Foto has been in front of the Villa Nova for 25 years. "I've stuffed millions of people through these doors," he says. The doorman title dignifies Foto's position. In truth, he is a barker. "Come right in, sir," he says. "Might be something in there you like." Might be. The attractions are nude dancers, a lot of whom get that way very quickly; apparently so they can quit dancing and get on with more lucrative pursuits. "Come right in, sir. Most beautiful girls on the Block." And under his breath, "Damn, Sarah Fox. Who in the hell would play Sarah Fox?"
Six nights a week, at $23 per, Foto stands on the Block and judges the people passing by. "It's tough to get the Japanese in here," he says. "What they really like are dirty movies. Then you see that guy there, jiggling the quarters? He don't want to come in here. All he wants to do is go to peep shows." Foto is always polite; he prides himself on his courteousness. A woman asks if she might go in to use the rest room. "No, ma'am. I'm sorry. Please try the Midway across the street. I'm very sorry. Have a nice night." She leaves. "Damn hooker," Foto mutters. "She gets in there and steals one of our customers, and I get fired." Foto has been shot at, knives have been held at his throat, booze has been thrown on him. He has hawked for Blaze Starr and waved to Fanne Foxe. Like the horses, he loves and hates the Block. "Nobody but scum of the earth comes here now," he says. "Scalawags. I remember when girls used to wear dresses. Now...." He laughs at the irony. "Funny thing, though. People love the Block. Just like me. They come here and get robbed, and it don't matter." He calls to a passer-by, "Who won the ninth at Bowie?"
From 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Foto looks for expense-account types, "the guys with the gold cards." He opens the door even when nobody wants in or out, just to get a rush of the air-conditioning. "I guess, what I am," he says as he watches the ebb and flow of humanity, "is a con man."
Indeed, it's hard to judge the malarkey quotient in Foto's chatter. He tells of growing up in Baltimore—his father was an accountant for a railroad and made a little book on the side—and of the time he ran from a cop. Foto claims he hid in a vault in a cemetery "until I got too scared by those bones in there with me." He talks of hustling pool. And, Lord, how he talks of his running ability, of how he would jump down onto the track at places like Havre de Grace and Cumberland and race the horses home from the top of the stretch—and win. Of course. "I was disappointed I never got a call. I was half expecting to hear the announcer say, 'And on the outside and closing fast is Foto.' That would have been great." He talks of being a marvelous soccer player. "I was so good," he says, without being asked, "that I would set up goals and let other guys kick in the ball so they would get the credit. I give away most of my trophies as presents." He quit school after eighth grade because "everybody knew I was smart enough to quit."
According to Foto, his first hit at the track was up to his usual high standards. He was 14, wearing short pants, and he split a $2 wager with a friend on a horse that returned $788.60. "I remember thinking," says Foto, " 'Aahhhh, so this is where it is. How sweet it is.' " He loves to play exactas; and on straight wagers he bets mostly to win, sometimes to place, never to show. "I was cured of that when I once bet $800 to show on a 1-to-9 shot that ran out of the money," Foto says. If successful, the horse would have returned about a nickel on the dollar. Why bet like that? "I thought I was stealing something."
Foto has worked in a brewery, driven cabs and installed transmissions on a GM automobile assembly line. That job ended the day Seabiscuit was running against War Admiral. "I just couldn't stand to miss that race," he says. He walked out and never returned.
After his doorman duties are finished, Foto heads for his nearby apartment to handicap the horses for the next day. He sits at his kitchen table for a couple of hours, alternately staring at an old movie on TV and scribbling his figures.
"If I told you my system, then it's not worth 30¢," he says. Which is its approximate worth anyway. When Foto finally discusses his formula, he claims it was given to him by an old clocker at Monmouth "who liked me. Everybody does. People love me." A few days after the clocker revealed his secrets, Foto swears, he won $30,000 using the system at Delaware Park. "I bought a diamond ring, a Buick convertible, a fancy TV," he says. "Within two weeks I sold my ring, sold my convertible, sold my TV." Obviously, if his system were good, Foto would be rich. In fact, he just gets by.
Over the years, is Foto a winner? "I never kept track," he says in IRS tones. Still, people at the track constantly stop to ask, "What do your figures show, Foto?" He tells all, though he grouses, "I don't know why I should make all these people rich. I introduced one guy to my figures, and he bought two service stations."
Foto relies on the two most esoteric entries in the past-performance lines of the Daily Racing Form—the speed rating of the horse and the track variant. The Racing Form uses a complex system to reach both numbers. They mean everything to some horseplayers, nothing to others. Foto swears by them. By consulting those numbers on each horse's last three races, he calculates which entry looks like a winner. "If I just bet my figures," says Foto, "I'd be rich." Would he like to be rich? "Naw, I'd just like to have money."