hero, a bum colt who ran out of the money in the second race.
As the third race approached John insisted we go out to the bleachers to watch the horses in the post parade. It was time, he said, to start my tutorial. As soon as the bugle sounded, heralding the horses' arrival on the track, he yanked on his Raiders jacket and we hustled outside. I trained my binoculars on the cavalcade of horseflesh while John told me what to look for.
"Do you see any horses that look really straight, that their legs are lined up really straight?" he asked.
"The two looks good," I said. The horse I was looking at, Danzig's Design, walked as though his spine were an iron rod. No Civil War general's horse had ever looked so controlled, I thought.
"OK, now watch him when he turns around, and then tell me what you see," John instructed. "You want a horse whose head doesn't move at all when it turns around."
John ran inside to bet on a race at Gulfstream, but I stayed out in the bleachers, studying the horses as they jogged around the clubhouse turn and then cantered down the backstretch, warming up for their three-quarter-mile sprint. When I had handicapped the race the night before, I'd tabbed the number-three horse, Fast Phone, as the likely winner. I examined him through my binoculars. He had no apparent problems--he wasn't sweating excessively, his coat looked shiny, and there was no hitch in his stride--but his gait wasn't quite as true as Danzig's Design's was. At the top of the backstretch the horses turned around: Danzig's Design rotated like a ship on the water.
"Two looked fantastic," I reported to John when I got back to the grandstand.
"Are you going to bet him?"
"I'm not going to bet this race."
"How come?" John seemed incredulous, almost offended that I'd waste the lesson he was trying to give me.
"I still like Fast Phone, but he's only even money, so I don't want to bet on him."
"So bet on the two," John insisted.
"Look at his record in the Form." I spread my paper out on the table. "He hasn't been close in his last three races."
I ran back out to the bleachers to watch the race, still convinced that Fast Phone was going to clobber this field. On paper he appeared to have no real rivals. The rest of the bettors agreed with me: Fast Phone's odds were still 1-1, meaning more than half the money on this race had been bet on him.
There's an old saying: Horse races are not run on paper. That afternoon, Danzig's Design proved it. He leaped out of the starting gate ahead of Fast Phone and led all the way around the track, winning by a head. Danzig's Design paid $9.80 for every $2 bet to win.
I got back to the grandstand to find John sitting with his head in his arms.
"You were right about that two," he moaned. "Jesus, we should have bet that two horse. If we had just bet 20 dollars, we could have won 98 bucks."
For a horseplayer the only thing worse than losing money is not winning money you should have, since the sums involved are much larger. I once gave half a thought to betting $2 on a long-shot exacta combination at Arlington, then decided to pass. The exacta requires a bettor to pick the top two finishers, in order. The horses I'd liked came in one-two, paying $973. I felt as if I'd muffed the winning field goal at the Super Bowl.
John whipped open his Form to the Sportsman's entries and pointed to the record for Danzig's Design. "Look at that. It was obvious. Look how good he does at Sportsman's. He loves Sportsman's."
He was right. Danzig's Design had won a third of the races he'd run at Sportsman's Park, and those races had accounted for half his lifetime earnings. In 1996 he had run four times at the track, finishing third, then second, then winning, before finally running a terrible race that suggested he needed a rest. That summer he ran two poor races at Arlington, a track he obviously hated, and then was laid off for eight months until Sportsman's opened again in February. Fast Phone was 1 for 15 (now 1 for 16) at Sportsman's Park. Danzig's Design had been the best horse on paper too, but I hadn't looked deeply enough to see it.
The rest of the afternoon John found insights in the Form that were too subtle for me to notice. He was like a Bible scholar who can read a mundane verse like "She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant" and from it extract an important life lesson.
In the eighth race, I burned $30 on Don't Waste Time, who had won in his first race of the year at Sportsman's.
"See, he loves this track," I insisted, trying to apply the lesson I'd learned earlier in the day.
John disagreed. His pick was Notamomenttosoon, who figured to take the early lead, and who was running on the drug Lasix for the first time (Lasix is a diuretic that improves a horse's breathing and stamina by preventing internal bleeding. Almost all racehorses are given it eventually.) Of course he was right. Notamomenttosoon seized the rail and won by a length.
