Thursday, March 12, 2009
Tension mounts as the gathered crowd stares at a mosaic of television screens. The TVs beam in races from far-flung tracks in Louisiana and Argentina, but Jelly Hansberry, a PGA Tour caddy in town for February’s AT&T Pro-Am, has his gaze fixed on a large screen counting down the minutes until the fourth race at Southern California’s Santa Anita Park.
The race begins with a blur of colors as my horse, Cajun Gent, pulls to an early lead. It turns out that Hansberry has put his money on the same horse.
“Cajun Gent keen to go on now,” he says under his breath.
On an early Wednesday afternoon, the Monterey Race Place has been fairly quiet up until this point. But now there’s an electric excitement crackling in the air as the 30 men in the Monterey Fairgrounds satellite horse racing facility the all seem to have bet on this one race. A sportscaster’s comments arrive more and more quickly as the horses gallop toward the finish line. Applause erupts from somewhere far away in the building.
Once the excitement settles, I realize what has just happened. Four horses – My King, Pacific Halo, Job Boss and Mort Robbins – burst past Cajun Gent. On the last length.
Featuring over 150 TV screens in three rooms, the Monterey Race Place has been open since 1988. The facility is actually run by the State of California under the umbrella of the Food and Agriculture Department. Manager of the Monterey Fairgrounds Kelly Baldwin says that though over 78 percent of every dollar wagered is paid to the public as winnings a smaller percentage goes to the City of Monterey, the State of California and the Monterey County Fair.
Before placing a wager on Cajun Gent, I had solicited advice from Hansberry and Gary Dennis, the lead janitor of the Monterey Race Place. The 6'6" Dennis used to play basketball at Alisal High School and compares the feeling of betting on horses to the rush of playing an intense game on the basketball court.
“The adrenaline that an athletic event can get out of you,” he says. “I’ve had that here.”
Before Dennis let me in on his tip, he ran through the most impressive wins in the Race Place’s recent history. He named a couple of brothers who won $1 million by picking the winner in six consecutive races three years ago. Maybe even more impressive: Last week a man won $2,300 by placing about two dollars’ worth of dimes on the race’s four winning horses. Such a precise bet – called a superfecta – carries very long odds that pay big.
“Every day, there’s someone winning anywhere from $500 to $5,000,” he says.
It was an inspiring highlight reel, but I wasn’t going to plop down my hard-earned five bucks until I got some advice. “Play what you want to play – birthdates and silly names – and don’t listen to anyone else,” Dennis says.
Bill in hand, I approached the line, which is like a bank teller’s window for placing bets – and as nervewracking as trying to order at a fancy deli counter or hipster coffee shop where everyone knows the protocol but you.
A nearby sign had announced the proper way to place wagers: You say the track, the race number, the dollar amount, the type of bet and the horse number, in that order. Though I irritated the clerk behind the counter by fumbling around, I eventually placed my money on Cajun Gent, in large part because his name jumped out to my still-active Southern sensibilities.
After the Gent’s staggering loss, I walked to the first row of chairs, where Bob Barton Jr. and his son Bob Barton III were looking over Daily Racing Forms, publications crammed with information about the races from the jockeys’ careers and how the horses have performed over their careers. Looking up from his Daily Racing Form, Barton III explains the importance of the periodical: “They say going to the racetrack without a racing form is like going to church without a Bible.”
The Bartons are considered handicappers, and their approach differs from that of Dennis and Hansberry.
“All those people put money in the pile,” Barton Jr. says while looking at his fellow gamblers. “Then the handicapper takes most of the pile.”
He then tells me a parable to illustrate his point. Between sips of coffee from a Styrofoam cup, he says there was a man back in 1955 who was celebrating his 55th birthday the next morning. At 5:55am, he heard a noise that woke him up, and the man realized it was the sound of his milkman delivering five quarts of milk rather than the usual one. The man went to the racetrack and waited until the fifth race to place a wager on the No. 5 horse. “The five horse came in fifth,” Barton Jr. says, laughing.
Sitting beside the Bartons, I prepare to bet on the seventh race of the day at Santa Anita by heeding their advice. In the meantime, I hear their defense of gambling on horses.
“There’s really no difference between a racetrack and the stock market,” Barton III says. “The odds of winning are the same for both. The only difference is at the racetrack the player wears a trench coat and smokes a cigar and knows in two minutes whether he has won or lost, whereas in the stock market, they wear a suit and tie and smoke Benson and Hedges and it takes three to six weeks to know.”
Barton Jr. takes the baton, extolling the virtues of handicapping. “Everyone’s got something they like to do,” he says with a noticeable Philadelphia accent. “I don’t see fishing getting the juices flowing. Golf is great, but it costs a lot of money. I like handicapping. It’s a mental challenge. It keeps you sharp.”
They also recall the younger Barton’s first day at the races, when he had the only winning ticket that day. “This degenerate took me to the track when I was 9,” Barton III says.
With the seventh race approaching, we each scan the Daily Racing Form and choose our horses. Barton Jr. places his money on Caprice, a horse from Germany who has recently come out of the gates slow but sprints to strong finishes. Barton III takes Brushed Gold, a horse who has been in the top three in its last four races, while I go for a British pony named Restless Soul, who has finished in the top four in its last seven outings.
As the horses rocket out of the gate on the nearby TV screen, Barton III transforms from a mild-mannered, middle-aged man into a wide-eyed fanatic.
“Open up, seven!” he shouts, easily the loudest guy in the room. “Keep coming, seven!”
I glance over at a TV inexplicably tuned to The Oprah Winfrey Show. Then I hear Barton Jr. booming in my ear.
“He closed like crazy!” he says. “Look, he didn’t even work up a sweat!”
Even though there’s a jumble of numbers on the TV screen, the results are evident: Handicapping has its benefits. Caprice took first; Restless Soul came in second; Brushed Gold third.