Somebody was trying to tell me something: Time to get a life. Because I could type and was willing to put in 40 hours a week for $48 (after taxes), I wangled a job at the Binghamton Sun-Bulletin as the third man on what had previously been a two-man sports staff. I was assigned to the bowling beat by the sports editor, a splenetic, ruddy-faced tyrant who seemed to think my name was "Hey, Dum-Dum!" So at the very moment fellow journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were positioning themselves to bring down a president, I was typing out scrolls of alphabetically ordered bowling agate.
To amuse myself, I invented the Tri-County States League, in which obscure intellectuals I admired frequently rolled series in the low 700s. Once, I got a little carried away and typed in a 787 next to the name J.L. Borges, the Argentine short-story writer. I was off the next day, but there was a news hole to fill, and the sports editor apparently rummaged through my desk, found my bowling scroll, ran his finger up and down the list until he found the highest score, tried to call the Tri-County States League and, when he couldn't find the number, made up something about how Borges's amazing series was believed to be the highest in league history, and ran a short piece under the headline BORGES FIRES 787. For a while I feared my promising career might be going down the drain, but the readers never noticed, and my editor couldn't have cared less.
One day, while performing another of my vital duties—underlining the capital letters for Vernon Downs's Trackman Selections—I was rescued by a phone call from Eisner. Or so I thought. Now running the family wholesale light-fixture business, he had diversified into harness horses. In three days Lenawee Special would be running and, for the first time in a long while, trying to win. After being stiffed for weeks, Lenawee Special had dropped down in class. He was now competing against horses he could easily beat and, better still, would go off at very long odds, since his last eight races had been abysmal. If I wanted to get rich quick, Eisner suggested, I should be at Roosevelt three days hence.
I wish I could say I recoiled at the idea of a setup race. I wish I could say I was troubled by the notion of getting involved. I wish I could say I hesitated even for a split second over the ethical dilemma this opportunity presented. I wish, I remember thinking, I had more time to raise money.
On the great day, I couldn't find Eisner at any of our usual meeting spots, but I figured out where he was when the odds went up for the fourth race: at the betting windows, shoveling in the family fortune. The week before, running against pretty much the same horses, from the exact same post, Lenawee Special had gone off at 25-1 and finished so far behind the leaders that he probably delayed the start of the next race. Off that performance he should have been at least 50-1 this time. He opened at 2-1. It didn't take those shrewd Roosevelt rail-birds long to figure out that something funny was going on, and they wanted in. As a result Lenawee Special never rose above 2-1. I could bet the $1,000 I borrowed from my brother on Lenawee's nose and realize a profit of $2,000—which, after all, was almost a year's take-home pay.
At the very moment I almost succumbed to the temptation to settle for that modest reward—a reward too modest, as I saw it, for years of fantasizing, hanging with lowlifes and shameless efforts to ingratiate myself to the nouveaux riches—I noticed something odd: Though everybody seemed to be getting down on Lenawee Special in the win pool, nobody was betting him in the exacta pool. In the exacta pool he was the unbettable long shot his recent "races" suggested he should be. Yes, I remembered the Seldom Safe fiasco. Yes, I went ahead anyway. But this time I ensured a bright future by combining Lenawee Special to win with every other horse in the race to finish second. Depending on who finished second, I could win no less than $7,000 and as much as $19,000. This was my ultimate moment as a horseplayer: I knew something even the insiders did not.
What I didn't know is that a horse who has not been trying to win for two months sometimes doesn't try to win for two months and a week. Unchallenged, Lenawee Special easily got the lead. At the half he was strolling along at a snail's pace, and still nobody came at him. After a trip like that, even a cow should have been able to hold on. But at the three-quarters pole, the horse sitting second edged to the outside and, followed by the rest of the field, breezed past Lenawee Special, who seemed to have suddenly shifted into reverse. After the race a chagrined Eisner explained that Lenawee Special, while in especially fine fettle, was not "race sharp." Now he tells me.
Life went on. I worked out a repayment plan with my brother. For the next 100 weeks, my social calendar was filled with canned ravioli and soul-searching, thereby freeing up $10 per meager paycheck. A few weeks into my blue period, Lenawee Special went on a long winning streak, a gratuitous twist of the knife. Still harness racing had seen me through that awkward 12-year period between puberty and my first midlife crisis and had provided an entertaining collection of cautionary fables.
As my existence became more stable and fulfilling—love, family, meaningful work, social events that included women—the sport of harness racing withered and faded, its natural problems magnified, its charms lost on the lottery generation. Harness tracks began hosting flea markets and simulcasting thoroughbred races and begging to be allowed to book sports bets and threatening to turn themselves into shopping malls. It was a little like watching a beloved old philosophy professor run off with a high school cheerleader: One can understand the impulse, but whatever happened to the idea of a dignified death?