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Playing the Horses

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The Cuban had a hunch: seven-two-one would be the winning combination in the first race at Sportsman's Park.

He had it on good word from the Mexican, who had reached this conclusion by way of complex calculations based on his daughter's age divided by the date he arrived in the United States.

And now, standing in line outside the race track in Cicero, waiting to buy a ticket, the Cuban reveals the plan to his friend, the liberal.

"That is the single most stupid reason I have ever heard for placing a bet," the liberal responds. "What does the Mexican know? He doesn't know the horses. What you gotta do is study the racing sheet."

To demonstrate his point, the liberal pays $1 to a vendor for a copy of the Sportsman's Daily News three-star sulky final.

"But that's how he plays the Lotto," says the Cuban. "And he always wins. At least, that's what he tells me."

"That's not the way the horses work," the liberal retorts, as they pass through the front gate. "This isn't some Aztec ritual. This is science, man. Advanced mathematics. You have to apply the laws of probability. Look around, see for yourself."

And sure enough, all around them, the tables in the cavernous betting pit beneath the grandstand are filled with men--most of them middle-aged--intently studying their racing sheets.

They could well be exiled barflies from a Nelson Algren novel. Some of them smoke cigars, most of them drink beers, and almost all of them, it seems, desperately need a shave.

Black, white, Hispanic, they look working class, if they work at all. But they're working now, and they're working hard. They hardly speak above a murmur. It's so quiet and serious and intense that the loudest sound in all the room comes from the Cubs game on one of several color TVs.

"Look at that guy. That's the way to do it," says the liberal. And he points to a fat Mexican in a plaid shirt peering over his glasses and comparing the racing sheets from the Sun-Times, Tribune, and Sportsman's Daily News.

The liberal opens his own racing sheet to discover a bizarre concoction of horses' names, abbreviations, and fractions that look like Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The liberal leads the Cuban from the betting room to the open-aired racetrack. It is cool, and the sky is clear and black.

In the middle of the track stands a large electronic tote board, flashing numbers that change every few seconds. No matter how hard the liberal concentrates, he is baffled. It seems as though just as he's on the verge of understanding what the scoreboard means, the numbers change.

The horses prance and trot around and around the track, preparing for the first race. A little carriage is hitched almost on top of each horse's rear. And the drivers aren't small and lithe, like the jockeys on TV. In fact, they come in all shapes and sizes.

"Hey Pighead," yells one spectator, a black man in blue polyester pants. "I hope you don't blow it for me tonight."

The Pighead in question is a driver so fat that his blubber jiggles and shakes as his sulky bounces around the track.

Meanwhile, the liberal has settled on a source of information--a clean-shaven, bulky man who, with his horn-rimmed glasses, seems to be a nice enough guy.

"Excuse me, sir," says the liberal, "but I was wondering if you would please tell me what those numbers on the tote board mean."

The man shoots the liberal a cold, impatient stare. The top numbers, he explains, are the odds. The numbers beneath are the number of people who have bet on each horse to either win, place, or show. OK?

But why do the odds keep changing?

The man purses his lips, and lets loose a rapid-fire explanation, as if to say, "Listen Bub, when I'm done talking, bug off."

"As more people bet the odds change. The way it stands now, if you bet $2 on horse one, you win 17 bucks, horse two, 24 bucks, horse eight 36 bucks, and so on."

None of these dollar amounts is displayed on the board; the man is calculating the winnings as he goes along.

"OK?" the man snaps.

"Well, thank you, sir," says the liberal, returning to the Cuban, who leans against the railing, a big smile on his face.

"It's seven," the Cuban pronounces.

"What?"

"The Mexican was right, horse number seven will win the race."

The liberal studies his racing sheet. Horse number seven is Colonel Ed, who, according to Mike Paradise, the track's handicapper, has "been far back in recent finish." His advice: "Skip again."

"Why in the world would you bet on him?" the liberal asks.

"Well, I was thinking about the number seven, when I looked up and at that very moment horse number seven passed in front of me."

The liberal is speechless.

"It confirms the Mexican's hunch."

"Would you forget the Mexican," the liberal says. "You sound like my mother. She bets on things like whether the jockey is a woman or Jewish."

"A Jewish jockey?"

"Well, maybe a Jewish owner. Anyway, listen, let me tell you how you play the horses. What you gotta do is what my father does. You play it safe, but with a little danger. You put your money on the safest possible long shot. And you bet him to show. Now, here's our horse," he says pointing to Git Well.

The thing about Git Well, the liberal explains, is that he's been sort of in a slump lately.

"How do you know," asks the Cuban.

"Shh," whispers the liberal, "I know 'cause I listen to what Mike Paradise says." The Cuban looks confused. "But no one's betting on him, he's running 20 to one."

"Perfect," says the liberal. "They're scared. They don't trust Mike Paradise. You gotta figure, Git Well's like Leon Durham. He's in a slump. But sooner or later, he's gonna break out of it. Right? If tonight's the night, we gotta be prepared."