By this point, my wallet needed Lasix: it was bleeding severely. I was down $92 going into the ninth race, and I hadn't cashed a ticket all day. So I proceeded to make a serious amateur's mistake: I tried to get even on the last race. I bet $25 to win and $25 to place on Army Brat, a filly with a fantastic record at Hawthorne the previous autumn: in six races she'd never finished worse than second. Army Brat was 2-1 on the tote board, so at best I could only cut my losses, but I was sure to win something on the bet. The only way I could lose, I told myself as I yoked on my binoculars and headed out to the bleachers, was if some 300-pound goon ran out on the track and whacked Army Brat in the knee with a baton. In figure skating, perhaps, but not in horse racing.
No goon appeared, but Army Brat finished fourth. She tried to rally on the turn, but because she was a come-from-behind horse (a "closer"), she had to run to the outside of three other horses who had gotten there sooner. The outside part of the track was deep and slow that day; no matter how hard Army Brat ran, she couldn't gain any ground. Now I was out $142, my worst beating ever.
I found John at his table, tallying up his booty for the day. He'd beaten all three tracks, to the tune of $272. After a day like that, I'd have been driving home at 95 miles an hour with tin cans tied to the back of my car and a sign reading "I Am the God of Handicapping" propped up in my back window. But John seemed more exhausted than excited. Winning was his business, and the business day wasn't even over yet. He planned to spend the evening at Balmoral Park in Crete, betting on harness races. By the time Balmoral completed its card, he would have spent 29 of the last 34 hours either gambling or handicapping.
"I'm starting to get burned out on this," he admitted as he packed away his charts and notebooks. "I've been doing it for eight years. I don't have a life. I don't even have a girlfriend. All I do is handicap and go to the track. I feel like a bond trader."
His goal, he said, was to win enough money to go back to college and earn a degree in advertising. But he was having the same problem as a lot of other 35-year-olds stuck in wearying jobs: he made just enough cash to keep going but never enough to buy his way into a better life.
"I want to be like Darrin on Bewitched," he said. "You know, write the slogans. This horse racing, a lot of times I starve doing this. I've got a cushion now, because of that twin trifecta, but I've still gotta work my ass off. It's no life doin' this."
Unlike most other gamblers, horseplayers aren't playing against the house but against each other. The odds are set by the amount of money bet on each horse minus the track take, the juice a gambler pays to make a bet. This is known as pari-mutuel wagering, from a French term meaning "among ourselves." The mathematics of the pari-mutuel system make consistently beating the game nearly impossible. For every dollar the track takes in on win, place, and show bets, it pays back 83 cents (for some "exotic" bets, such as the trifecta and the "pick three," the return is a miserly 75 cents). Slot machines, which are much less expensive to maintain than horses, return 93 percent of the money they take in. But because playing the horses can be a game of skill and judgment rather than luck, it can be beaten.
The best horseplayers tend to be obsessive, pathologically disciplined monomaniacs, usually men, who have purged their lives of any distraction that might prevent them from focusing on the one thing that really matters: handicapping horses. In Picking Winners, a 1975 book still considered one of the best on handicapping, Andrew Beyer calls playing the horses "the toughest game in the world, one that demands a passionate, all-consuming dedication from anyone who seriously wants to be a winner." In his younger days Beyer was so devoted to the game that he effectively took a vow of celibacy. Sounding like a 13th-century monk counseling novitiates, he writes, "The most deleterious effects on a horseplayer's concentration are caused by women. When a gambler has had an exceptional day at the track, or is in the midst of a great winning streak, he may exude a sense of self-esteem and confidence to which women respond. If this occurs the horseplayer is dangerously apt to fall in love, and the distraction is sure to wreck him at the track."
It's not a game for dilettantes. As I would learn from hanging out with John, the world offers far more lucrative, far less time-consuming ways of making a living. They're called jobs.
John is a sharp horseplayer, but he admits that over the last four years his income from the racetrack has totaled only about $50,000. He makes a little extra money selling T-shirts in bars and bowling alleys for his father, George, a retired restaurant owner. Father and son also share a house in Burbank, about five miles down Cicero Avenue from Sportsman's Park.
"He brings a decent amount of money home," sighs George, who occasionally accompanies John to the track. "I kind of consider it his job."
George would prefer to see his 35-year-old son work at something more conventional. "But he's hooked on this. He says it's my fault because I used to bring him to the track when he was a baby. He used to have a job working tool-and-die down south, and if there was a racetrack within 300 miles of where they were working, he'd get up early in the morning, drive there, spend the afternoon at the races, then drive back and work at night. I ask him why he can't just place his bets in the morning and go to work, but he says he has to see the horses."
