When I set out for the race track last Thursday, I felt the way Sir Edmund Hillary must have as he contemplated Mount Everest. I had spent my life preparing for this challenge, and now I was about to make history.
At first, the idea had been a vague daydream, then an obsession. And now I was doing it: I was going to bet 43 parimutuel events in a single day.
I had been training for such a feat ever since I was an undergraduate, when my Harvard curriculum consisted of Suffolk Downs in the afternoon, Wonderland dog track at night and a poker game until dawn. But neither Boston nor Washington offered such bountiful opportunities for gambling as Miami, where I could wager on 10 thoroughbred races at Hialeah, 11 harness races at Pompano, 10 dog races at Hollywood and 12 jai alai games at Dania.
This mission would be too demanding for a single person, of course, and so I picked my support team with the care with which Hillary picked his Sherpas. I knew that my roommate, Paul Cornman, was a natural for the project when I invited him for his maiden trip to a dog track and he said he'd love to go -- as soon as he called his bookies with a round-robin pro basketball parlay. Pete Axthelm of New York and Jim Packer of Philadelphia had similarly strong credentials as gambling degenerates.
We all assembled at Hialeah, and there is no grander place on earth to make a wager. But for us, the well manicured grounds, the flamingos in the infield and the backdrop of palm trees all were secondary to another physical feature of the track. We had observed the day before that the inside part of the racing strip was harder and faster than the outside, giving horses with early speed and inside post positions an overwhelming advantage.
I bet aggressively all afternoon, trying to take advantage of the bias, but somehow found myself losing $500 after nine races. With 34 more betting opportunities ahead of me, however, I knew it was ridiculously premature to worry.
In fact, I had to wait only half an hour for salvation. I hooked up various horses with inside post positions in the 10th race perfecta and trifecta, and when they finished 2-4-1, I suddenly found myself a $2,704.50 winner for the day. All my cohorts were cashing tickets, too, but our success had caused us one problem. By the time we had collected our money, we were running late and the rest of our parimutuel schedule was in jeopardy. So we divided our' forces. Pete and Paul headed north to Pompano, which has an advance-wagering window where patrons can bet the entire harness-racing card at 7 p.m. Paul had already handicapped the program between races at Hialeah, and had mapped out $570 in communal action for us.
Meanwhile, Jim and I were speeding along Rte. 1 to Dania's advancebetting window, where I was about to employ a sure-fire jai-alai system. The night before this expedition, I had visited my neighborhood pizzeria, where the owner confided, "I put five years of jai-alai results through a computer and developed a system. It was very simple -- you just play the same 10 perfecta combinations in every game -- but I won $15,000 the first few weeks I used it."
He generously jotted the 10 magic numbers on a napkin. "Do you still use the system?" I asked. "Not since the $34,000 losing streak," he confessed.
Undeterred by his experience, I dashed to the advance-betting window at Dania, bought $360 worth of perfectas on the evening card (to the astonishment of onlookers) and dashed back to the car for our drive to Hollywood Greyhound Track.
There, at the Taj Mahal of dogdom, we regrouped with Pete and Paul, and I assured them that they were in the hands of the world's greatest greyhound handicapper. My three-for-10 performance did nothing to dissuade me. I attributed my $43 loss for the evening to sheer bad luck, and the bad senses of direction of the dogs on whom I wagered.
After the 10th race at Hollywood, we sped back to Dania, where we immediately checked the results of the first nine jai-alia games. While we had not amassed a fortune, we were not going to be relegated to the pizza business, either. We stayed to watch the 10th game, groaned as a hamhanded Basque named Ereno blew our chances for a winner, and promptly left for the long drive to Pompano.
At 12:15, an hour when all parimutuel activity had ceased in Greater Miami, we arrived at the Greenbriar Bar and Restaurant. There we relaxed over two rounds of drinks -- our first such repose all day -- until the lights darkened and replays of all the Pompano harness races began on the bar's giant screen.
Paul had doped out a 14-to-1 shot, named Alidoro, in the first race, and made our largest bet of the evening on him. We watched with excitement as Alidoro began to rally along the backstretch and we shouted as he made a big move on the stretch turn. The man at the next table doused our hopes. "He doesn't make it," he said. He was right.
We had a few other close calls, including the featured Jewish Drivers Race, where we bet on Bernstein, who lost to Levy. When the 11th race was over, our Pompano losses had screen went blank and the realization hit us: there was nothing left for us to bet.
"This is the toughest part of the day for a gambler," Pete said. "My friend Fat Jack Rusnov says his favorite night of the year is when they play the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu. Then he can be in action until 5 in the morning."
At 1:30 a.m., we were out of action. During the previous 12 hours, I had wagered a total of $3,833 in betting 21 perfectas, 18 trifectas, five quinellas and two daily doubles, and amassed a profit of $2,449.80. The money, of course, was irrelevant. There was a more meaingful reason to bet 43 perimutuel events in a day: Because they were there.