As I studied The Daily Racing Form Wednesday morning and anticipated the great killing I was going to make in Gulfstream Park's Pick Six, I could not help but think that my triumph would be coming because of the woes of a friend.
With so many long shots winning here, nobody had been able to hit the Pick Six for a week and the jackpot was growing to a formidable level. On Tuesday, the first three races were won by horses paying $45.20, $58 and $18.20, and should have blown everybody out of contention.
But, incredibly, NBC-TV commentator Pete Axthelm had picked them all with a modest-sized investment. He hit the next two winners, too, and then watched his horse in the finale, Coup de Rouge, swoop around the field on the turn and head for a victory that was going to bring him $93,000.
A rival named Maidenhead launched a challenge in midstretch, but Coup de Rouge held her off -- until a few feet from the wire. Maidenhead put her nose in front in the last stride and snuffed out Axthelm's visions of glory.
"I woke up at 2 in the morning and I kept replaying that stretch run in my mind for the rest of the night," Axthelm said. He knew that a gambler gets few chances in his life to make a score of such proportion, and he might never have a chance like that again.
My chance was going to come Wednesday, because Axthelm's heartbreaking loss had kept the pool alive. Sometimes, the wide-open races here are inscrutable, but on this day I felt confident of my insights, especially in the first two of the Pick Six races. With $85,000 in the carryover jackpot, my partners and I invested with enthusiasm.
I had made my first two choices the linchpins of my whole play, and when they both won, paying $15 and $7.80, I knew I might be on the brink of a fantastic score. I had numerous horses in all the remaining races, and all I had to do now was root for some long shots to eliminate my competition.
I didn't have to wait for long. I let out a shriek when I saw a 12-to-1 shot named Clock Tower, whom I had used strongly in my Pick Six combinations, rally up the rail, swing to the outside and win going away. I was so elated that I didn't immediately notice the red sign on the tote board that said "INQUIRY."
Clock Tower's number started flashing, and within a few minutes it came down for swerving in front of several other horses in the stretch. This wasn't a complete disaster: the official winner was now a 19-to-1 shot named Now I Can, whom I had used in some of my combinations. But I didn't have him with the favorite in the next race, a Leroy Jolley-trained, first-time starter named Miss Hardwick.
Miss Hardwick went to the lead, but my horse, the 15-to-1 Nancy English, took up the chase. She drew within a length turning for home, cut the margin to a half-length, but that was as close as she could get. My Pick Six was dead.
Naturally, fate tormented me when my horses won the last two races of the Pick Six, and nobody at the track had a winning ticket. From the track's mutuels department, I learned what the disqualification had cost me: $73,296. If Nancy English had won, I would have collected $147,592. And why didn't I use the Jolley-trained, first-time starter on all my combinations in the first place?
Rarely have I been tormented by such a multiplicity of it-might-have-beens. Like Axthelm the night before, I tried to get to sleep, but woke up in the middle of the night tormented by the thought that I might have missed the greatest opportunity of my gambling life.