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Four-fifteen of a turquoise afternoon. Cloudless, becalmed, estival. Wind bearing east off the ocean, eight knots and ebbing. Trays of iced tea floating through the Turf Club at Del Mar, two knots and tinkling. Sea gulls circling the infield lake, their flaps and landing gear down, hovering.
Gerry Okuneff looked up from a chair in his grandstand box, over the copy of the Daily Racing Form he was holding, and inhaled the wind but missed the gulls. The burly, balding, 57-year-old former UCLA linebacker, now a parttime Hollywood stuntman and actor and a full-time professional horseplayer, leaned forward in his seat.
"Hey, Pete," said Okuneff. "What about your horse today?"
Pete Accardy was the co-owner of a son of Danzig named Asia, one of the favorites in the $75,000 El Cajon Stakes, a race blown open earlier in the day when a gray bullet named Cee's Tizzy was scratched. Post time for the El Cajon, a 1[1/16]-mile adventure around the main course at Del Mar, was still three races away, but Okuneff was already nearing a mild state of suspended exasperation, trying to unravel the mysteries of this quirky oval and to divine the secrets of the El Cajon. The race was the eighth of the day, making it the third event in the late Daily Triple, a wagering gimmick that challenged the bettor to pick the winners of the sixth, seventh and eighth races.
Accardy drifted closer. Okuneff came to his feet. "A big, big chance to win," Accardy said. "Warcraft will be the favorite, but Asia has got a big shot. There's not much lick in the race, and he could sit up close. He was right behind Cee's Tizzy in his last race."
Okuneff nodded. "You gonna sit up about second, now that Tizzy's out of there?" he asked.
"I think we'll be either on the lead or right behind Shinko Wine," Accardy said, referring to another speedball. "We're faster than Warcraft."
Okuneff shook his head. "You don't want to run with Shinko," the handicapper said. "He's coming off a sprint."
Accardy shrugged. "Hope not," he said.
It was the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 5, 1990, and Okuneff was poring over his books and charts like a 12th-century ascetic, studying, as he had been for weeks, up to 10 hours a day, searching through nine races a day for the Way, the Truth and the Light—here for the beast that would get him even, there for the big score to get him out. Only seven days remained in the season at Del Mar, the celebrated gambling Gomorrah by the sea, 20 miles up the coast from San Diego, and Okuneff, after 35 days of playing the horses, was out more than $800. Of course, there are no moral victories for professional horseplayers, for whom the bottom line ends only where the flat line begins; nevertheless, there was a saving grace for Okuneff, and it was that he woke up every morning with the unbridled expectations of a man facing another day in paradise.