Last Saturday a lawyer in a pin-striped suit showed up at Hialeah, conducted a brief transaction in the track offices and left with a check for $305,876.80 in his briefcase.
He was acting on behalf of a client who had won the the Pic Six and had earned the largest payoff in American racing history. But after selecting the six consective winners, the lucky horseplayer had not let out a whoop, headed to the cashier's window and then to the nearest bar. He waited to cash his ticket for nearly three weeks, consulted with a tax counselor, hired a lawyer and guarded his anonymity.
As the lawyer granted a brief and very guarded interview in the Hialeah press box, I could not help thinking how wrong it was for the Pic Six saga to end this way. If there had been any justice in the world, the winner would be exulting in this triumph; he would be hosting a champagne celebration; he would be giving glib interviews; he would be shouting: "I'm king of the world!" If there had been any justice in the world, the winner would have been I.
I have played just about every exotic type of wager ever devised, but I have never experienced anything so compelling as the Pic Six. The object is to pick the winners of the third through eighth races; if nobody accomplishes that feat, half the pool is paid out to the people who selected the largest number of winners, while the other half goes into a jackpot pool that keeps growing until someone picks all six winners.
As the record jackpot began to mount, my friends and I felt (with considerable justification) that it belonged to us. We had formed a small syndicate to play the Pic Six, and on the day the pot was $33,000 one of our members proposed an esoteric horse for inclusion on our ticket. Paul Cornman had recently started working as a clocker for the Daily Racing Form, and he liked the way a filly named Copper Token had been training. The only thing he didn't like was her jockey, an apprentice named Valerie Sciaretta.
With an investment of a few hundred dollars, we hit the first four winners in the Pic Six, then watched the 38-to-1 Copper Token sprint to the lead. She came into the stretch with a two-length lead, but as one of her rivals started to gain, the syndicate shouted in unison: "Help her, Valerie!" Valerie didn't help much, and we missed sweeping the Pic Six by a margin of less than an inch. But the defeat only strengthened our determination to win it.
We learned quickly, however, that no amount of capital makes hitting the Pic Six easy. Use three horses in each race and the ticket costs $1,458 (3x3x3x3x3x3x$2). Add just one more horse in one of the races in the price goes up to $1,784. Because of this arithmetic, every decision on every horse is critical. I would find myself waking up at 4 a.m. thinking: "If we threw out our third horse in the fifth race, we could use . . . " The syndicate's discussions on the composition of our ticket often got heated, and despite the open-mindedness with which I considered the ideas of others, my partners nicknamed me "Peron."
On the day the jackpot had climbed past $200,000, even Peron felt a bit unsure of himself. The third race--the first leg of the Pic Six--was an inscrutable field of maidens with a shaky favorite named I'm Pure Gold and an assortment of lightly raced horses with little form. Finally we agreed to use I'm Pure Gold and one longshot on our $2,200 ticket, knowing that if we got past this hurdle we had the other races virtually locked up.
Two bad horses were dueling along the rail when our horse began to rally and the track announcer shouted: "Here comes I'm Pure Gold charging down the middle of the track!" With a sixteenth of a mile to go, any horseplayer would have felt that he could safely head for the cashier's window. But this despicable, craven animal refused to go by the tiring leaders and somehow managed to lose by a length.
At the time, this was merely annoying. But after our Pic Six ticket included the next five winners, most of them longshots, we realized that I'm Pure Gold's loss had cost us the whole pool: $290,000. Our five winners produced a consolation payoff of $25,000, but it is a measure of the way the Pic Six warps one's view of money and life that we all felt vaguely depressed anyway. The real consolation was the fact that the Pic Six jackpot was still intact, and we still had a chance to win it. One of our rival Pic Six investors pointed out, however: "If you win it tomorrow, you'll have picked 11 winners in a row. What are the odds against that?"
I was undaunted. I was awake before dawn poring over the Racing Form, and when I wasn't studying I was fantasizing about the joy and glory that would accompany the triumph. (I would suggest the lead for the wire-service story: "The author of two books on betting the horses put his methods to work at Hialeah Park today and collected the largest payoff in the history of American parimutuel wagering.")
At the track I alerted the man who runs the press box snack bar that he should be prepared to order a case of champagne after the eighth race. Then the syndicate met and agreed to invest $4,400 in the Pic Six.
We won the first four races, and we needed a colt named Count Francesqui to win to give us a share of the jackpot. But we had only a moment's glimmer of hope. Count Francesqui launched a rally on the final turn, but it was an abortive one, and he finished third behind a 17-to-1 shot which (mercifully) we had never even considered for our ticket. We wound up with five winners out of six, again, but this time there was no consolation. The unidentified client won the entire $382,344.80 pool (less Uncle Sam's 20 percent), and we were left only with our fantasies of the press interviews and the champagne parties that might have been.