By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Here, the devoted players handicap the races at Belmont in New York or Arlington Park in Chicago or Remington Park in Oklahoma City or Del Mar on the Pacific Coast or wherever. The urgent song of the track announcers becomes almost constant in the background. Like horse players anywhere--although a laptop computer has become standard equipment for the modern breed--they sit in a personally induced trance, gazing at the "Daily Racing Form." This publication produces more information--on, shall we say, Iron Soldier, a 9-1 shot in the seventh race at Chicago's Arlington Park with a lifetime record of two wins in 22 tries--than the CIA includes in its file on Fidel Castro.
What the racing form does not provide are concerns like a particular horse having sinus congestion or perhaps being mildly depressed for some equine reason on the morning of the race--the little nuances that can throw the form charts off kilter. People seated at these little desks are observing a spiritual inner awakening as they apply their individual systems. If they get too lucky, an IRS agent remains on the premises to claim, on the spot, a portion of any payoff of 10 grand or more. The IRS guy stands positioned near the pay window, sharpening his teeth with an iron file.
Infinite factors influence the handicapping formula. Breeding. Track conditions. The trainer. The jockey. Quality and class of opposition. It was recently reported that one occasional patron of Grand Prairie simulcasting will bet on any horse with an 'R' as the third letter of its name. That's why he went with Dare And Go, the horse that ended the great Cigar's amazing winning streak at Del Mar in August and paid $81 on a $2 ticket. These are but a few of the elements that comprise the arcane galaxy of parimutuel wagering. Experienced players share one and only one universal rule: Get the rent down first.
A tall man named Nick confines his Post Time Pavilion sphere to the smoking section. He does not want his last name listed in any publications. Somewhere there is a spouse or a boss who would not be pleased to learn of his whereabouts on a weekday afternoon. In fact, Nick cautions me about approaching strangers in here for interviews. "This can be dangerous territory. Some of these characters are the same ones who fix high-school football games in West Texas. Ask the wrong question and you're liable to get your nose busted," he informs me. Almost in a whisper, Nick explains that "a lot of these characters in here are dope dealers and bookies and they're laundering money. They'll pretty much cover the board on trifecta races [picking the first three horses in order], and that almost guarantees an 80-percent return...sometimes much higher."
He speaks in this very macho, gravelly voice that would be ideal for Wolf brand chili commercials. Nick gets a conspiratorial glimmer in his eye and nods in the direction of a person at a nearby desk as an example of somebody involved in that kind of activity. The person Nick has singled out is a human compost heap. That guy couldn't launder his own socks, much less a basketful of c-notes. I decide that Nick has absolutely no idea what he's talking about and advance into another area of the pavilion where the smoke and the BS aren't quite as thick.
Inside a special room reserved for heavy players, Norm Hitzges, identified by one keen observer as the HAL 9000 of sports radio, spews out racing data in monumental detail. Hitzges throws more preparation into casting an exacta wager (picking the first two horses in order) at Goathead Park than NASA devoted to Apollo 13. Among other personalities included in the VIP room, we find Dallas defense attorney Kevin Clancy, sipping Tanqueray on the rocks and seeking a big hit via simulcast since some of his clients haven't responded to some bills he has mailed.
Hitzges reviews racing form info on a horse at Remington. "Now this is an interesting animal!" Hitzges booms. Only Norm Hitzges would offer a comment like this for a creature named Warm Woman and base that observation on her recent workout clockings over one-eighth of a mile. He eventually dismisses Warm Woman as part of his trifecta boxing arrangement. "Look how it points its ears back and to the side," he says, watching the horse on the TV screen during the post-parade. "I hate that. Absolutely hate it. My dog does that whenever something scares him." One of his combinations does come home in the predicted 1-2-3 order, and in rapid succession the broadcaster hits an exacta at Belmont and not two minutes later another exacta at Arlington Park. In the time that it took Kevin Clancy to knock down his Tanqueray on ice, Hitzges won at least $3,000.
The setting in the VIP room becomes too intense, so I stroll back outside to the bar area just in time to hear a patron announce that, "If I don't cash a ticket in the next two races, I'm going next door to the track construction and jump off the roof." The bartender grins. "You won't be the first," he says.