On the day that he would make gambling history, Howard Pennington had gone to Hollywood Park without grand dreams.
The San Pedro, Calif., gynecologist arrived at the track with a relatively modest bankroll (by his customary standards) and made a point of ducking his usual circle of high-rolling friends. They like to pool their funds -- sometimes as much as $7,000 -- trying to hit Hollywood's lucrative but elusive gimmick bet, the Pick Six.
"On this day," Pennington said, "I didn't have a thousand or two to plunk down." So he sat alone, trying to dope out the winners of six consecutive races. He studied them with customary seriousness, and finally formulated the $96 investment that would produce the largest single parimutuel payoff in the history of American racing.
Unlike so many big payoffs that go to little old ladies playing their phone numbers, this one rewarded a dedicated amateur handicapper. Pennington had started playing the horses when he moved to California in 1952 to establish his medical practice. He went to the track at every opportunity, on weekends and his afternoon off.
"I was a loser in the beginning," he said, "but I'm getting better every year. For the last five or 10 years I've been paying special attention to horses' appearance and I handicap principally on the basis of appearance.
"I even went to a veterinary class to learn more about horses. I throw out horses who are washy, who have kidney sweat. I throw out horses whose tail isn't relaxed against their behind. I don't like horses who have had surgery on their legs. And I keep all these things in a notebook, I don't really like the Pick Six, or even the daily double, because I like to see the horses on the track before I bet."
Unable to see the horses before the Pick Six, Pennington consulted his notebook about their previous appearance, studied the Racing Form, and resolved some of his indecision by giving preference to his favorite jockeys, Chris McCarron and Eddie Delahoussaye. Finally he filled out his ticket with two selections in the second, third, fourth and fifth races; three horses in the sixth, which he found inscrutable, and one solid favorite in the seventh.
Pennington got off to a fast start when Delahoussaye won the second race on Ourtoo Deetoo, paying $17.60, and Desert Commander won the third, paying $6.60. Both were horses who had been claimed in their previous starts and were stepping up in class, a type the doctor likes. After Argonaftis won the fourth race at 4 to 1, Pennington said, "I went around to all my friends and they'd all been wiped out. They started telling me, 'You've got a chance at a biggie today."
Pennington knew that, too, but even after Movin' Money had won the fifth race by a neck, paying $23.40, he was still not feeling confident. In the previous races, he knew, he had held reasonably cogent opinions. But the next race was an indeciperable event for maiden fillies, and the three longshots he had marked on his Pick Six ticket were all chancy propositions at best.
In the early stages of the seven-furlong sprint, all of Pennington's horses were trailing, and for a moment he may have abandoned hope. But Delahoussaye flew out of last place on a 10-to-1 shot named Lady Offshore, drove up the rail and won it in the final yards. As he did, Pennington's friends were coming to him and assuring him, "You've got it locked up."
He did. Pennington's last horse, I'm Smoking, had narrowly missed setting a world record in his last start, and was a justifiable 3-to-5 favorite. When he won comfortably, a fellow doctor/horse player told Pennington, "Keep calm," but the admonition was unnecessary. "I've never been a screamer," Pennington said.
He didn't even scream when the OFFICIAL sign was lighted and the track announcer said that one Pick Six ticketholder had won $375,897.80.
Pennington didn't cash his ticket that day. Instead he went home to study the tax consequences of his windfal. (His conclusion: they are grim.) But to his own surprise, he didn't even bother to go back to the track to collect his winnings for another two weeks.
"I used to break my neck to get out as often as I could," he said, "but after this thing I didn't." He wondered whether winning ordinary sums would now seem inconsequential and unsatisfying. He wondered if his Pick Six triumph was going to spoil the game he had loved for his whole adult life.
Last Sunday Pennington finally returned to Hollywood, identified himself as the $375,897.80 winner and collected his check. While he was there, he dabbled in the Pick Six -- and won it again.
This time the payoff was a nonhistoric $2,072.60, but Pennington still felt the same sense of challenge when he handicapped, the same satisfaction when he won. He was relieved he could still get a thrill from the game, even while knowing that the rest of his gambling life is going to be an anticlimax.