New Yorkers are suspicious souls, and New York harness bettors hold an especially conspiratorial view of the world. So it was very easy for the crowd at Yonkers Raceway on a recent night to conclude that it was witnessing a brazen display of larceny.
Cagey Hero was the 3-to-5 favorite and Mr. Escort the 5-to-2 second choice as the field approached the starting gate. There was so much money in the wagering pool that even a big bet shouldn't have affected the odds, but when the tote board blinked for the final time, Mr. Escort's price plunged to 4 to 5 while Cagey Hero rose to 8 to 5.
That final flurry of betting action was so strong that it suggested the outcome was a foregone conclusion, and the crowd started booing as soon as the race began. Cagey Hero went to the front, but as soon as Mr. Escort challenged he blew past the leader and took command. The boos grew louder.
After Mr. Escort had won with ease and driver Mike LaChance brought him to the winner's circle, irate bettors were screaming and throwing debris at him. The crowd was in an ugly mood for the rest of the night, and plenty of bettors probably went home with a renewed conviction that the game is hopelessly corrupt.
Rarely does the public ever learn what really happened in such seemingly suspicious circumstances. But not long ago, I happened to meet the gambler who was singlehandedly responsible for the situation at Yonkers.
Jimmy is a professional harness bettor, one of the biggest plungers in New York. "He's an absolutely fearless player," said a friend who witnessed and verified the whole Mr. Escort incident.
"I knew Mr. Escort was the best horse," said Jimmy. "It was just basic handicapping. I was going to bet somewhere between $4,000 and $6,000."
Jimmy always bets at the last moment, so he went to the window just as the field was on gait and called out his wager. Just as he started to bet, however, one of the horses failed to get up to the starting gate and the starter ordered a recall. The field had to regroup and go around the track again, delaying the start for a couple of minutes.
As this was happening, Jimmy's mutuel clerk had punched out a $1,000 wager on Mr. Escort and hit the "Repeat" button on his machine. The tickets came flying out -- and kept coming.
"Stop! Stop!" Jimmy shouted after the machine had given him his $6,000 worth of tickets. But the "Repeat" button was jammed, and the size of Jimmy's bet kept growing. It had reached $21,000 when the race started and all the mutuel machines at the track were automatically shut off.
Jimmy had only a moment to decide what to do and he didn't hesitate. "I'll take it!" he told the mutuel clerk.
Jimmy is well known at the track, and the mutuel clerk knew he was good for the money. But neither of them had to worry after the horses had gone a half-mile and the cascade of boos from the crowd told them that Mr. Escort was on his way to an easy victory.
As he collected a profit of $16,800, Jimmy might have been glad that harness racing is such a logical, honest game that he confidently could bet $21,000 on a horse who simply figured to be close. He might have been the only person at the track who held that opinion.