Each night at 11 o'clock, the same motley group assembles at the Trailways bus station. They have names like Lenny Sneakers and Mister Dirt, and they exude a monomanical intensity that might make them candidates for a religious cult.
Theirs, however, is a race track cult. Other bettors here call them the Raggies. They wait each night for the bus that delivers their scriptures, sheets containing speed figures and other data on all the horses that will race at Saratoga the next afternoon.
The figures are the creation of a New Yorker named Len Ragozin, who has brought about a dramatic revolution in the turf advisory business, and whose disciples have become a conspicuous presence at tracks throughout the East.
Ragozin learned about racing from his father, who took up the game in middle age, hired a statistician to help him and developed a sound method of calculating speed figures. Ragozin wasn't interested at first, preferring poker as a recreation and journalism as an occupation. But in the McCarthy era he felt his future with Newsweek magazine was becoming shaky because of "my Communist background," and so he took $300 in vacation pay and became a professional horseplayer.
Ragozin devised figures that took into account track condition, wind and the ground a horse lost on the turns to express his performance in an unequivocal number. He used these figures to project a horse's future performances. But Ragozin was more enthralled by the computation of the numbers than by the experience of gambling with them.
"I never really liked betting, and I never liked going to the races," he said. "I wanted to be in a position to develop the figures rather than bet."
That opportunity began to take form in the early 1970s.
"At a time when I was struggling, a guy who felt what I was doing had validity began taking my figures to the track and making money. The sight of this sloppy guy walking up to the $100 window started attracting attention, and then a friend of his asked to get the sheets."
That was the start of the Raggies. Today, Ragozin has roughly two dozen clients who pay a minimum of $20 a day for the sheets, if they are relatively moderate bettors, and 2 percent of their average daily handle if they are monster bettors, which some of them are. For their money they get a chart showing the life history, expressed in speed-figure terms, of each horse on the day's card. Ragozin makes no selections; his customers must interpret his data and come to their own conclusions.
What fascinates the New Yorkers who observe them daily is not the Raggies' methodology, but their psychological makeup and their interaction with each other.
"There is very definitely a Raggie profile," said a handicapper."They're all rich kids. They all have backgrounds as backgammon or bridge or chess players. And they're all psychos.They're like Moonies; they devote their lives to it."
And, possibly like the Moonies, the Raggies argue about which of them has the truest faith, which of them can best interpret the scriptures.
"I'm the best," announces one of the Raggies and displays his sheet for the next race at Saratoga. "You see, this horse ran a 17, then a 16 then a 13 and was laid off. Then he ran a 17 and a 20. Now he comes back and runs a 16. He figures to get better."
Another Raggie overhears this analysis and scoffs.
"You've got to have the IQ to use these sheets," he says. "Most of these guys are psychologically unbalanced. They're total social rejects."
He produces his sheet.
"Now, you see this horse ran an 18 as a 2-year-old and that's a good base. Now he comes back and runs, 22, 18, 18, 16 . . . ."
The fact that Ragozin's figures are open to so many interpretations is one of the reasons they inspire such loyalty. No doubt about it, the figures are good; even the Raggies' critics agree that the sheets can provide invaluable data at times, and they have made money for a number of their followers.
But rarely does a race go by when one of the Raggies will not be able to proclaim, "I had it! The sheet had it!" And the other Raggies do not blame the figures or blame Ragozin. They blame themselves for misinterpreting the gospel.