It was an embarrassing moment that could have made Miss Manners wince.
Jimmy Wolbach had taken his financial advisor to lunch at a fancy New York restaurant, but when he called for the check -- which totaled $60 -- he discovered that he had left his billfold at home. Then he discovered to his further chagrin that his companion had only $24 (and no credit cards) with him.
But the inventor of Jimmy Wolbach's Famous 500-Point Handicap System wasn't worried. Unhesitatingly he asked his friend for all his cash, excused himself from the restaurant, went to a newsstand, bought a Racing Form and headed for the nearest off-track betting parlor. Jimmy hastily applied his system to the next race, invested his remaining $22 and awaited the inevitable.
"Within half an hour," Jimmy said, "I was back at the restaurant, paid the check, returned the borrowed $24 and still had $141.40 more cash on me than when I left my home that morning. Easy? As easy as pie."
Jimmy related this tale in a letter (under the salutation "Dear Friend") in which he announced: "I guarantee you an unheard-of profit of at least $250 a day -- minimum -- for the next 30 days or else you pay me nothing . . . You can keep pocketing these riches for as long as you want . . . It's a well that never goes dry -- because you can even pass it on to your loved ones when you feel that you've made more than you can handle.
"Unbelievable, isn't it? But true! True as my name is Jimmy Wolbach. That's right -- I'm the one and only Jimmy Wolbach."
To anyone whose name appears on any gambling-oriented mailing list the rest of the pitch is familiar. For a mere $20, the writer is willing to sell his system for beating the races, accompanied by a money-back guarantee if it doesn't generate instant riches.
And to anyone who spent $20 in this case, the nature of Jimmy Wolbach's Famous 500-Point Handicap System is pretty predictable, too -- a collection of simple-minded rules that any novice horseplayer could throw together (for example, give a horse 100 points if his weight is not more than two pounds greater than he carried in his last start).
Yet one thing made this system unique. One of the potential customers in whose hands it wound up was the Consumer Protection Division of the U.S. Postal Service, which claims Jimmy is a bit overenthusiastic.
The postal officials had an expert test the system -- which, not surprisingly, produced an overwhelming loss -- and then filed an administrative complaint alleging fraud in the promotion of it. No response has yet been filed by the recipient. Also, Wolbach's attorney said he would prefer not to comment at this time.
There was one bit of candor in the letter, when the writer said his promises were "true as my name is Jimmy Wolbach." A Postal Service attorney noted that "he (Wolbach) is known, to his parents, as the one-and-only Isaac Oberndorfer."
This governmental vigilance is, I suppose, a good thing. Certainly, it is a rare thing. Race track owners and racing officials tend to view horseplayers as lambs who have willingly ventured to a slaughter, rather than as customers who deserve a measure of protection. It's comforting that the Postal Service views us as consumers who ought not to be fleeced.
And yet, I hope that the government won't get too vigorous in protecting us. Not only do these outrageously hyperbolic claims make wonderful reading, but they may teach a valuable lesson.
When I was a fledgling horseplayer I once succumbed to a mail-order pitch. It came from one J.K. Willis, who described his discovery of "the long-sought solution, the secret of beating the races -- a simple wonder-working formula of figures which . . . picked the probable winner in every race and gave a Daily One Best that proved the surest thing in turfdom."
Alas, Willis was stricken with acute rheumatism and forced to move to an area without racing. "I am now confined to an invalid chair," he wrote. "Killing time is a problem. To help pass the slowly moving hours and divert my mind from my physical condition, I decided to teach my system to others."
This he would do for a $10 down payment, and $15 after I was fully satisfied with the Master Key System. I took the bait and, of course, found that the Master Key System was typically simplistic and ineffectual.
It didn't take too much of a leap of imagination from this discovery to learn that there are no easy answers at the race track, that a horseplayer has to stop looking for shortcuts and grapple with all the complexities of the game if he wants to be successful. Ten dollars was a small price to pay to J.K. Willis for this revelation, and perhaps some of Jimmy Wolbach's customers will be similarly enlightened.