When the 1977 Pimlico season was one race old, I strongly suspected that I was about to win a fortune.
In that first race, a filly named Favored Child broke from post position one, hugged the rail and led all the way. Lady Green challenged briefly from the outside then dropped to the rail and followed the leader around the track. The order of finish, by post position, was 1-4-3-2-5.
The inside part of the track was evidently much harder and faster than the outside, and the horse who took the early lead on the rail would become an almost automatic winner. These conditions had occasionally existed at Pimlico in previous years, but I had been confounded by them. I adhered to my normal handicapping principles so dogmatically that I could not abandon them. But by 1977 I had learned that on a track like Pimlico's the bias means everything. A horse's figures, his class, his physical condition are all secondary.
By playing horses with early speed and inside post positions, I hit all even exacts on the opening-day program and won $5,800. A few day later I thought a fast filly named Dixie Spears, breaking from No. 4 post was a cinch to win the ninth race. I coupled her in the triple with speed horses in posts 2, 5 and 6. The 4-26 combination paid $334 and I held 20 winning tickets. With the season one week old, I was $11,000 ahead.
As my winning streak gathered momentum, I learned a valuable lesson about the psychology of gambling. One night I was celebrating my success at Pimlico in a number of Georgetown bars and informed my cronies that I loved a horse at Aqueduct the next afternoon. The next day I woke up late, made an unsuccessful attempt to contact a bookie nd rushed to Pimlico. I forgot about my New York horse until that evening, when friends started telephoning me to offer their thanks for the $1820 winner.
There was a time when such a missed opportunity would have impelled me to drive my fist through the nearest wall. I would have been frustrated by the realization that I should have won thousands of dollars, and my handicapping might have been adversely affected for days or weeks. But this time I could shrug off the whole experience, because I knew for certain that I was going to win at Pimlico the next day or the day after.
Suddenly I understood what enabled great professional gamblers to remain cool and unflappable in the face of adversity: they had complete confidence in the inevitability of their own success. Any loss was only a temporary setbck; it wasn't worth worrying about. For the first time in my life, I was developing this sort of self-confidence. I knew that as long as the bias existed at Pimlico, I was going to win.
On May 26, I won more than I had ever won in a single day. I was at Pimlico to bet a filly named Bee Nun, a front-runner, breaking from post position two, but my thoughts and prayers were with Just John in the eighth race at Monmouth, which I had bet with a bookmaker.
When Bee Nun led all the way to pay $14.40, I collected more than $4,000. But I could not savor that windfall as a friend drove me back to Washington. I was staring at my watch, counting the minutes until post time in New Jersey. Finally we stopped at a phone booth, where I called my sports department and asked for the Monmouth result. Waiting for the answer was more nerve-racking than watching the race. Then it came: "Just John. Fourteen-sixty." I bounced out of the phone booth, embraced my friend and yelled. "I did it." I had just experienced the first $10,000 day in life as a gambler.
Afer hitting a spectacular pair of winners like Bee Nun and Just John in the same afternoon, I ordinarily would have celebrated and rested on my laurels for a few days. But I was so excited that I couldn't relax; I felt so obsessed that I couldn't divert my thoughts from gambling for even a short time. When I came back home from the track, I would immediately begin to work on my figures, study the next day's races and think about them all evening. At night I slept fit-fully, and when I did I dreamed about horses instead of Candice Bergen. I thought I had outgrown this sort of feverishnes in my youth, but I had never experienced such a winning streak before. It was hard to keep my feet on the ground while I was living out a fantasy and averaging nearly $2,000 every time I passed through the turnstiles at Pimlico.
Two days after Just John's victory, I bet $400 on an exacta coupling Tale and Resound in the City of Baltimore Handicap. The combination paid $43.20 and I collected $8,640, the largest one-race score of my life. Two days later the Pimlico season was over. During the course of it I had made 16 trips to the track, won on 13 of them, amassed a net profit of $34,073 and driven myself into a state of mental and physical exhaustion. I wanted to quit gambling for a while, but I couldn't. I was still at the crest of a great winning streak; my handicapping was as sharp as it had ever been; I knew all the Pimlico horses and now they were moving to Bowie.
I went to Bowie on opening day, bet $1,200 on a mare named Double Skip and watched her finish a distant and inexplicable fourth. By the end of the afternoon I had lost $2,500 and I was not finished yet. From Bowie I drove to Rosecroft Raceway, where I utilized my total ignorance of harness racing to bring my losses past the $3,000 mark and establish May 31 as the most expensive day of my life.
I have no basic self-destructive instincts, but on this day I believe I was subconsciously trying to lose. I could not stop gambling while I was in the midst of a torrid winning streak. But on the night of May 31, I could proclaim that the streak was over. The next day I didn't even look at the Racing Form. I lingered over a long lunch at Le Bagatelle, lingered over a long dinner at Duke Zeibert's, romanced a leggy blond that night and felt as if I had rejoined the human race.