When he got home from Santa Anita, Craig Phillips telephoned his his brother, a fellow horseplayer, and said: "You won't believe what just happened."
This was a rather safe proposition, because Phillips had done something that no horse bettor had ever done before, and that few have even dreamed of. He had left the track with a winning parimutuel ticket that was worth $1,906,491.90.
Until he collected this historic payoff on Santa Anita's Pick Nine, Phillips' chief distinction was the fact that he hadn't held a regular job for more than a decade. Since he left a position as the manager of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, he had played the horses, and he had played poker in southern California's legal card clubs, and he had survived.
Even so, no amount of gambling success could make a rational man think he was going to win the Pick Nine. The odds against winning it are so staggering that many serious gamblers here don't even try. But when nobody had hit the gimmick in three weeks, and the carryover jackpot had grown to $1.3 million on Feb. 1, Phillips wanted to take a shot.
He spent three hours handicapping the Santa Anita card, and he liked the possibilities. In addition to a couple of solid favorites, he was especially enthusiastic about a long shot named Bedouin in the ninth race. The track was muddy, and he remembered that Bedouin had scored a 15-length victory in the mud some three years before.
Phillips went to the track with two friends and joined them to make a $2,200 investment in the Pick Nine. But they had some disagreements about certain horses -- the friends didn't share Phillips' opinion on the ninth race -- so Phillips played two other tickets of his own, costing $376.
The partners hit the first five winners, but their $2,200 ticket was knocked out when the odds-on favorite lost the sixth race. Phillips remained alive on one of his small tickets, but just barely; he had only one selection in each of the remaining races.
News of Phillips' situation traveled quickly around the clubhouse dining room where he was sitting. There is frequent wheeling and dealing for live tickets at Santa Anita, and one gambler approached Phillips and offered $40,000 for a one-third interest in his ticket. Phillips declined.
When he won the seventh race with an odds-on favorite and the eighth race with a 3-to-1 shot, Phillips was approached by another gambler who offered $100,000 for a half-interest in the ticket. Again, Phillips said no; this was the race in which he had so much confidence, even though his horse, Bedouin, was being dismissed by the crowd at 13 to 1.
The gray horse was running dead last for the first half-mile, but he started to accelerate on the backstretch and swooped around the field on the turn. As he wore down the leader to win by three-quarters of a length, Phillips let out a whoop and then started walking briskly toward the parking lot; he was a little nervous with a $1.9 million ticket in his pocket.
He hadn't reached the exit when the public-address system disrupted his euphoria:
"Ladies and gentlemen, please note, the stewards have called for an inquiry . . . "
Bedouin had bumped another horse while he was making his winning move, and now his number was blinking on the tote board.
"I was pacing back and forth in the grandstand," Phillips said. "I was almost in shock, but I still felt really good and confident the number was going to stay up."
On this day, the gods were not going to desert Craig Phillips. As soon as the word "official" appeared on the tote board, he went quickly home. He put the ticket in a safe-deposit box, spent a few days consulting with a tax lawyer and an accountant, and only then introduced himself to Santa Anita officials, who happily arranged a news conference.
Santa Anita's management had instituted the Pick Nine as a form of competition with the state's popular new lottery, and the track probably wanted the winner to be a little old lady who invested $1 and played the digits of her Social Security number.
They should have appreciated the fact that Phillips was the perfect winner, the embodiment of racing's great appeal -- that by handicapping intelligently and betting boldly, a gambler can reap great rewards.
When the television interviewers asked Phillips the question they ask of all lottery winners -- how would his life be changed? -- he gave the answer any true horseplayer would give: Not much. Yes, he'd buy a new house and a couple of racehorses, and he'd have to worry about tax shelters, but he said, "I enjoy what I'm doing now."
Would there be any thrill left? Would his gambling life be one big anticlimax after winning $1.9 million? "I thought about that," Phillips said. "But a couple days ago, I came out here and I won a little bit -- about $2,000 -- and the excitement was still there."