The Cuban is not persuaded. "Listen," he says, "you do your thing, and I'll do mine. All right?"

The liberal shrugs. They return to the betting pit and stand in lines that stretch back from caged stations that resemble the booths in currency exchange operations.

As they reach the front, a black man in a white panama hat counts out $75--three twenties, a ten, and a five--and places it on Romulus Wolf to win.

"Next," says the cashier, his voice tired and bored.

"Two dollars on Git Well to show, please," says the liberal, plopping down one dollar bill and assorted change.

"You're a nickel short, guy," the cashier snarls.

The liberal panics. "Got a nickel?" he asks the Cuban.

Behind them, the Mexican in plaid impatiently fingers his twenties.

"Let's hurry up," shouts the liberal, after they place their bets. "The race is gonna start soon."

As they reach the railing, a white station wagon with portable starting gates attached slowly circles the track. Behind it trot the horses, gradually building speed for the moment when the gates will swing forward, and the race officially begins.

"And they're off!" booms a voice over the loudspeaker.

A gaggle of men rush the railing, peering over the top to see the horses racing in the far distance.

The liberal, who is nearsighted, can barely make out a thing. But the Cuban, who has new glasses, doesn't like what he sees.

The wheels of the other carriages are whirring. But Colonel Ed, his driver whipping him, looks like he's walking.

"Oh no," moans the Cuban. "The jockey. It's Pighead."

Sure enough, as the horses make the final turn and head for the stretch, Colonel Ed with his driver, Pighead, in tow is hundreds of feet behind the pack.

But Git Well is running third, neck and neck with U Betterbelieveit. They come toward the finish line, the drivers flailing, when a wiry man with a huge nose and enormous glasses rushes to the railing and, clutching his racing form, silently urges his horse on.

"You won," says the Cuban. "Git Well came in third and not that many bettors voted for him."

The liberal feigns modesty, as Colonel Ed and Pighead, his arm tired from the ride, cross the finish line.

"You slow mule, Pighead," the black man in polyester yells. "You just cost me 30 bucks."

The liberal, with the Cuban following, proudly returns to the betting cage to collect his $6.20 in winnings.

A crowd of black men sit around a television analyzing a replay of the race.

"Jesus Christ," brays a CTA worker with a receding Afro. "That's where you should have made your move, horse."

The Cuban and the liberal stare at the TV, where Colonel Ed and Pighead, as if to rub it in, are finishing last, once again.

"That's it," the Cuban says to the liberal. "You're unbelievable. You're a genius. You're like a little Dave Feldman. From now on, I'm gonna bet on whatever horse you pick."

The liberal tries to contain his surge of self-satisfaction, and studies the Mike Paradise picks for the upcoming race.

And so it goes, the liberal reads and the Cuban follows his bet, race after race. The change they win is small, but they win it steadily. After a while, the Cuban, fancying himself an expert, quotes Mike Paradise and chomps on a big cigar.

"Well," he says confidently, "I think for our last race, we follow what Mike says, go home, and have us a couple of big steaks and a six pack."

The liberal remains silent. He's not even reading Mike Paradise. Instead, he's staring at a small horse with a big driver now taking its warm-up laps around the track.

"That's our baby," he says in a gasp. "Let's bet him to win."

"Which one?" says the Cuban.

"That one, over there. Number three. B.J.'s Chance."

The Cuban looks at the racing sheet. "But he's running ten to one and Mike doesn't pick him to win."

"I know," says the liberal. "But look at his name. It's B.J.'s Chance--B.J. are my initials."

"You're kidding," says the Cuban. "You sound like the Mexican."

But the liberal is not kidding. He's serious, and very insistent. He won't listen to the Cuban. In his heart, he knows his instincts are true. The fates themselves have spoken. B.J. will win.

"I say we put all of our winnings on B.J.," says the liberal. "The odds are ten to one. If he wins, we'll leave here with a few hundred dollars."

"I don't know."

"Trust me."

The Cuban once again follows the liberal's advice and agrees to place all of their hard-earned winnings on B.J.'s Chance.

At first, it seems like a great idea. B.J. bursts from the line and takes an early lead. But as the horses round the final curve, he slows, and another horse, Duhaven Bumper, slips up from behind.

"Come on you vegetable!" the liberal screams.

"Corre, cono!" shouts the Cuban, so excited he breaks into expletives bellowed in his native tongue.

But B.J. just doesn't have what it takes. Not only Duhaven Bumper but J.D.'s Glenn, as well, passes him at the finish line.

For a long, sad moment, the Cuban and the liberal--without a penny in winnings to speak of--stare at the empty track.

"Listen here," says the Cuban after a long pause. "After this we play it straight. No more hunches, instincts, or words from the fates. From now on, it's mathematics, Mike Paradise, and the science of probability. Next time, we do it my way."

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