It was Christmas Eve, and his office party was in full swing, but Red Tucker had to excuse himself from the festivities to go to a radio and listen to the race results from Hollywood Park. After he heard the broadcast, he hurried to a telephone and made a call to confirm the amazing news. Then he told his friends that, for him, Santa Claus had come early. Tucker held a winning ticket on the Pick Nine at Hollywood, and it was worth $571,838.

The celebration was short-lived. On Christmas Day, Tucker was plunged into gloom, contemplating legal action against Hollywood Park, playing over and over again in his mind the extraordinary chain of events that had turned a horseplayers' dream into a nightmare.

Like many California racing fans, Tucker had been thinking more about horses during the holiday season than he was about reindeer. The pool in Hollywood's Pick Nine had grown to more than $1 million, and because Dec. 24 was the final day of the season, the pot would be distributed that day to whomever picked the most winners.

Tucker is an avid horseplayer under any circumstances, and on this occasion he spent some seven hours handicapping the Hollywood card. He decided on a $256 Pick Nine play, using two horses in seven of the races and a single horse in two others. He drove from his Oxnard, Calif., home to the off-track betting facility in Ventura to place his wager, then went to his construction company for the Christmas party.

He excused himself to go to his car so he could hear the race-results broadcast, and his excitement grew as he learned he had selected one winner after another. Tucker had picked eight in a row and his heart was pounding as he waited to hear whether one of his two selections -- Gypsy Prophecy and The Great Prize -- had won the final race on the turf.

"The reception on the radio was poor," Tucker said, "but I did hear the announcer say that the last race had been switched from the turf to the main track and that Gypsy Prophecy was scratched. I couldn't understand it, because there hadn't been any rain and the turf should have been in good shape."

He also learned that his horse, The Great Prize, had finished second; the winner, Fiction, paid $6, completing a Pick Nine that returned $571,873 to four ticketholders.

Under the Pick Nine rules, a wager on a scratched horse is automatically switched to the favorite. If Fiction had been the favorite -- which was probable because of his 2-to-1 odds -- Tucker had the winner because of the scratch. He immediately phoned a friend who had been at the track and asked who had been the favorite in the ninth race.

"Fiction was the favorite," the friend said. "I should know. I bet him."

Tucker started celebrating, and planning the future. "I decided the first thing I was going to do was buy a couple of racehorses," he said. But before he got too carried away, he decided to call the race track and double-check that Fiction had indeed been the favorite.

Tucker spent an agonizing 15 minutes on the phone while the track's phone operator tried to locate somebody with the chart for the ninth race of the meeting. Finally, he got the official results. Fiction had gone off at 2.00 to 1. A horse named Breakfast Table was 1.90 to 1.

Red Tucker's near-perfect Pick Nine ticket was worth nothing.

"I still didn't believe it," Tucker said. "I got up at 3 in the morning to go out and get the paper with the race results." There he confirmed that Fiction had not been the favorite. But that turned out to be the least of his frustrations.

He learned that a sprinkler that waters the Hollywood turf course had broken and saturated it, making a portion of the track unsafe. After the eighth race had been run on the grass, the jockeys complained about the condition of the course, and the race was switched to the dirt, and five horses were scratched.

Tucker was left to contemplate an agonizing set of ifs and might-have-beens:

One of Hollywood's stewards was quoted in the paper as saying that perhaps the Pick Nine should have been called off, with the pool paid to those who had picked the first eight winners.

The winner of the ninth race, Fiction, was the only horse in the field with any decent, recent dirt form; he never would have beaten The Great Prize on turf.

The ultimate frustration for Tucker came a couple of weeks later. A turf race for the same group of horses was run at Santa Anita and the winner, at 9 to 1, was Gypsy Prophecy, Tucker's horse who had been scratched. If he had run and won on Dec. 24 at Hollywood, Tucker might have won the whole pool -- more than $2 million.

Who says there's a Santa Claus?