John also worked for a while as a butcher, then as a horse trainer's assistant (he quit after seeing a practice rider get thrown and kicked in the head), but he's not really cut out for a steady job. Like Mordecai Richler's Duddy Kravitz, the young entrepreneur who drives a taxi and produces bar mitzvah movies so he can "get me some land," John is an instinctive hustler, a guy who'd rather make a buck on his own farm than five on someone else's plantation. He'd be perfect as the proprietor of, say, a Greek restaurant. He'd be the kind of restaurateur who treats all his friends to free drinks and poses for pictures whenever an alderman or TV anchorman comes in to eat. Follow him around Sportsman's Park for an afternoon and you'll see that he knows, or claims to know, everybody in the joint: mutuel clerks, jockeys, trainers, stewards, the shoe-shine man, the lunch ladies in the cafeteria, the "juice guys" who lend money to desperate gamblers at 10 percent a week.
"'Ey, Lou, how ya doin'?" he prods, buying a Form from one of the sour-faced men at the program booth.
"You see that guy?" He points to a stringy-haired guy with a slouch who's copying results off a TV monitor. "He makes his living here picking up winning tickets people throw away by accident. If you want to know who won a race anywhere in the country, just ask him."
John also claims an acquaintance with Garrett Gomez, one of the leading jockeys in Chicago. During the post parade, John says, Gomez signals that he's on a live horse by glancing up at the clubhouse, where John usually sits. I was never able to verify this relationship. As far as I could tell, when Gomez was parading a horse he never looked anywhere but straight ahead.
Once I liked a horse Gomez was riding and asked John to "let me know if he's giving the signal here." As Gomez rode past, he cast a few glances toward the clubhouse. They didn't look meaningful to me--he appeared to be bored or stretching his neck--but John reacted like Paul Revere getting the "one if by land, two if by sea" sign.
"He's saying he's got a good horse," John insisted. "Go bet him."
I wagered six dollars, exactly what I'd been planning to bet before I saw the jockey work the kinks out of his neck. The horse broke sluggishly from the gate and was never in contention.
To be fair, though, that was one of the only times John ever gave me a bad tip. John isn't infallible--the best pros pick a winner only about a third of the time--but he sees things that are invisible to most bettors, and his archives contain information that few others are diligent enough to collect.
One afternoon we were sitting in the clubhouse at Sportsman's, and I was having another terrible day. I had just blown $60 on a horse named Appolo Gold, despite John's warning that he looked listless. He was listless. Appolo Gold showed some early speed, then faded to sixth, leaving me down $88 for the day. The last race was coming up, and as usual I wanted to get even (I know, I know, but it's hard to think logically when you're trying to get revenge against a racetrack). As I was stewing, the horses filed down the backstretch toward the starting gate. With the brightly colored number-towels draped over their backs and the escort ponies at their sides they looked like a living carousel.
"Who do you like here?" I asked John, who was already scribbling his symbols on the next day's Form. Winners can afford to think about tomorrow.
He glanced up from his work and pointed out the first horse in the line, Our Endeavor, who was 9-1 on the tote board.
"He's dancing up on his toes," John said. "And he'll probably get the early lead. Horses with the early lead have been winning all day."
Nostradamus had spoken. I ran to the windows and bet ten dollars to win on Our Endeavor. If the horse won I'd go home a slight winner for the day. If he lost, well, it was just another ten bucks on the fire.
As the horses were loaded into the gate I leveled my binoculars at the track. What I saw thrilled me. The moment the doors boomed open, Our Endeavor leaped free like a rabbit and charged to the lead, just as John had predicted. Our Endeavor was never challenged and won by over a length. As the horse crossed the line John and I slapped a high five.
