At this point in my wagering career, I was intent on developing my own "style," and my behavior at the track consisted of a series of superstitious tics. After any reasonably meaningful bet, for example, I would settle myself about 20 feet straight back from the finish line and not move from that spot until the race was official. I would hold the tickets in my left hand, pressed against the side of my left thigh. Silently, acknowledging no one, I would stare at the tote board, trying to interpret the meaning of every odds change, no matter how slight. And I would frown because I believed that God hated a haughty gambler.
On this night, because of the large crowd I was forced to take up a position slightly to the left of my usual spot, which may explain all that followed. The race started well enough, with Brown Jet settling in behind the front-runners, who were wearing themselves out fighting over the lead, but well ahead of Lang Hanover. Coming to the three-quarters pole, Brown Jet burst out of the pack and flew past the leaders to open up a three-length lead. In another breach of personal tradition—was this the fatal error?—I brandished my tickets in Eisner's face and screamed, "I got a freight train here! An immortal freight train!" By the time I looked back at the track, Lang Hanover had shaken loose and was closing on the suddenly mortal Brown Jet. The two horses hit the finish line together, and I felt a raindrop land on my head. "Who won?" I asked Eisner. He shrugged, and it started to rain harder. Eisner urged me to join him in a sprint for the grandstand. The finish was so tight, he figured it would take track officials a long time to examine the photo. But I remained true to my principles, refusing to abandon my lucky spot.
As the minutes dragged on and the rain poured down and no winning number went up on the tote board, I got drenched. Finally, after 20 minutes, a number went up. The wrong one. I ripped off my jacket, threw it to the ground and started jumping up and down on it, Rumpelstiltskin in the wide concrete expanse of Roosevelt's infield. Suddenly Lang Hanover's number started blinking; the driver of Brown Jet had lodged an objection against the driver of Lang Hanover for interference in the stretch. If the judges upheld the objection, I would be a winner. Where were those tickets? I found them under my jacket, wet but legible, and I squeezed them ever tighter as time stood still and puddles reached out to each other to form a lake. Then, as suddenly as it had started, Lang Hanover's number stopped blinking. The judges had disallowed the objection. Eisner appeared out of nowhere and gently led me back to the shelter of the grandstand.
Unfortunately Eisner had a ritual of his own. He liked to park his expensive sedan five blocks from the track to save the dollar parking fee. He could well afford the dollar, but he refused on principle. "It's bad enough we have to pay admission to be allowed to lose our money to these crooks," he would say. "Besides, it's good exercise." Probably true, on drier nights. On this night we arrived at the car bedraggled, broke, water sloshing around in our shoes, to find all four tires slashed.
In retrospect this was merely the first of many pari-mutuel disasters that, ironically, would eventually free me from the dangerous delusion that it was desirable, let alone possible, to win money betting on harness races. Before enlightenment descended, however, it was necessary to wander in the wilderness a while longer, specifically Hinsdale (N.H.) Raceway. By this time I had made the acquaintance of the Buffalo, a growly, grumpy, lumpy baked potato of a man who would soon lead me further astray. Born and raised in the Bronx, the Buffalo exuded a world-weariness that befitted an aging French whore, though he couldn't have been much more than 30. When he conversed at all, it was usually to dismiss some poor nag or other: "That's no horse; that's hamburger." More often he communicated in gestures. If, for example, you asked his opinion of something suspicious or untoward or just unusual that happened in a race, he would smile enigmatically, shrug and gaze off over your shoulder, his eyes blank and pitiless, as if to say, "What can you expect from these thieves." The Buffalo's religion, like that of many a veteran horseplayer, was paranoia, an unshakable conviction that the malevolent gods of his universe, the track, existed only to toy with him. On those frequent occasions when things did not go his way, he would mutter, "I'm so sick about it," and casually threaten to commit suicide. A master of verbal compression, he soon shortened this to "I'm so sick." Then "I'm sick." Then "I'm ssss." And finally only a sibilant hiss that would have perplexed any recent acquaintance.
Despite these and other equally Dickensian idiosyncrasies, someone gave the Buffalo a horse to train. Well, three quarters of a horse. In his prime Seldom Safe had been an honest low-level claimer on the New York circuit, but that was yesterday. Most cheap claimers are somewhat lame much of the time, but like aging professional football players, they learn to compete despite their ailments. Seldom Safe, however, was so unsound that he had no chance to cash a check, and on those rare occasions that he was healthy enough to start a race, he would finish limping on his three "good" legs. Somehow the Buffalo had convinced Seldom Safe's owners that he could nurse their horse back into racing shape in the restorative hills of New Hampshire. I would not have been more astonished if a mother had commended her infant daughter to the care of Billy Martin.
After a few months word drifted back that the Buffalo—a compassionate, nurturing Buffalo previously unrevealed—had performed a veterinary resurrection. I tried to picture him, week after endless week, patiently rubbing down Seldom Safe's throbbing legs as cigar smoke rose in the chill, morning air. Seldom Safe was not only ready to run, he was—psst! Keep it to yourself!—ready to win. And perhaps at a generous price, since his recent performances suggested he would soon be visiting the dog-food factory.
Could this be it? Could this be the inside information I had been dreaming about for years, the inside information that would lead to the life-changing bet? In a state of trembling ecstasy I climbed into a friend's car and we began the long drive north.
Ramshackle is too kind a word to describe Hinsdale Raceway. Harness-racing-wise, this was the end of the line, the French Foreign Legion, Death Valley. Waiting for Seldom Safe's race, we dabbled and speculated, trying to get the hang of Hinsdale's betting patterns. The fatal flaw in our plan soon became obvious. The pools were so small that even a modest bet on Seldom Safe would so significantly depress his odds that it would be hard to make enough to cover our expenses. Sure enough, thanks to strong action from Joel, one of Seldom Safe's co-owners, and his driver-bodyguard, Whitey, our hero opened at 4-5.
What to do? Thrown back on my handicapping skills, I came up with three horses I thought might finish second, and I hooked them up in exactas with Seldom Safe to win, a wager with big-payoff potential but definitely risky. Seldom Safe was heroic. Under heavy pressure all the way, he ground out a half-length victory, a feat comparable to your arthritic grandfather getting out of a hospital bed in the middle of winter and outrunning a field of high school milers. That he had to stagger back to the paddock on three legs made it all the more amazing. Oh, did I mention that a hopeless long shot came in second? So even with good inside information, I went home broke.