When I die and am perforce removed from the nation's race tracks, I will be pleased if my section of Heaven bears some resemblance to the Rose Bowl Race Book.
The little bookmaking establishment on the Strip has few amenities, just long rows of tables where horse players can spread out their racing forms. And it has only a few decorative touches; candy-striped wallpaper, photographs of Eddie Arcaro and Johnny Longden. But no gambler would care about such esthetic deficiencies when he gazes at the board listing all the day's entries at Laurel, Aqueduct, Los Alamitos, Bay Meadows, Hawthorne, Calder and Keystone and knows that he can bet all 66 of those races, plus those at most other tracks in the country, plus quinellas, exactas and as many parlays as he can conceive.
There are fancier race books in town; the Stardust Hotel is the Taj Mahal of bookiedom, a plush, wood-paneled amphitheater where customers sit in leather chairs and have partitioned desks with rheostats by which to read their racing forms. But instead of catering to tourists, as the big hotels do, the Rose Bowl is a hole in the wall frequented by local horse players, and this clientele gives it a special flavor. The citizens of this community do not usually wind up here by happenstance; they are a special breed drawn to Las Vegas by special obsessions.
This sort of obsession is epitomized at the Rose Bowl by a regular named John. He was an insurance executive in Omaha, running three different businesses, when he decided to direct his computer expertise from actuarial to equine matters.
"I worked on a program for 3 1/2 years," he said. "I looked at the results and worked backward, eliminating factors from the program that didn't affect its performance." When he completed the program to his satisfaction, he quickly found that nine races a day at his hometown track couldn't satisfy his appetite for action.So he moved to Las Vegas a few months ago, installed $31,000 worth of computer equipment in his house and started bringing his printouts to the Rose Bowl every morning.
"I'm breaking about even," he said.
The action at the Rose Bowl starts at 9:30 every morning, post time for the first races at Laurel and Aqueduct. Three or four sellers are writing out the betting slips, and a public address system that serves all the town's race books gives out a steady stream of results and information, including delayed, simulated calls of the races from New York and California. Never seeing a live horse hardly seems to bother any of the Rose Bowl's clientele.
On Saturday a regular named Sid, wearing a powder-blue jogging suit and smoking a formidable cigar, asks John, "How about this horse Pitman in the first at Bay Meadows?" And loudly recites the virtues he perceives in the animal's dismal past performances. John looks at his printout and notes that Pitman's probability of winning is 3.96 percent. (John's computer doesn't mess around with ambiguity). But Sid is committed, makes his bet on the 40-to-1 shot and listens to the call. It's Pitman going to the lead!
"Come on Gonzales," Sid yells, exhorting a jockey hundreds of miles away to win a race that already has taken place.
It's Pitman leading by two as they turn for home!
"I told everybody about this horse! Everybody!" Sid yells breathlessly.
As they come to the wire it's . . . an inquiry!
Sid almost swallows his cigar. Since the call is a re-creation of an already concluded event, he does not have to wait long to learn that Pitman has been disqualified. The horse pays $30.20 to place. Sid bet only to win. h
"How could they take him down?" Sid asks plaintively. "He never touched anybody."
This, of course, is what he would have concluded if he had been watching the race live at Bay Meadows, so not seeing it won't affect his perception. But while average horse players are content to invent their own reality, experts understand that seeing races, observing track conditions and knowing actual odds are crucial. Handicappers with access to this vital information have a much greater chance of success than do the Rose Bowl customers, despite their wider betting opportunities. So even though the race books are theoretically taking a risk of losing money -- they pay track odds and are not protected by a parimutuel system -- they almost never do.
"A lot of guys in this room are as good at handicapping as anybody in the world," says John Bennett, manager of the Rose Bowl, "but I have no fear." wHe says his operation makes a profit of 11 or 12 percent on every dollar bet. A competitor says the figure for all the Vegas race books is actually 15 percent.
If the race book operators don't fear losing to handicappers, they do worry -- often to the point of paranoia -- about being beaten by inside information. If a sharp trainer is trying to execute a betting coup or larcenous souls are fixing a race at a medium-sized track, they could not bet enough through the mutuel windows without ruining their odds. Instead, their money likely will wind up in Las Vegas, and a man who knows the ropes here could get $10,000 in bets on a horse around town.
So the race book operators watch vigilantly for evidence of smart money and the whole town hums with the flow of information. All strangers are suspect. When I wandered down the Strip from the now-familiar Rose Bowl to the big Santa Anita Sports Book and attempted to place a modest $70 wager on a short-priced exacta at the Meadowlands, I felt like an out-of-town gunslinger barging into a Western saloon. The suspicious ticket seller would not take my bet.
When a stranger does put down a big bet on a "smart" horse, the information travels fast.
"This town has the most incredible grapevine you've ever seen," Bennett said. "by the time a guy has made a big bet at Churchill Downs and starts walking here, the news will have moved up the Strip before he's halfway down the street."
Pretty soon that horse will be officially designated a "steamer," the horse players here will be scrambling to hop aboard the bandwagon and the race books will let them make only token bets.
The steamers lose far more often than they win. While there are a few well-connected local gamblers who do have sources of reliable information, bet with discretion and win consistently, their numbers are few, and not enough to keep the race books from being more profitable than any craps table or roulette wheel.
But who could begrudge a business a healthy profit, when it lets you sit, transfixed in front of the big board for eight hours at a stretch, parlaying the first race at Laurel to the 10th race at Los Alamitos, fulfilling a horse player's dream of nonstop action?