Watching horses gives John a huge edge because, strange as it seems, a horse's appearance is rarely reflected in the odds. Horseplayers, even the most serious ones, usually form their opinions by reading the Form or by running statistics through a computer, and often they're reluctant to give up on a horse who looks good on paper just because its stride is stiff. A lot of casual bettors simply cut out the racing page of the Sun-Times, take it to the track, and bet Dave Feldman's picks. Feldman is sharp, but he doesn't have a post parade walking past his desk when he handicaps. Back in March he and every other tout in town picked Polar Expedition and Recoup the Cash to finish one-two in a six-furlong sprint. It seemed logical. Polar Expedition was the 1996 Illinois Horse of the Year, and Recoup the Cash had won a graded stakes, the most prestigious type of race. But when these two monsters came out onto the track it was obvious that neither was in any shape to run. Polar Expedition's tongue was lolling out of his mouth. Recoup the Cash was rimed with sweat, and his coat looked drab and mangy. A $10-an-hour riding stable would have rejected him as unfit for service, but the bettors didn't seem to notice. He went off at 5-2, and finished next to last. Polar Expedition was 4-5, but he never contended. John spotted the horrific appearance of the two favorites and did the wise thing: he skipped the race. The winner was Bionic Lover, a 37-1 shot that any sane handicapper would have thrown out immediately.
"If I don't get a good look at the horses and see who looks good, I won't bet 'em," John said. "Even though you did all your work on your Form, you're coming to bet the seventh race at Gulfstream, you miss seeing 'em. I did all that work on the Form and didn't look at 'em, I'm not bettin' 'em. That's just the way I am. Or if I see someone warm up real good on the track, I'll bet 'em. If I see someone warmin' up, flyin' by me, that to me looks good on the track, I'll bet 'em. The horses are not like machines. That's my strong point, is looking at the horses."
But watching horses is only half of the equation. The other half is handicapping. John has several tricks for analyzing an animal's record in the Form. First, he keeps a record of the track bias at every track he follows. If he's at Sportsman's and notices that all the races are being won by horses that come from behind and rally down the middle of the track, he'll write "outside and back" in his ledger. When a horse who ran that day returns to the track, John will check to see whether it ran well against the bias. If his notes say "outside and back," and the horse he's considering broke fast, took an early lead, ran along the rail, then faded to third at the finish, he'll put a "T" next to its name, for "tab." Bettors who don't record track biases might be fooled into thinking a horse ran a bad race when actually he ran well, considering he had to struggle along on the slowest part of the track.
"Those are my bet-backs," John says. "If a horse ran great against the bias, a lot of times he'll win the next time he comes back."
(The opposite is also true. Horses aided by a track bias sometimes run like Shetland ponies in their next race. Last November at Hawthorne, there was an outrageous bias toward horses running in the middle of the track. As horseplayers like to say, the rail was dead. Classy horses coming from inside-post positions had no chance to win, while bums who were lucky enough to start from gate ten were scoring big. One rainy afternoon a chronic loser named Unie Buna drew an outside post and nearly won. When he came back, the bettors, impressed by his second-place finish, sent him off at 4-1. But the track had changed since Unie Buna's moment of glory. He got trounced.)
For harness racing John has a folder stuffed with the results charts for every rainy day dating back to 1988. Harness racing programs don't tell how often a horse has won in the mud, so serious bettors have to keep their own records. Whenever the track at Balmoral or Maywood or Hawthorne or Sportsman's is wet ("dead slop," as John gleefully calls it), he memorizes the roster of horses running that day, then pages through his folders to see if any have won in the mud before. The stack of charts is thick, so sometimes this takes hours. It's worth it, though. Paging through the "mud charts" led John to the biggest score of his life: on that rainy night in January 1996, at Hawthorne Race Course, he and his brother Mike won $24,800 on a single race. They had the only winning ticket on that evening's twin trifecta, a nearly impossible wager that requires bettors to pick the top three finishers--in order--of two successive races. The twin tri is so tough that most days nobody hits it, and the money bet accumulates until a sharpie like John sticks his hand in and grabs it.
"It was just lucky," he shrugs when I ask him about the bet that's accounted for a good portion of his income over the last four years.
Lucky? As George Allen once said, "The harder I work, the luckier I get." That $24,800 was the payoff for night after night spent alone at a table in that bungalow in Burbank, paging through piles of charts. Most of us get our paychecks a little at a time, a few hundred dollars dribbled out each week. John got his all at once, and it was far more exhilarating than picking up an envelope on a Friday afternoon.
"It was a sloppy track," he admits. "You know I got the charts, right? These were horses that happened to like the slop that day. It more or less wasn't by accident we caught it. We just went in there and bet like we bet everything else every day. Just something to go at. We just took a stand on it. After we saw how much we won, we went crazy." After paying the tax man John and Mike had $19,000 left, which they split almost equally: John, who had picked the horses, took $9,800, and Mike got most of the rest. They gave a small share of the loot to their father.
