When the horses turned into the stretch in the seventh race here Friday, I felt the way Sir Edmund Hillary must have when he got within a furlong of the summit of Mt. Everest.
Pre Book, Lava Blast and Top Encore were running one-two-three in the six-horse field at Santa Anita, and I was enjoying the luxury of not having to worry which of them reached the wire first. If any of them won, I was going to reach the highest summit a horseplayer can imagine. I was going to hit a big Pick Six at Santa Anita. I was going to win $121,471.40
This was the very prospect that had lured me 3,000 miles, away from friends and familiar environs, this winter. Every day at Santa Anita a bettor has the chance to shoot for a tremendous jackpot as he tries to pick the winners of the second through seventh races. There is no gambling experience quite like it; certainly there is no form of gambling that so regularly permits bettors to entertain such grandiose dreams and so regularly plunges them into black despair.
In my first few weeks here I had cashed a couple of very modest payoffs, and had been haunted by what might have been. Three times I had hit five winners when the Pick Six paid more than $50,000. On Friday I made a $540 investment with no more than my usual degree of optimism, but with the knowledge that my fate would be determined quickly.
Almost everyone's Pick Six strategy requires finding one or two races in which a single horse is a standout, and then playing a number of contenders in each of the remaining races. In local terminology, a "single" has become synonymous with an excellent bet.
On Friday I had "singles" in the first two legs of the Pick Six--Ryan's Reb, who had an outstanding speed figure, and Cost Center, a first-time starter that ace clocker Jeff Siegel had assured me was a mortal lock. When Ryan's Reb won and paid $7.80 and Cost Center paid $5.80, I was in business; my ticket had all the major contenders in all the remaining races.
I won the fourth race with the 5-to-2 favorite and the fifth with a 4-to-1 shot. But it was the sixth race I thought was pivotal. The 4-to-5 favorite, Love Me True, was a fast-closing sprinter going a distance for the first time with Laffit Pincay aboard, the kind of animal Californians love and whom most Pick Six players probably made their "single." But I didn't like her credentials and had used five horses in the field. When Love Me True blew a five-length lead and one of my horses paid $22.20, I knew I had a chance for a monumental payoff.
Under other circumstances, I would have considered the seventh race an uninspiring event that didn't even merit a token bet. Now this sprint for 3-year-old claiming horses had been transformed into the most potentially lucrative of my life.
My Pick Six ticket included three of the six horses in the field, and while none of them had overwhelming credentials they were the three favorites and they seemed clearly superior to their competition.
I felt confident, but I was still having trouble holding my binoculars steady as they broke from the gate.
The race developed just as I expected. Top Encore and Lava Blast vied for the early lead, and then Pre Book rushed up along the rail to join them. They were three-abreast on the turn, fighting for the lead, but I saw one tiny cloud on the horizon.
Flint Hills, a longshot, was sitting on the rail behind the three-horse battle, waiting for the leaders to weaken and looking for racing room. He couldn't swing to the outside and so his only hope was to find a hole on the inside.
Chris McCarron was riding Pre Book, the innermost of the three leaders, and as he went around the turn I silently implored him, "Hug the rail, Chris!" He hugged it, and Flint Hills had nowhere to go.
Until the last eighth of a mile.
Then McCarron's horse started to tire and drift out a bit, and jockey Frank Olivares drove Flint Hills into the narrow opening. I implored my three horses to resist him--but in vain.
If they ran this race 10 more times and didn't grant him such perfect racing luck, Flint Hills probably wouldn't win one out of the 10. But on this day he finished a length in front of Top Encore, with my other horses third and fourth.
"Welcome to the Pick Six, Andy," said one of the hardened press-box regulars who know that such heartbreak comes with the territory here.
My feeling were ambivalent when they announced the results of the Pick Six. Nobody had all the winners; for picking five I would collect a consolation payoff of nearly $14,000.
But when I asked the mutuels department what the payoff would have been if Top Encore had beaten Flint Hills, the ambivalence changed back to gloom. I would have had the only winning ticket; it would have paid $121,471.40.
Of course, I didn't stay depressed for long. For a Pick Six player, yesterday's painful memories fade quickly, because every new day offers new hopes, new dreams, new opportunities to reach the mountaintop.