Rudy Bilotta and I are on our way to the off-track betting parlor in Oakbrook Terrace, where Bilotta--a 90-year-old big-band piano player and gambler who has finally gotten around to writing a book on handicapping--is going to give me a lesson in playing the horses.
His book, Bilotta's Value Calculating Methods for Regular Horse Players, Novices and Know-It-Alls, contains such dicta as "The CASINO . . . is GUARANTEED TO MAKE YOU A LOSER. . . . The only place you find good odds or bargains are at a race track," and "I don't depend upon 'luck'. I rely upon my NON-BATTERY COMPUTER (MY HEAD) TO WIN."
A lanky man in a burgundy suit, Bilotta has a long, sallow face and a pencil-thin mustache that has grayed almost to invisibility since he grew it in the 1930s, when he was Rudy Austin, bandleader of the Royal Chicagoans. I have been warned, by a man who's known him for years, that Bilotta (who is also an expert on harmonica playing and handwriting analysis) treats the world as a six-billion-seat lecture hall. But he sits quietly in the passenger seat, hands folded over his vinyl portfolio--until we run into traffic.
"You need a Bilotta Driving Lesson," he pipes up in a deep, avuncular voice as I navigate the lanes. "Do you remember the count between cars? What is it?"
"Three," I say.
"That's right," says Bilotta, who taught music in high schools and elementary schools for 40 years. "I got an idea for a bumper sticker once. It was 'Don't Be a Tailgate Sniffer.' All this stopping and starting is bad for the car. I hit the brakes as smoothly as a violin. It saves the brake lining. It saves on gas. If you time the lights, you can save enough money to buy a suit every year."
Bilotta's car has 480,000 miles on it, so I don't argue with him. And since he's still gambling in his tenth decade, I don't argue when he gives me a Bilotta Nutrition Lesson over lunch at the OTB. "I want a Caesar salad and water with no ice," he instructs our waitress. Then he points a finger at me. "Ice is not good for your digestion." When the waitress brings me a Jockey Salad--a heap of lettuce, bacon, turkey, tomato, and shredded cheese--Bilotta stares at it like it's carrion.
"What kind of salad is that?" he asks. "I don't think I'd like it because of the white leaves. Iceberg lettuce is for the birds." He shakes a fork at his plate. "This stuff has got the vital elements," he crows. "Romaine lettuce."
As the money pours in before the first race at Hawthorne, Bilotta stares at the TV next to our table, scribbling down the shifting odds on his program. He believes one can find clues to a horse's chances by studying its betting action, much as Wall Street investors chart a stock's price.
"I don't like this favorite, Country Lawyer," he announces. "He was 6-5, and now he's 9-5. Know what they call it when a favorite goes up close to post time? Kiss of death. His odds would be going down if he was any good. I don't like Steersman, either. I don't like the way they're betting him."
Unlike slot machines or roulette wheels, on which the chance of winning is the same every spin, racetrack betting is pari-mutuel, much like the stock market. The players set the odds, and they often make mistakes. The betting favorite wins only a third of the time, so an astute gambler can exploit the ignorance of the masses.
"'People' aren't 'playing horses,'" Bilotta writes in his book. "They are playing 'people'. . . . Playing 'horses'? When was the last time you cashed a mutuel ticket where a horse was behind the window?"
Bilotta settles on Ranelagh, who ran a good race back in March, and is going off at 4-1. I play a couple of exactas (bets on the top two horses, in order) using K C's Sunshine Bay over two other horses. Ranelagh is never in contention, but K C's Sunshine Bay wins, and my exacta comes in.
Bilotta looks perturbed. He disapproves of exactas, because the house take is 20 percent--versus 17 percent for win bets--and he scolds me for betting like a wastrel. "You diminished your odds by playing two horses for second place," he says. "You've got to think about your return-on-investment percentage."
"$27.60 is not a bad price."
"Well, you spent four dollars and got back $27.60." He chunks the numbers into his desktop calculator. "That's like a 5-1 winner. I guess that's not too bad."
Bilotta began playing the horses in the early 1930s, when he was rehearsing with the Van Korbin Orchestra in a nightclub at Madison and Cicero. A trumpet player named Ray invited him to a bookie joint, the illicit ancestor of the OTB. Located above a bank closed by the Depression, the place had clerks who wrote out tickets by hand, crayon-scrawled sheets of paper listing the horses, and an announcer re-creating stretch calls from races all over the country, using information that Bilotta says was relayed by gangsters reporting in on unauthorized phone lines. Slot machines and poker games added to the noise.
Bilotta and Ray lost every bet, but Bilotta thought, What an easy way to make some fast, easy money, especially with all the racing publications readily available--it should be a cinch. ("I wasn't discouraged," he writes, "because Ray was picking all the horses, not me.")
He became a disciple of Las Vegas gambler Louis G. Holloway, who sold handicapping lessons through the mail and tips over the telephone. Holloway was a strong believer in watching the tote board. Bilotta used his methods to win $5,000 on the daily double at Arlington Park, which paid for a car and a trip to California.
By the 50s rock 'n' roll had killed off the big bands and Bilotta had three children, so he took a job as a music teacher at Charles J. Sahs Elementary School in Stickney, home of Hawthorne Race Course. School let out around two o'clock, and Bilotta would speed over to the track and play the latter part of the card.
He taught a course in handicapping at Morton College in the early 80s. ("I still occasionally meet former members of my class at the track. They do well, of course.") But it was not until he was widowed that he began writing his book, typing it on a computer in the apartment he shared with his middle-aged son, Russell, in Wheeling. Russell encouraged his father's writing, but accidentally deleted the manuscript after Bilotta had finished 70 pages.
