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Jacques Lavigne did not think of it as "criminal activity," not in the usual sense. He did not think of himself as a criminal. Criminals put guns in people's ribs and broke heads. Jacques considered himself "a nonviolent person." He did, however, think of himself as a man who liked a "challenge" when money was to be made. Around the tracks he had that reputation, and he did not play it down. His formal education was sketchy, but he said he had "mingled with intelligent people" all his life, and many of them knew the dark attraction of fast money. He said, "You can't beat experience."
Jacques, whose thick, horn-rimmed glasses gave him a steady, opaque look, was the son of a Maine lumberman of French-Canadian descent and had grown up around racetracks. He had been a groom and an assistant trainer, and he had made an inauspicious stab at jockeying, until he grew too big. Then he moved to Florida and into the racing plants themselves as a ticket seller and, finally, a calculator in the mutuels rooms, the fiscal centers of pari-mutuel betting.
The line between right and wrong tends to blur around betting establishments. Money floats. Anglers flower. In the landscape of potential larceny, Jacques found a natural habitat. He was thrilled by stories of older men who had found ways to "manage" the system and bring down some of that floating money. The artful dodgers and cozeners who claimed to have found an edge told how they "handled" the old calculators, penciling in a winning ticket here, a place ticket there, and cashing in. Jacques was fascinated, but he judged it "nickel-and-dime stuff." Jacques liked to measure a score in terms of "six goose eggs." If he ever got the chance, he said, he would "go for the maximum."
It was when the computers came in that Jacques' interest peaked. The computers streamlined the betting process; like a mind with a thousand hands, they translated the indiscriminate bets and channeled the money. From his vantage point in the mutuels room at Flagler Dog Track in Miami, Jacques could see the computer operator's skilled fingers activate the electronic magic of the machines in the room next door, and the magic transferred into the tote boards in the infield, the lights flashing. Like the lights, Jacques' nerve endings jangled. He said he "caught on to it like really quick."
He began feeling around, the line of his questions arousing interest among possible allies. He became friendly with a computer operator named William Deal, who seemed to see life as he did. One night while working in the mutuels room he asked Deal if it were possible to "pull tickets" out of the computers. Deal said he'd look into it. A few days later, between performances at the dog track, Deal joined Jacques for a walk in Coral Gables and told him he "had it." Deal said the computers could indeed be fixed. He explained to Jacques how he could do it.
Jacques was not convinced. The perfect scam at a racetrack, he said, must have a "safety factor," must "arouse no suspicions" when you make a big score, not from the track officials who balance the books, not from the fans who can see their bets working on the tote board. Knowledgeable fans are wary of wildly fluctuating odds.
And then one day in the early 1970s, as Jacques peered out onto the infield, watching the lights through his jelly-jar glasses, he saw the flaw. It was something, actually, that he did not see, but it was clear to him nonetheless, like an opening in a scrimmage line. The safety factor he needed. He saw it and he knew he was going to make a potful of money.
He knew he was going to make it because he could take it and the track would not know or, for that matter, care. The track would not lose a dime. He was going to steal it from the betting public, take money right out of the bettors' hands without their knowing it. Without their ever knowing. He would steal their money even as they happily counted their winnings, because it was from their winnings that he would steal.
And he would not get caught because there would be no alarming shifts on the tote board, no somersaulting odds to catch the eye. And at the end of the day there would be no shortages, no counterfeit tickets lying around and no evidence that could not be destroyed.
What Jacques saw as the final lubricant for his plan was a flaw in the system the tracks themselves had provided. The computers had opened up gimmicky wagers to lure the players, among them the trifecta—a bet requiring the selection of the exact 1-2-3 order of finish in a race. The odds against winning such a bet are immense, but the bait is seductive, the biggest payoffs sometimes running to five figures. However, in an eight-dog field the trifecta creates 336 possible betting combinations. The odds can be handled easily enough in the computer, but it is impossible to post them all on the infield tote board; there is not enough room. The tote board is the player's barometer. On it he can see the odds dance, and he can chart his win, place and show wagers against the betting pools, determining almost to the nickel what they will pay. When he bets the trifecta, however, the odds and the pools are not there; he is blacked out until the payoffs are flashed.