Sometimes, after visiting the cashier's window at a race track, I overhear friends talking behind my back, using such phrases as "the luckiest man alive." Pete Axthelm once went so far as to put this view into print, writing in Inside Sports: "I am now prepared to reveal the true secret ingredient of the Beyer legend. For want of a more precise term, call it luck."
Of course, I attribute such remarks to the jealousy, insecurity and handicapping inferiority of people who cannot comprehend the subtleties of my techniques and betting strategy. And I was going to show them all at Saratoga this summer.
By employing my speed figures in conjunction with visual assessments of the way horses had run, I was going to have a blockbuster meeting -- one that would be the subject of a chapter in a forthcoming book and would stand as a testimony to the effectiveness of my methods.
After 27 days of intensive gambling, I have indeed returned home from Saratoga with a healthy profit. But my cronies were still making their luckiest-man-alive gibes, and this time I will admit they may have had some justification.
For every serious horseplayer I knew at Saratoga, this was a trying season. The helpful speed-favoring track bias of previous years had disappeared; the nature of the racing surface was often hard to gauge. But this difficulty couldn't account for the astonishing wrongness of some of my opinions. When I touted a 2-year-old named Ruling Gold in this column as a virtual mortal lock, he barely raised a hoof and finished next to last.
On another day I was analyzing the daily double for a handicapping seminar at the track and proclaimed, "Maudlin will defy all logic if he wins. He cannot win! He will not win!" Maudlin defied enough logic to run within two-fifths of a second of a track record and win by 8 1/2 lengths.
With handicapping like this, I plunged into the most intensive and expensive losing streak of my life. On the 11th day of the meeting, I had lost the equivalent of a small Mercedes Benz, and I was so despondent that I started to leave the track before the ninth race.
As I did, I bumped into a source, an astute ferreter of inside information, who mentioned that he had heard a whisper on a first-time starter named Cast Party, and had a handicapping opinion on a horse named Majestic Cove. I bet, and the triple combining those two horses with the favorite paid $1,671, giving me some temporary financial relief.
But when I was left to my own devices, my fortunes continued to plummet. I sat down with the result charts to determine if I were doing something wrong, if I were overlooking some crucial factor at Saratoga, but I could find no explanation. I could only conclude that this was a random distribution of bad results. I told myself that I must not press, must not panic. Under the circumstances, it wasn't easy.
On the 20th day of the meeting, I fell in love with a horse named El Bombay. He had scored a powerful front-running victory in his next-to-last start, but in his most recent start he had encountered a buzz saw speed horse who covered the first quarter-mile in 21 2/5 seconds and ran him off his feet. Now El Bombay was meeting a field with only one weak speed horse whom he could overpower at will. When I saw that El Bombay was going to the post at 11-to-1 odds, I dug deep into my dwindling bankroll.
As El Bombay dueled for the lead, the favorite Cintula was pocketed between two horses, with apprentice jockey Eddie Bernhardt looking around in bewilderment. Finally he checked his horse sharply, dropped back and started to circle the field.
On the turn El Bombay had taken the lead, but Cintula was running like a wild horse. Bernhardt couldn't control him, though, and virtually took a detour through the cheap seats in the grandstand. Even after all this, however, Cintula kept coming and drew abreast of the tiring El Bombay with an eighth of a mile to go. I was dead.
But every time Bernhardt attempted to whip his horse, he almost fell backwards out of the saddle. He hindered Cintula so badly that he couldn't go by El Bombay; the two horses hit the finish line almost simultaneously. As I waited anxiously for the photo finish to be developed, the Daily Racing Form's track man remarked, "That's the worst ride I've ever seen in New York." It was a good thing: El Bombay's winning margin was a slim nose. He paid $25 and got me within striking distance of even.
I vowed that I wasn't going to give away these hard-won gains. The next day I played with restraint, and in the triple made a moderate investment on some conservative combinations. I played the 2-to-1 favorite on top and used the 4-to-1 second choice for second and third with all the other plausible contenders. I watched happily as the favorite won and the second choice moved into contention, and then saw some orange silks rallying between the two horses to be second. At first I couldn't even make out the horse's number, but then I saw it belonged to a 46-to-1 shot I had thrown into my combinations.
"This is one of those combinations that could pay just about anything," one of my press box colleagues remarked. Silently I hoped for a payoff close to $1,000. When the $2,119 payoff was posted, I let out a shriek, and the mutuels department sent the money to the press box with an armed guard carrying a satchel. I was a big winner for the meeting.
I am still not sure how to incorporate all this into an edifying chapter for a handicapping book. Should I tell readers to listen to hot tips from their friends? To bet horses who are five lengths inferior and hope the opposing jockey screws up? To play obvious horses in a triple and hope to get phenomenally lucky when a longshot runs in with them? Probably the lesson is that, in a game in which chance plays a considerable role, it does not hurt to be the luckiest man alive.