Among the character deficiencies that marked my work in glorious Kentucky four or five years ago, was a reluctance to bet on the horses.
Grown men pointed at me and whispered behind the backs of their hands. Small children believed me weird, and women, ever sympathetic, said I would grow out of it.
Heaven knows, my boss did all he could to help me over the hump. First, he tried indirection. "Wouldn't it be a great story if you spent a week in a barn with a horse?" he once said. Perhaps he hoped the cohabitation would breed in me a desire to bet the rent on my roommate.
Out of fear that my wife would not understand me moving in with a filly for a week, I turned down the story. The sports editor grew more firm. "Churchill Downs," he said, "is 10 minutes from here. Bye-bye."
Habitues of racetracks find the most wonderful human-interest stories on the back side, where man's dreams turn either to gold or, you'll pardon the expression, to horse manure. But as far as I, a neophyte, was concerned, sports page editors of horse-racing news cared only about the entries, results and pari-mutual payoffs.
So at Churchill Downs that day, I made eight bets, losing $16, and I wrote about the adventure in thrilling detail.
I then put the $16 down on my expense account. Business expense, I figured. Cost of producing a column. Just like buying Adolph Rupp dinner.
The sports editor liked the column and hated the expense account. "Nobody said," he wrote in a memo to me, to bet real money.
I made a vow then never to bet again until I found a race track and/or bookie that would take a gold$500 bill from my Monopoly set.
That time may be closer than I'd like to think.
Sports Illustrated two weeks ago did a fascinating story on pro football of the future: In the year 2000, players made super human by bio-mechanical devices, will throw footballs 135 yards on a line to receivers rocketing -- literally rocketing -- six feet off the ground to catch them. Quarterbacks will select plays after consulting computer readouts flashed before their eyes on plastic face shields.
That was bad enough.
"Spectators in the 21st century," the story said, "will have their own computerized tote boards on which to place bets play by play."
Leave me out.
The games I love have nothing to do with computerized tote boards, wagering-by-credit card or power packs on biomechanical robot/men running with a football, each step changing the odds on the next play.
Friends have patted me on the head when I get in a pout about gambling on sports.
They tell me America is built on gambling. Stocks and bonds, Dave, are nothing but gambling. And I say it is legal, approved by the vote of a democratic society, to buy stocks and bonds while it is illegal to bet on sports events with a bookie; not only illegal but found by commission after study group to be part of the life support system that feeds organized crime.
"It's legal in Vegas," a friend said the other day.
And a Kentuckian, who pities me my old-fashioned naivete, says the tide is running full in favor of gambling. He says the NFL is so popular because it is the best gambling game there is. Honest as the day is long. Competitive to a fault, with practically every team capable of beating the spread every week. After all, this friend says, people want to gamble and there is no surer sign of that than the way newspapers handle it nowadays. Everywhere you look, gambling information, see?
I see, and I wish I didn't.
"That column on the Vegas bookie was fun," I told a Chicago writer who did a profile piece on a Las Vegas character. The sportswriter also wrote that he would have a weekly contest in the paper with the guy to see who picked the most winners against the spread. "But I wish you weren't doing that every week now."
"Oh, I'm not writing about him every week," the Chicago writer said, not understanding.
"But you're having the betting contest every week," I said.
"Yeah," he said, understanding now.
Then he moved away, lest I be contagious.
A lot of newspapers, including this one, carry information designed to help people make illegal bets (unless, of course, we carry naivete to the absurd, and believe our faithful readers, ever honest, fly to Vegas to get down on the Redskins.
That gambling information is printed on the theory that some people want to know it. Some people want to know what heroin costs. Others want to know how much prostitutes are charging these days. It is not enough to say we -- newspapers, I mean -- carry gambling information because people want it.
I wish someone could give me a good reason.