John had been gambling for 19 years when he hit that twin trifecta, and, he concedes, he might have to gamble for another 19 years before he sees another $24,800 payoff. Big-time bettors, Vegas-type guys who run with well-financed gambling syndicates, can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a bet. If a twin trifecta or a Pick Six pool climbs into six figures, they'll bet on every combination with even a remote chance of coming in, and usually they'll beat guys with better handicapping skills but leaner bankrolls. For a small-time bettor like John, that twin trifecta may have been a once-in-a-lifetime payoff.
But anyone who wants to make a living at the track has to make a big score more than once in a lifetime. Most days John makes nickel-and-dime profits--$50 here, $75 there--or loses money. If he hadn't hit that $24,800 twin trifecta, he admits, he might not even be gambling anymore.
"Nobody makes serious money at this game by grinding it out," handicapping author Barry Meadow once wrote in American Turf Monthly. "You can lose for months, and you never know when your next big hit is going to appear. Maybe not for a very long time. What happens is that occasionally you make a big score. Make enough scores and you win. Make too few and you lose."
About a week after John told me the story of the twin trifecta, we were sitting together in the grandstand at Sportsman's, watching the races from Hialeah Park, the track near Miami that holds its meeting after Gulfstream closes. After one wild affair in which long shots finished first and second, the TV screen flashed the payoff for the "superfecta," a bet that requires one to pick the top four finishers of a race in order. Hialeah offers a superfecta on every race, and this one paid the Christmas-in-March sum of $46,235.
"See, I want to hit something like that," John said. "I'm tired of grinding out the profits."
"So what would you do if you hit something that big?" I asked, as though we were a couple of stoop sitters talking about winning the lottery.
"Move. I'd move to Florida."
I looked back up at the TV screen: $46,235. Some lucky motherfucker was probably doing a victory dive into the flamingo pond at Hialeah, or running to the nearest real estate office to make a down payment on a beach house. Meanwhile we were at Sportsman's Park--which, instead of a flamingo pond, offers an outstanding view of Cicero's oil refineries--waiting to throw on our coats and run out to the bleachers so we could watch a herd of cheap horses run in 30-degree weather. I sighed, inhaling a lungful of cigarette smoke, the "eau de racetrack" that saturates the air at Sportsman's like mustard gas on the western front in World War I. When racetrack shill John Brokopp began his daily broadcast by crowing, "Welcome to beautiful Sportsman's Park!," there was only one way for the horseplayer of discernment to respond: by laughing his ass off.
I understood the hunger John felt as he stared at those numbers. It's frustrating, working hard at something and never knowing if you're going to make a decent living. I remembered something he'd told me one evening as I was giving him a lift home.
"When I was in high school, I was the man," he said. "I was cool. Now it seems like all the guys I hung out with in high school are, like, carpenters, or doing cable TV, or doing this. All the kids who were geeks are doctors and accountants and stuff, making all the money."
Maybe, I thought, that was the reason he spent so much time at the track: there, he was a winner. Within the gates of Sportsman's Park he was looked up to, revered. Guys twice his age wanted his opinion, asked him, "Who do you like in this race?" And he had the ego boost of succeeding at a game in which almost everybody fails.
"You see when you sit around me," he said, "everyone'll ask me, 'Find out how the three looks, find out how the four looks.'"
By mid-March, John's horse-playing skills were beginning to rub off on me. I was examining horses with a veterinarian's eye. I was taking notes on races. I was charting track biases. I was cutting out results charts from the Daily Racing Form and storing them in the bag I took to the track. My studiousness was rewarded when I hit a spectacular winning streak. In a single week I had winning days of $265, $200, and $165--the most I'd won since my magical first day at the track, when I picked a trifecta cold and went home with $150 in my pocket.
My streak started on a Friday afternoon in the fourth race, if you want to be specific. All the touts were pushing a horse named A New Way of Life, but a scan of his record convinced me that he couldn't win. A New Way of Life had finished second in several recent races but hadn't actually won since 1995. The Harold Stassen of horsedom. A contendah, but never a winner. I liked the number-seven horse, Bold Jonathan, who had won his last race while weaving through traffic with the skill of Jeff Gordon at Daytona.
