SI Vault
William Nack
July 15, 1991
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July 15, 1991

A Little Bit Of Heaven


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A minute later, he was off to the windows to make a bet. This was the moment he had been waiting for, the one among so many long quarters of an hour. It could not have been sweeter. Winsome Winner grabbed the lead, but Ultra Sass rushed up alongside her, and the two raced as a team down the backside. "Come on, baby!" Murray hollered.

Winsome Winner folded off the last bend, and through the stretch, to mounting roars, Ultra Sass came home by herself, finishing two on top. The Murrays and their partners and friends fairly danced into the winner's circle and bellied up to the track cashiers. "The biggest bet I made in 10 years," said Murray. "I really stepped out on her, $400 right on her beautiful nose. Is this a high, or what? I'm the King of the Nightcap!"

If life thus briefly imitated Murray's art, leaving him a momentary king at old Del Mar, so it continued to vex and puzzle Okuneff as he pored over the sixth race on Sept. 5—a six-furlong dash for maiden 2-year-olds, the first race in the late Daily Triple. He had just gotten crushed in the fifth, when none of his four choices had finished better than sixth.

"Aaaagghhh!" Okuneff growled, sitting down. Studying the sixth, he groused, "The whole field is lousy." By default, and because jockey Laffit Pincay was in the irons, Okuneff finally settled on the number 10 horse, Nikki's Baby, a 12-1 shot who had finished eighth in her last two starts. Overhearing him, two of Okuneff's pals wheeled in their seats and blurted simultaneously, "Nikki's Baby?"

"Yeah," said Okuneff. "Nikki's Baby." He picked the odds-on favorite in the seventh, a colt named Kanatiyr, the number 3 horse. "A real goofy horse," said Okuneff. "The last time he ran, he was unruly in the post parade. He's rank, hard to ride. But he has Chris McCarron on him, and he absolutely looks like the winner." And Okuneff loved Asia, the number 5 horse, in the eighth. So off he went to bet, among a few other combinations, the 10-3-5 late triple. In fact, he took it three times, with a $10 win ticket on Nikki's Baby.

The sixth race came to him like manna from the gods. Pincay had Nikki's Baby rolling in third down the backstretch, just off the leaders, when he began doing the huck-a-buck on her around the turn. The filly picked it up and was second, with dead aim on Apurate, at the top of the lane. She swept by the leader past the eighth pole. "Come on, Pinky!" Okuneff cried. "Now hold her together. Attaboy!" Indeed, she drove on to triumph by 1½ lengths, paid $27 to win and yielded Okuneff $135 for his $10 win ticket. When Kanatiyr came romping home to win the seventh by two, Okuneff was nearly home. Suddenly, all that existed between him and a nearly $1,500 score was the eighth. More than the money, no princely sum, what he needed was a shift in the momentum, a psychological push, a reason to maintain his hardscrabble existence as a horseplayer.

"I cannot justify the work if I look down at the ledger and it is less than zero," Okuneff said. "I run handicapping seminars. But if I don't make money at the races, I can't live like I do. The money would dry up."

Okuneff was awaiting the eighth, the El Cajon, when word reached him that Steve Nagler, a peripatetic, free-spirited Del Mar regular, had put the whammy on Asia. Looking over his charts and graphs, Nagler had said, "Asia has no chance. He'll bounce as high as the moon."

Bounce is bad. In betting parlance, that means that since Asia had run so brilliantly in his last start, chasing after Cee's Tizzy 17 days earlier, he was expected to suffer the consequences of that exertion in the El Cajon. "I'm betting that he won't," Okuneff said.

The man knew something about bouncing. He had been involved in sports in some capacity most of his life, his resume reading: scholarship football player four years at UCLA, including 1954, the year the Bruins were the undefeated national champions; football coaching jobs at UCLA and Washington State; player personnel director for the Southern California Sun in the now defunct World Football League; compulsive, out-of-control gambler, early '50s on, all sports.

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