It was like watching Emily Post slurp her soup, or hearing that Ann Landers had walked out on her children. Not long ago I saw an arbiter of human behavior flaunt the very standards he had laid down for the rest of the world.
I was having dinner in New York with Pete Axthelm, the journalist/degenerate on the eve of a trip to Monmouth Park. After years condescension. I had finally begun to respect his understanding of the racing game.
Axthelm had recently written a column for Inside Sports, which was reprinted in The Washington Post, about gambling etiquette and the danger of hubris at the race track. It was full of wisdom:
"The Goddess of Wagering," Axthelm wrote, "must be appeased, soothed, tithed. She must never be affronted by statements hinting that a gambler has taken fate in his own firm grip.
"The premature gloater almost always gets punished. The execessive rooter is eventually stilled. The purveyor of certainty suddenly finds that his rent is a matter of doubt. And the bettor who claims to have everything under control is plunged into chaos."
On this particular night, however, Axthelm was not thinking about such abstractions. There was nothing abstract about the bankroll bulging in his pocket. He was talking about betting at Monmouth and about the importance of what he quaintly calls "beading" -- judging horses according to their appearance on the track before a race.
"It's important everywhere, I know," Axthelm said, "but for some reasons at Monmouth horses always run to the way they bad. For the last few days every favorite who has looked bad has run up the track. And the horses who've warmed up well! Yesterday I beaded the winner of the ninth-race triple and it came back $2,500. The day before it paid $500.
Axthelm patted his bankroll contentedly. "I may have to buy a little cottage by the seashore and spend the rest of the season up there. You know, it's possible that I might not have a losing day at Monmouth all season." (The Monmouth season lasts for 87 racing days.)
As Axthelm spoke, I thought I heard the rumbling of thunder in the distance. Was the Goddess of Wagering expressing her displeasure?
Of course She was: I will spare squeamish readers all the details of next day's events. Suffice it to say that 24 hours after this pronouncement, Axthelm was pouring down shots of Courvoisier as if they were water, trying to forget the most costly afternoon in his lifetime of gambling.
Horses who "beaded" well were losing photo finishes to being disqualified or (most commonly) running very slowly. Horses whom Axthelm pronounced lame before the race were running as if they had drunk a magical elixir.
Axthelm's experience incorporated th e most enduring truth about playing the horses. As my colleague Clem Florio likes to put it, "This game will keep you humble."
Every gambler I know has learned the same lesson dozen of times. Whenever he thinks that he has mastered the art of handicaping, and that winning has become a permanent condition in his life, he is punished.
The reason for this phenomenon is probably not mystical. Whenever people get overconfident about anything, they may become careless, imprudent, unreceptive to new ideas.
But Axthelm may be right too, when he suggests the possibility of other worldly intervention in the lives of gamblers. So the next time any of us comtemplate the purchase of a little cottage near the track that is going to make us rich, we should at last announce out intentions in a whisper that the Goddess of Waggering won't overhear.