When the odds came up on the tote board, I swear to God I thought it was Christmas. A New Way of Life was 1-2. This was an underlay of stupendous proportions. (An underlay is a horse whose chances of winning are less than his odds. It's similar to the Wall Street concept of an overvalued stock. Imagine someone tried to sell you stock in Hyundai for $500 a share. Would you buy it? I don't think so. That's how out of proportion A New Way of Life's chances were to his odds.) Meanwhile, Bold Jonathan was 11-1, while Oconto, another horse with a strong chance to win, was 6-1. I panted after those odds the way the hart panteth after the water brooks in the psalm. I ran to the window and bet $25 on Bold Jonathan and $15 on Oconto.
I've saved the chart of this race for inclusion in my posthumous papers. Here's what it says: "BOLD JONATHAN raced in good position from the start, was beginning his rally when he shied away from A NEW WAY OF LIFE in the stretch, exchanged bumps with that rival and was off strided while coming in a bit late then prevailed by a narrow margin."
As Bold Jonathan crossed the finish line I practically dissolved with ecstasy. "Yes! Yes!" I screeched. My skull filled with helium. Then the red neon INQUIRY sign on the tote board lit up. Mark Guidry, A New Way of Life's jockey, had complained about the bumping and demanded that Bold Jonathan be disqualified. No, I thought. Please, no. I ran inside to watch a replay of the stretch run. The two horses had collided several times, but it was hard to tell who'd started the shoving match. Since Guidry was the winningest rider at Sportsman's, I figured the stewards would take his side. A veteran gambler standing next to me agreed.
"Looks like that seven's coming down," he said.
If the seven did come down, I vowed to leave the track and never again play this rigged game. Possibly I would even exile myself and move to a country where the horse racing was honest. Australia, maybe, or Dubai. The stewards rewound the tape and played it again. And again. The numbers seven and four blinked on the tote board. My palms became clammy with sweat. A bell signaled that the result was official. I looked at the tote board: Bold Jonathan's number was still on top, and he was paying off at $27 for every $2 invested. I had never felt so blessed. I thanked God for creating this world and thanked him again for putting racetracks in it. When I presented my $25 ticket to the teller, he gave me back $337, my biggest score ever.
The next day was just as good. I couldn't make it to the track because I had tickets to a concert at Orchestra Hall, so I stopped in at the State and Lake OTB to place my bets. I was particularly excited about a horse named Bahala Na. He had finished strongly in his debut race, and I was certain he would win when he returned to the track. Every time I'd seen John recently, I'd told him, "Bet on Bahala Na. You gotta bet on Bahala Na." Now that the horse was finally entered, I wasn't going to blow a chance at a big score. I bet on three races, then went to Orchestra Hall, where I fidgeted through the concert; I kept imagining the track announcer shouting "Bahala Na has given this field the slip!" As soon as the concert ended I rushed back to the OTB and found someone who had seen the races at Sportsman's.
"Which races you interested in?" he asked.
I withdrew my tickets and rattled off the names of my horses.
"Let's see--" The man searched his memory. You think waiting to hear the O.J. verdict was dramatic? You obviously didn't have Bahala Na in the fifth that day.
"Yeah," my informant said. "He won too."
Yes, yes, yes, oh yes. Say it over and over again, like the final sentence of Ulysses. I collected 200 bucks from the teller, then called John.
"Bahala Na!" he said proudly as soon as he heard my voice. "You're my main man right now. I got more faith in you than I got in anybody. You're smart, and you're willing to learn. You're gonna beat all these motherfuckers."
For the next week I thought I was the hottest prospect in American handicapping. I imagined I could be like Martin Ritt, the film director who made his living at the New York tracks when he was blacklisted during the 1950s. Betting on horses was going to be a part-time job, a sideline to my writing. Every afternoon when I shouldered my satchel for the trip to the track I thought, "It's time to go to work." My obsession with horses reached unnatural levels: when the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue came out, I flipped past the bikini shots, looking for articles about racing. Finding none, I put the magazine back on the shelf. At "please pay first" gas stations, when I asked for "ten dollars on number five," my tongue wanted to add "to win." In March I called my dad in Michigan and told him, "I'm coming home the weekend of the 29th. That's when they're having the Dubai World Cup," a lucrative international horse race.
"That's also Easter weekend," he reminded me.
"Is it? I didn't see anything about that in the Racing Form."