Then three years ago Brian Garee, an old tuba student who grew up to become an accountant and professional magician, was taking a nostalgic tour of Sahs Elementary. He noticed that the gym had been named in memory of a long-dead coach, but the music room was still just the music room. "Where's Rudy's memorial?" Garee asked. Bilotta, he was told, was still alive.
Garee found Bilotta's number in the phone book and invited him to an upcoming school reunion, then made him the opening act for his magic show. Bilotta cracked corny jokes ("Will the owner of the VW Beetle with the license number WX25243607865312 please move your car? Your license plate is blocking the driveway") and played harmonica.
In November 2002, Garee's phone rang and he saw Bilotta's number on the caller ID. Garee heard his wife, Dee Dee, telling the caller, "I'm sorry to hear that," and assumed his old teacher had died. Garee took the phone. The caller was Bilotta. Russell had died from a heart attack the month before.
"I went into a complete tailspin with my mental health and my physical health," Bilotta says. "I wasn't eating at all, and my blood pressure was up. I was getting one or two hours' sleep a night. Mental depression went with that. My stomach was bothering me."
Soon after his son died, Bilotta slipped on a rug and wrenched his knee. He was released from the hospital just before Christmas. At 11:30 PM on Christmas Eve, "in the depths of my despair," he called Garee.
"We talked for two hours," Garee says. "It wasn't a merry Christmas for him. I told Dee Dee, and she suggested, 'Why doesn't he live with us?' I didn't put it in her head. It came out of the angel inside her."
The Garees have four children, but they gave Bilotta a bedroom in their Naperville home. Bilotta has chores: feeding the fish, feeding the dog, and teaching 11-year-old Moira to play piano. After Garee helped him clean out the old apartment, Bilotta gave him a copy of "The General Boyle March," a tune he'd written during World War II in honor of the commandant of the Illinois Reserve Militia, of which Bilotta was bandmaster. Show it to the band director at Neuqua Valley High School, Bilotta asked. Bilotta ended up conducting the song at the band's spring concert. The assistant director of the Naperville Municipal Band heard it, and last summer Bilotta conducted the march, renamed "Spirit of Naperville," in front of a 100-member orchestra.
"You've got a guy who six months earlier was totally depressed at the age of 88, and now he's turned his life around," Garee says. "After the march, that was the turning point."
For the rest of the afternoon at the OTB, Bilotta's fortunes rise and fall as wildly as the Dow Jones Industrial Average during a Republican administration. He hits a 2-1 winner in the third race, a 5-2 winner in the fourth, blows ten bucks on the fifth, and has a fin to place on the runner-up in the sixth, putting him up $13.50 for the day--a grand achievement considering all the side business he's carrying on around the OTB. He's handing out copies of a suburban newspaper article about his book to friends and track employees. He's posing for a photograph for this story. He's trying to ignore the rock 'n' roll oldies pouring from the loudspeakers between races.
"This music drives me up the wall," he gripes during the song "Sugar Shack." "It's children's music--short range, repetition, everything. The syllables, they have the range of nursery rhymes."
When the waitress brings him his second course, a bowl of French onion soup, Bilotta decides to serenade her with a sample of his music. From the pocket of his jacket he pulls a four-hole harmonica, barely bigger than a stick of Trident. "It's called a little lady," he tells the waitress, "because it has a ring on it, so ladies used to wear it on their necklaces, or as earrings. This song I'm going to play, if you're a saint, you can listen, but if you're not a saint, you have to cover your ears."
Bilotta plays "When the Saints Go Marching In." Then he plays a "more appropriate" song: "Camptown Races." But these are just foreplay for serious flirting.
"Do you remember an old song called 'Sweet Sue'?" he asks the waitress, because Sue is her name. She doesn't. It's from the big-band era, long before her time. Bilotta plays it for her.
"That's very nice," she says, smiling.
On a roll, Bilotta starts telling her a story about a Las Vegas showgirl with impressive cleavage. (At the end of his book, he declares, "I want to be the only 150 year old horse player who is still Viagra's best customer.") I study the program for the seventh race.
"Hey!" he snaps, catching me reading the program. "Aren't you interested in cleavage?"
In the seventh race, long shots sweep the top three spots, ruining Bilotta's $10 bet on the favorite. In the eighth he loses again, putting him down $7 for the day. As it is for so many other horseplayers, the ninth is Bilotta's get-even race.
"I'm going to play Des Arc," he announces. "He's down to 9-5. That's good betting action."
Des Arc finishes out of the money, but Bilotta also had the prudence to invest $2 in a high-risk, high-yield proposition named Keyth's Karma, who wins the race at 10-1. "I'm two dollars ahead," he declares, reading the screen on his calculator.
Bilotta finished his book this spring. Garee took the cover photo: Bilotta, holding a pair of binoculars, with one arm around a lawn jockey in the Garees' backyard. They're selling it through a horse-racing catalog and an Internet on-demand publisher as well as directly to anyone who contacts them. Now Garee has Bilotta working on a harmonica book.
"It's important to keep him busy," Garee says. "These are dreams of his that he's always had, all his life, and I pushed him. That's what God wants me to do--push."
Once he publishes the harmonica book, Bilotta wants to find an audience for "The Naughty, Naughty Astronaut," a song he wrote in 1969 to commemorate the moon landing. "I used to teach it to the children, and I had it copyrighted, but I never approached a publisher," he says. "That's in the future."
Bilotta's Value Calculating Methods for Regular Horse Players, Novices and Know-It-Alls can be purchased for $50 from A Lotta Bilotta Enterprises, 2119 Lindsay, Naperville, IL 60564.
Ted McClelland formerly wrote for the Reader under the name Ted Kleine.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.