On Friday, I flew to New York to make one of the greatest killings of my gambling life.
I had been waiting for weeks to bet a colt named Royal Reunion, whose good form was thoroughly camouflaged. In one race, on a day when horses on the rail had a great advantage, he had been parked six-wide all the way around the turn. In another race, on a day when the inside part of the track was horribly disadvantageous, he had been pinned on the rail all the way.
Now Royal Reunion was being dropped in class sharply and entered in a weak claiming race that he couldn't lose. But what made this such a sensational betting opportunity was the fact that he was running in the ninth race at Belmont Park, the second half of the track's late daily double. In the other end of the double was a horse about whom I had written only a week earlier -- Shifty Sheik.
This 5-year-old had been an ordinary claiming horse until trainer Oscar Barrera claimed him at Saratoga. Barrera has become the most controversial trainer in America because of his ability to transform horses magically; other trainers have openly accused him of using powerful, undetectable illegal drugs.
Even by Barrera's standards, however, the transformation of Shifty Sheik was amazing.
After only five days in Barrera's care, he won a race at Saratoga by 13 lengths and narrowly missed the track record for 1 1/8 miles.
Now, Shifty Sheik was stepping into a tough allowance race, but the high quality of the opposition didn't daunt me.
I knew that when Barrera works his magic, all the usual rules of handicapping, as well as the laws of nature, are rendered inoperable. The Shifty Sheik-Royal Reunion daily double was a mortal lock.
When I arrived at Belmont, I could barely contain my high excitement; when the double betting began and I saw that my combination was going to pay in the vicinity of $40 for $2, I could barely pull myself away from the mutuel windows.
Shifty Sheik raced three-wide, battling for the lead on the backstretch and the turn, and took command entering the stretch. As he did, however, the stretch-running favorite, Puntivo, started to make his move on the rail.
If any other trainer had been involved, I might have been worried, but when Barrera's horses are touched with his special magic, nobody overhauls them or outduels them.
They convey the impression that they would run through a brick wall if it were necessary.
In midstretch, Shifty Sheik accelerated, going into what the locals have dubbed "Oscardrive," and easily beat his challenger, covering the mile in 1:34 4/5.
(That's the same time that the mighty Forego ran both times he won the famed Metropolitan Handicap over the same distance at this track. Not bad for a horse who couldn't win a $35,000 claimer two weeks earlier.)
When the result was official, the probable payoffs for the daily doubles were posted and the combination with Royal Reunion was worth $36.40. I stood to win more than the average American family earns in a year, and I was sublimely confident.
The stretch-running Royal Reunion sat in the middle of the pack while the front-runners set a hot early pace. One of them, New York Blues, drove to a four-length lead, but Royal Reunion was starting to accelerate strongly as he worked his way through traffic.
As he turned into the stretch, he had only the tiring New York Blues in front of him, and in midstretch it was clear that he was going to catch the leader.
As Royal Reunion was making his move, I hadn't noticed that a horse behind him was beginning to accelerate, too. When I did, it seemed unlikely that anybody was going to catch my stretch runner from behind, until I heard the announcer call the name of that horse: Oscar's Gold, trained by Oscar Barrera.
I hadn't worried about Oscar's Gold before the race, even though Barrera was training him, because his record was so dismal. He had finished out of the money in six straight races, and in his last start, against many of the same rivals he was meeting now, he had given a dull effort.
But today, it was becoming clear, he had been touched by the Barrera magic, and he was gaining inexorably on Royal Reunion with every stride.
In order to catch Royal Reunion, Oscar's Gold would have to run the last quarter-mile faster than Secretariat ever ran the last quarter-mile of any race in his career.
Even so, I sensed that it was almost futile to root against a Barrera horse when he was primed for a top performance, and my forebodings were correct.
In the last sixteenth of a mile, Oscar's Gold went into "Oscardrive" and got his nose in front of Royal Reunion one stride before the finish line.
After Oscar's Gold had run that final quarter-mile in an incredible 23 1/5 seconds to beat me, I felt the same kind of frustration and anger that Barrera's rival trainers have felt in the last three years as he has beaten them.
Like most racing fans, I have watched with equanimity and amusement as Barrera performs his feats, mostly because they tend to be so predictable (as in the case of Shifty Sheik) and it's easy to make money from them.
I never thought much about the plight of the other trainers and owners who don't have "miracles" in their arsenal, who are professionally embarrassed and financially hurt every time a Barrera horse beats them.
From now on, I will. The experience of seeing a respectable annual income plucked out of one's hands in a split second can alter a man's perspective -- and his mental health, too.