My biggest score
You may notice this report does not have a byline. There is a reason for anonymity. In 1995, at age 25, I was the mastermind of a criminal gang, a diverse crew of five racetrack aficionados.
We were a mixed bag of racing nuts. We each had a nickname for a preferred method of wagering on harness horse races. Mark, a plumber, was known as “Showtime” because he only wagered to show. Larry, “The Exactor Raptor” worked on the Chevy plant assembly line. Ronnie, a retired mailman, was dubbed “Late Delivery” because he waited to see the last flash of the tote board before plunking down his wager. Otto, one of the first computer repairmen, was a hunch player we named “Plates” because he jotted down the license number of the last vehicle parked in row C and used the numbers in his wagering.
We met at the harness racetrack and somehow morphed into a band of brothers. At five o’clock every Friday night, we gathered at the McDonald’s in front of the Bellville Shopping Mall. I arrived in my 1985 Dodge Van, the wheelman for a carefully orchestrated caper.
I worked out of the backroom of my uncle Phil’s printing company, Quick Print Inc, a brick box of a building in the industrial parkway. My specialties were business cards, wedding invitations and napping in a folding chair near the coffee machine.
Our scam began at lunchtime each Friday when I drove to the Rexall Drugstore, purchased a copy of the Friday night harness race program and returned to the print shop. Using company equipment, I reproduced four copies of the race program for the crew. Each member already had their clubhouse pass that I artfully forged and laminated.
We gathered a table in the kids’ playroom of McDonald’s. There were rarely any children diving into the giant net cage filled with colorful balls, possibly due to the five animated men sitting close by and waving their arms. I distributed the programs and we got to work eating fast food, chatting about world affairs, gossiping and handicapping. At a quarter to six, we all hopped into my van and I chauffeured the crew a mile to the harness racetrack and paid the $2 parking fee.
In 1995, racetracks still charged customers for parking, programs and entrance. Due to my plagiarized race programs, forged documents for entry, car-pooling and clogging up the McDonald’s parking lot, each crew member saved six bucks. Six dollars may not seem like a lot of money, but none of the crew had much money. I still lived in my mother’s basement, the air conditioner in my van had died years ago and my muffler dangled from a twisted coat hanger.
As we settled into our grandstand seats every Friday, every single Friday, Ronnie chirped, “This is a sweet deal. Three races on house money.”
The statute of limitations allows me to describe my print shop misadventures, but this is all just background to the evening of May 5, 1995.
My wager was always the same, a five-race parlay. Therefore, my nickname was “Sir Parlance-a-lot.” When, or if, I won a race, I let all the winning money ride, bet all my winnings on the next race and repeated the process. The night of the big score began innocently when my wager of $2 on a 3-1 shot got home in a photo finish in the first race. My payoff was $8. I cashed the ticket and while still at the window, I placed all the money on a 5-1 shot, a trotter, that won the second race easily.
I will not bore you with a play-by-play or a significant buildup. I won the first four races. The crew began to pay close attention when I wagered $190 on the fourth race, my largest wager of all time by $120. Soon, my blue and yellow Hawaiian shirt pocket bulged with $1,840. My heart rate was in the same range.
Everyone knew I preselected one horse in each race because I circled my choices and drew stars around the circles. I often bragged about these selections. My choice in the fifth race was a long shot, a very long shot. The number five had a circle and stars resembling a giant eyeball staring back at the crew and me. On the tote board, the five, a pacing filly, was 22-1.
I stuttered when I asked our resident mathematic whiz, Plates, “Wha, what, what would the payout be if I bet it all on the five?”
He trembled, thought for about 30 seconds, and croaked, “A lot.”
“That much?” I asked.
“Well, if you wager all that money in your pocket, the odds will go down.”
“Ballpark me,” I whispered.
“Fifteen, 20 grand.”
Showtime moaned, “I might pee my pants. Seriously, I can’t take this.”
Late Delivery held his hands on his head, walking in small circles, muttering.
Where is the dividing line between excitement and terror? My mind was a kaleidoscope of adrenaline, testosterone, calculations and fear. The clock was ticking. Visions of a new van, cocktails on the sands of Aruba, or buying a yearling all danced in my head. The crew was as rattled as I was. Someone would start to say something and stop as if they did not want to have fingerprints on the looming decision.
When the announcer boomed, “Two minutes, two minutes to post.” Eyes darted nervously. I turned and headed for the $50 betting window and my crew followed like a funeral procession. The $50 window was open, so any thoughts of being shut out as an excuse vanished. I still did not know what words would come out of my mouth when I got to the teller.
I placed my wager. The clerk looked at me and raised an eyebrow. I handed him the money; he punched the tickets.
The crew silently headed toward the grandstand. I walked to the parking lot in a daze.
Seven minutes later, the slapping of palms on the van windows and smiles told me the results. I got out of the van to a handshaking and back-slapping flurry.
Late Delivery asked the question. “Did you bet it all?”
After a pregnant pause, I shook my head no.
The crew remained silent.
“I bet $55 to win, $55 to place and $55 to show.”
Nothing but silence hung in the air as we all did the math in our heads. There were a lot of variables, taxes and the odds fluctuated just before the machines locked. When the dust settled, my winnings were slightly over $3,500, the most money I ever won at the racetrack, my personal best.
An hour later, we sat in my van, relaxed, like soldiers smoking cigarettes in the trenches, discussing the last battle. We began to rationalize.
The Raptor said, “The long odds is what screwed things up. The five did not look like a good play. Think of it like this, if you had picked the chalk and wagered the whole $1,800 on the chalk, you would be about where you are, financially.”
Late Delivery said, “Yeah, the 20 grand thoughts were illusionary or delusionary. They mess with the normal thought patterns of human beings. It’s hard to think straight with that much money on the line.”
Plates took a philosophical viewpoint, “Three grand, 20 grand, in the grand scheme of things, what’s the difference?”
I turned the ignition key and pulled forward when we heard a thump, scraping and a tremendous roar through the open windows as my muffler fell off.
Showtime shouted over the roar, “And you can afford to fix that tomorrow.”
Good or bad day. What do you say?