Green Sheet Benny was an ecologist long before the word came into style. He lived within a controlled environment, doing all of the controlling himself and making a nice dollar out of it. Green Sheet Benny was a tout. Back in the early 1950s three pals and I (16-year-olds all) did some field work on Benny's system. Ecology was the last thing on our minds at the time—but a high-toned word like that makes the memory easier to bear.
We had heard about Benny around the local dog track. Wherever greyhounds were racing was where Benny wanted to be; he moved his whole world with him from track to track, an ecosystem that, with a certain grisly fitness, was contained inside an old Cadillac hearse. It had been refitted into a combination home and office. Along one side of the back end was a mattress. The desk formed the other side of the back end. It consisted of a long sheet of plywood on which were arranged a typewriter and several boxes of 3-by-5 cards. This was his filing system: it was supposed to list every greyhound racing in the U.S. A hand-cranked mimeograph stood in a corner.
Benny drove his hearse back and forth between Florida and Arizona for the first few years after World War II, timing his arrivals with the opening of race meetings at both ends. When Colorado legalized pari-mutuel betting he added a third leg to his journey, and that is when we first came upon him.
Being 16 in that part of the country at that time was something less than Nirvana. The local minor league baseball team was slipping below our level of sophistication, television had barely poked its way through from Chicago and the extratheatrical possibilities of drive-in movies had not yet been thoroughly explored. But dog racing? Well, that just might be something.
August 15, 1971
It was inevitable then that we would meet Benny, for he stood just inside the main entrance shrilling his spiel: "Winners! Getcha winners here! Benny's got the winners! Buy the Green Sheet!" He wore a carpenter's apron over a drab suit, and tucked into the apron pockets were the green mimeographed tout sheets that went for 50¢ each and listed Benny's picks for all 11 races.
During the entire race meeting he kept the hearse in the parking lot at the track, not moving it between opening day and the closing of the season. On his arrival each year he would walk into the track manager's office and offer to clean the entire grandstand after each night of racing for a pittance. The manager always agreed, and Benny would go to work the morning after opening day, following an unvarying schedule:
5 a.m. to 8 a.m.—Benny sweeps out the grandstand, finishing well before anyone else shows up.
8 a.m. to noon—Benny draws the curtains on his hearse and apparently catches 40 winks.
Noon to 2 p.m.—Benny talks to owners and trainers, especially those with dogs racing that night.
2 p.m. to 6 p.m.—Benny pores over the 3-by-5 cards, pecks out his selections on a mimeo stencil and cranks out the Green Sheet.
6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.—Dinner; two hot dogs and a beer.
6:30 p.m. to the close of betting on the first race—Benny hawks the Sheet.
There was no great mystery about Benny's willingness to sweep up the grandstand—the track manager knew he was looking for discarded winning tickets. But the track's patrons did not know about Benny's moonlight activity. Benny was not napping at all during the time from 8 a.m. to noon, when he drew the curtains on his hearse. Instead, he was carefully sifting through the refuse he had swept up the night before, picking out any winning tickets that had been mistakenly discarded by nervous bettors.
Later that night Benny would stroll to his spot on the rail at the top of the stretch. After each race he would nonchalantly but conspicuously walk to the cashier's window and cash one of his winning tickets from the previous night. His repeated visits to the cashier's cage had predictable results: the circulation of the Green Sheet flourished.
My friends and I traveled to the track often that summer, and we were impressed by Benny's success. It was against the law for minors to bet, but it was always possible to suborn some adult into fronting for us if we had the money. Normally we were broke, but on the closing day of the meeting we scraped up $4 and decided to try our luck.
It was a trivial sum, but we figured we could build it into a fortune by night's end if we had one of Benny's Green Sheets. We had forgotten something. Benny's Green Sheet cost 50¢, so if we bought one and somehow (no matter how improbably) lost our first bet, we were wiped out. We decided to try a kind of informal welfare.
As soon as betting closed on the first race we went up to Benny and asked him to give us one of his sheets free. "They're not much good to you now," we said.
He refused at first, then told us: "If you get down to one bet, come around. I may give you a break."
Our first try was a show ticket that paid $3. We missed betting on the third race when we got into a disagreement over how to make the best use of the odd dollar. One of the syndicate wanted to go for a $5 ticket, another wanted to stick with $2 bets, while another wanted to spend the buck on hot dogs. We stayed with small show bets, hitting in both the fourth and fifth races but losing in the sixth. The seventh and eighth races brought us small profits, so we decided to open up in the ninth and 10th—and none of our dogs came in. We were desolate, and back down to $2 with only one race left.
We found Benny at his usual spot on the rail. He saw us coming and grinned. Before we could even speak he said, very low, "Three dog. Ten to one. Can't lose." We were in. We would take home 20 bucks.
The three dog ran last. We were stunned for five or 10 seconds, then we all had the same idea. We caught Benny just as he was climbing into his hearse.
"How, Benny?" we asked. "How?" All we could think of were those remunerative strolls he made to the payoff window after every race.
Benny looked at us and shrugged. Then he offered us the only wisdom at his command. "Geez, kids," he said. "They all got four legs."
With that he closed the door on his Cadillac hearse, pulled the curtains shut and retired to his private ecology.