I was going to be smart and disciplined, not like those idiots who threw away their money on exactas and trifectas. I conceived a system that was sure to bring me a profit: bet $50 on horses that look like cinches and are going off at odds of 7-5 or better. The rest of the time, make piddling "fun" bets--maybe $5 or $10--or skip the race. At first it worked beautifully. That Wednesday I hit a horse named L'Eric, who paid off at 2-1, and on Friday I scored with a pair of 2-1 shots, Laugh Alot and She's Just Winking, putting me up over $700 since the beginning of my winning streak. This, I thought, is a great way to supplement my income.
But then, just as night follows day, just as vultures follow lions, I started losing. Badly. I can trace this streak back to a specific race too. I was in Michigan for the weekend and wanted to show off my brilliant handicapping to my father and sister. So we drove to a small harness track outside Flint that simulcasted races from around the country. When the fourth race at Sportsman's approached I announced that a horse named Fortunate Wish was a lock and went to the windows to bet $50. I also bet $10 for my father, who believed the stories of my horse racing triumphs and trusted me to invest his cash.
Fortunate Wish finished third. My other surefire bet, Pappa Lee, came in sixth, so I was out $100 for the day. After that it got worse. Much worse.
At first my biggest problem was that I couldn't get decent odds on horses I liked. I'd spot a great-looking animal in the Form and gleefully tell myself, "This guy is going to run away with the race." But when I got to the track I found out that every other horseplayer in Chicago was thinking the same thing. Horses I loved were going off at even money, 4-5, and 3-5. Half the time they won, but if you're betting horses at 3-5, you have to win more than half the time to make a profit. Occasionally one of my handpicked winners went off at odds I could bet on. Invariably it lost. It was completely maddening: if I could bet on a horse it lost; if I couldn't it won. I got so fed up with this that I decided the next time I saw a can't-miss horse I was going to bet it, odds be damned. I needed a winner, as much to save my fraying mind as to fatten my shrinking bankroll.
The horse was Lord Byron, a cheap $4,000 claimer who had finished in the money in all his races this year but never won. He usually sprinted out to the lead, held on until the stretch, then faded to second or third. But on the day he was running, the track was favoring front-running horses. And Lord Byron's opponents looked like unspirited plugs who would have no interest in catching a runaway leader. I bet him at even money and relaxed as he carried a five-length lead into the stretch. Whew. Back to winning. A 16th of a mile from the wire he still had the lead, but he was beginning to slow down. As his stride became shorter and more clipped, a late-running long shot came tearing down the stretch. "Hang on, you sonofabitch!" I screamed. In the final 50 yards the long shot blew past and beat my 1-1 horse by a neck.
Now, losing streaks are part of playing the horses. Everyone has them, even the professionals. How you deal with the dry spells determines whether you'll be a winner or a loser in the long run. I dealt with my time in the desert by losing my mind, as well as most of my $1,000 bankroll. Once I started losing, I knew I should cut down my wagers, to $20 or even $10. But I couldn't stand the thought of missing out on the magic horse that would get me even. I'd bet $50 on a dubious 10-1 shot named Honest J, not so much because he was the best horse in the race but because if he won, I'd get $500. He finished next-to-last.
After about two weeks of this I was nearly deranged. I had lost all confidence in my ability to pick winners and was beginning to wonder whether I could make the correct decision about anything. The morning after the Honest J fiasco I stood in front of my closet, unable to choose a wardrobe. Why get dressed? I thought. I'll screw that up, too.
I vowed right then that I was going to quit the game forever, get a full-time job, get married, move to northern Michigan, miles from any racetrack or OTB, and take up a wholesome hobby, like woodworking or camping. Of course I had to get even first.
I was getting tension headaches every time I went to Sportsman's Park, having about as much fun as a dishwasher working a ten-hour shift in a 120-degree kitchen. Yet I never left the track without buying the next day's Form and searching it for the horse who would, as the saying goes, get me off the schneid. I wanted a magic insight, like the feverish boy in D.H. Lawrence's short story "The Rocking-Horse Winner," who changes his family's fortunes when he picks the winner of the Derby. "It's Malabar!" he cries, just before he dies. (This made him possibly the only horseplayer ever to be depicted as a Christ figure in a work of literature.)
