When Allen "Woody" Zais comes home from an afternoon at Laurel Park, his wife usually greets him by asking, good-naturedly, "How much did you lose today?" Zais is a small-scale bettor, and the answer is typically in the vicinity of 50 bucks.
But after he returned from the track two weeks ago, Zais did not yet know the correct answer to the question. His reply should have been: "I didn't lose -- I was cheated out of nearly $40,000."
The rigging of the Breeders' Cup Pick Six has developed into one of the worst scandals in American racing history, and by now every bettor knows the details. A tote company employee allegedly altered the wager of an accomplice after four of the Pick Six races had been run, giving them winning combinations worth more than $3 million.
Entering a computer system and altering a few digits of data sounds like an antiseptic crime. But this was a robbery as surely as if the perpetrators had mugged their victims on the street. Their faceless victims were horseplayers like Woody Zais, who now must wait and wonder if he will ever get the money to which he is entitled.
Zais, who works as a ramp serviceman at BWI Airport, has been an enthusiastic racing fan for much of his adult life. He went to the track for the first time to see the 1978 Washington D.C. International at Laurel, where he noticed that a horse named Flight Arrival was running in an early race. He made the hunch play, hit a $135 exacta with the first bet he ever placed and uttered the fateful words that have changed so many people's lives. "I said to myself, 'This is an easy game,' " Zais recalled. "I was hooked."
Zais was celebrating his 52nd birthday on Oct. 26, when he went to Laurel to watch the Breeders' Cup. He made a $32 play in the Pick Six, even though the races were difficult enough to daunt gamblers prepared to wager thousands of dollars. Though Zais's investment was conservative, his selections weren't. A long-shot player by nature, Zais had some ideas that he believed could produce big payoffs. In the Filly and Mare Turf, he liked Starine, largely because of his respect for trainer Bobby Frankel. In the Classic, he thought that all the well-regarded speedsters in the field could collapse, and he was interested in a long shot, Volponi. "I liked the fact that he was able to get a distance." Zais said. "I loved his race on the grass where he'd lost by only two lengths going 11/2 miles."
He played $28 worth of combinations and then, at the last minute, bet two more $2 tickets. These were the horses on one of them: Domedriver, Orientate, Starine, Lone Star Sky, High Chaparral, Volponi. Anybody who saw that ticket today wouldn't think that a wise guy had penetrated the Autotote computer system and played it after six races had been run. Nostradamus couldn't have come up with that ticket. But Zais did.
Zais hit the first three winners, including the 26-to-1 Domedriver and the 13-to-1 Starine, but his chance of picking six ended when his 30-to-1 shot, Lone Star Sky, finished 11th in the Juvenile behind the undefeated winner, Vindication. But he stayed alive for a consolation payoff when High Chaparral won the Turf. Then he watched with amazement as Volponi drew away in the stretch to score his shocking upset in the Classic. When the 43-to-1 shot crossed the finish line, Zais said, "The two friends with me thought I was going to pass out."
He had bet $2 to win and $2 to place on the long shot, but he was rapidly calculating the possibilities in the Pick Six. "I didn't think anybody would hit [all six]," he said. "I thought I might get $30,000 or $40,000."
When the payoffs flashed on the television screen, showing that tickets with six winners had paid $428,392 and that the pick-five consolation was worth $4,606, many horseplayers would have been disappointed. But not Zais. "I wasn't let down," he said. "This was the largest ticket I've ever cashed." He dutifully filled out the necessary IRS form at the cashier's window, collected his money and gave a happy answer to his wife's usual query when he got home.
The next day, Zais left on a four-day hunting trip in Western Maryland, where he heard nothing about the erupting Pick Six scandal. Not until he returned to civilization did he learn that Arlington Park had withheld payment of the Pick Six winnings, and that Breeders' Cup officials were saying that the money might instead be distributed to persons who had picked five.
That news should have elated Zais, but it didn't. The revelations about the fix had tarnished the whole experience for him. "This was the bet of a lifetime," Zais said. "Somebody cheated me out of the bet of my life." He has resumed going to the track twice a week as he usually does, but he said, "I'm just not in the game." Even though friends congratulate him on the pick-five payoff he is likely to receive, he has the typical horseplayer's dark, cynical outlook on life: "I have it in the back of my mind that I'm going to get cheated out of this money again."
In fact, most signs indicate that justice will be done on behalf of people who picked five winners Oct. 26. Because they had to sign an IRS form to collect, their identity is known to the Breeders' Cup, which can make proper restitution to them. The Pick Six fixers held all six perfect tickets and 108 out of 186 pick-five consolations, for a return of $3.067 million. If they are disqualified, there will be 78 legitimate pick-five tickets around the nation, and each will be entitled to a proportional share of $39,331. Belatedly, Zais should be properly rewarded for the bet of a lifetime.