Eventually I found my Malabar. Allens Alley was a horse who'd once stumbled coming out of the starting gate then rallied to finish second by a nose. I figured if he got a decent start in his next race he'd win easily. I was right. Allens Alley won by two lengths, at odds of 7-2. A handsome payoff--or it would have been, if I'd been at the track. But Allens Alley won on a day I had decided to stay home and take a break from this game that was tearing down the wall that separated me from madness. All that afternoon a voice inside me said, "Go for the ninth race. Just go to bet Allens Alley, then come home." But a stronger voice, a voice of discipline and reason, said, "No. He'll just break your heart, like all the other horses you've loved lately. He'll get blocked in traffic, or fade at the wire. Besides, there are other things in life besides horse racing. Go take a long walk."
The next morning, when I read about Allens Alley's victory in the paper, a much, much stronger voice, a voice of rage, of frustration, of an unquenchable yen for self-annihilation, screamed, "God damn it! The one day I don't go to the track, my horse wins! I haven't had a winner in a week-and-a-fucking-half, and now that I finally pick one I'm not there to bet him. How do you beat this game? How, how, how? Do you have to be there every day of your fucking life?"
The answer to that question, I realized, was yes. It may have been the most important revelation I've ever had about playing the horses.
The old guys, the retired boilermakers and bus drivers who shuffle around the track in adjustable baseball caps and snap-button windbreakers, who make $2 bets with money from their Social Security checks, will tell you the races can't be beaten. Most of them have been trying to win at the track for 50 years, since the days when Citation ruled the Thoroughbred world, and they've got nothing to show for it except shoe boxes full of losing tickets.
"You know the secret of playing the races?" a retiree once told me. "Don't bring a lot of money out here. If you want a good investment buy a bond. It only shits twice a year, and you don't have to clean up after it."
There's a lot of frustration at the racetrack. Shredded programs. Middle-aged guys screaming "Spic!" and "Cocksucker!" at losing jockeys. Twenty-five-thousand-dollar-a-year men who've failed at every other form of moneymaking and are finding out that the ponies aren't their golden ticket either, that the same lack of discipline and brains that made them C students is impoverishing them at the track too. One of the saddest things I've ever seen was a guy racing through the stands at Sportsman's Park after a tough loss, shouting, "I've never had any luck! Not once in 55 years!"
"A lot of people that have been coming for a long time, like the old-timers, they've tried all the systems and they can't win," John told me. "I really feel it's because they don't pay attention to lookin' at the horses and the condition of the races and all that. And most of the people I've run into at the track, they're not intelligent. You can just tell. Most of them haven't been to school. And the track, most people that have gone to the track over the last 30 or 40 years have just been known as bums, 'cause that's all they do. When you play the horses, you're following 'em every day. You've got to be there every day if you want to try to make money every day."
The races can be beaten, but only if you're willing to sacrifice everything most people associate with a stable, happy existence: a house, a reliable income, a pension plan, two days off every week. I don't know a single serious horseplayer who's married. I'm sure there are some, but I haven't met any. Charles Bukowski was right when he said that a man who can beat the horses should be painting or writing symphonies. A horseplayer has already made sacrifices that would horrify the most driven starving artist. That's why, nowadays, I only go to the track on weekends and never bring more than $40 with me. I'm not going to be the Vincent van Gogh of horse racing, living in madness and poverty so I can, maybe, catch a $5,000 trifecta someday.
It took John 19 years to join the elite 2 percent of horseplayers who make a steady profit. Sometimes he wonders if playing the horses is any way for a man to spend his life, but he doesn't want to quit. Not after working so hard to become a pro, to accomplish something that breaks almost everyone who attempts it.
"The old-timers all laugh at you when you tell 'em you make a profit," he told me. "There's one bartender at Balmoral, he thinks I'm a drug dealer. Every time I walk up there, he says, 'Here's Johnny, go get the drugs from him,' 'cause I'm there all the time and I don't work. Anybody who plays the horses can't see anybody makin' a living at it, because they can't win at it. If you tell them that the last five or six years you've showed a profit, enough to live on and buy the programs and the Form, they laugh at you. The old-timers, the horses ruined 'em, and they're ruining me, too. I see myself gettin' older and my life gettin' wasted away, even though I make money at it. For $10,000 a year you could be a gas station attendant or something. This ain't easy, this stuff. This is hard work, what I do."
Whoever said art is a jealous mistress has never been to the track.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Chip Williams.