'YOU'RE A GREAT HANDICAPPER, FOTO.' 'THANK YOU.' 'BUT SOMETIMES YOU SCREW UP.'

Not to hear Foto Lewis, Race Track Character and strip joint barker, tell it. When he bets according to his system, he's always right. It's just that most times someone, or thing, does him wrong
August 26, 1979

Foto Lewis is 71 years old, looks 50 ("See, no fat on my neck"), acts 30, has a girl friend 23, and is—arguably, of course—the nation's No. 1 Race Track Character. Anything anybody else can do, Foto is sure he can do better. He dreams exclusively of faster horses and younger women—in that order. When he talks of himself, he speaks only in superlatives. At the moment, he is standing in the Bowie (Md.) Race Course grandstand, going berserk better than anybody.

"Jeez!" he screams. "The worst bum in the race wins and I lose $30. How could anybody pick that horse? You couldn't pick her because you like her. There's nuthin' to like. This is enough to drive a horseplayer craaazzzy. Look, this horse run twice and is ninth by 17 lengths and eighth by 20. You can't even say she ran better than her form, because she ain't got no form to run to. On top of that, it's a girl jockey. That broad was 100 to 1 herself, never mind the horse. If somebody had given me a ticket on that horse, I wouldn't have accepted it. If forced on me, I would have tore it up. I've slept with horses, drove 'em in vans, ridden 'em, studied 'em for 55 years—and I don't understand them. What's the winner's name? Sarah Fox? Oh, my God. Sarah Fox. I get beat by a horse named Sarah Fox." The horse, at 45 to 1, returned $91.80 on a $2 win ticket.

Foto slumps into his chair, alone in his agony. He asks a friend, "Why would anyone bet Sarah Fox?"

"Because," says the friend cheerfully, "she was in the race."

"Nope," Foto says, "this ain't on the level. She probably was doped. That's it. We'll read in a few days that she was doped. God, Sarah Fox. Somebody's name, huh? Somewhere there is a Sarah Fox who's happy as all get out. Meanwhile, I lose my money."

He falls silent, exhausted from his outburst. He has been through this thousands of times, but the pain is always the same. And, like a fireworks display that makes one last explosion just when it seems about to fizzle out, Lewis pops off again, "Sarah Fox. For all I know, that could have been Spectacular Bid. Nobody can tell them apart. I bet my $30 and something called Sarah Fox runs like Citation."

Another Race Track Character yells, "Foto, Foto."

"Yeah."

"Shut up."

But Foto never shuts up. He is the preeminent Race Track Character. At every track, there is a handful of guys who come out every day and bet every race. Every one of them is a classic know-it-all. They argue and curse and point and exaggerate and suspect. They are known by names like Detroit Izzy or Champagne Larry. They are gluttons for punishment. A Race Track Character needn't bet a lot; in fact, part of his charm is that he bets so little but cares so much. The R.T.C. is never to be confused with the Big-Time Gambler, the guy who shows up at the track with a briefcase, a computer and cold blood. For the gambler, the track is his business; for the R.T.C., the track is his life. Foto is a $10-to $20-a-race man. He usually takes about $200 to the track, though he has no intention of losing much of it.

"If you bet fast, you can't last," says Foto. "The worst thing is to get broke and have to stay home." That is shattering to an R.T.C., the ultimate in bad luck. It's far better to get beat by Sarah Fox than to be confined to quarters. The R.T.C. loves the horses and hates the horses; loves the tracks and hates the tracks; loves himself and hates himself. "There are so many ways to lose," laments Foto.

Indeed, every R.T.C. knows deep down that he probably won't win, but he finds excitement in waiting to see just how he will lose. A classic example of the variety that racing offers the R.T.C. occurred at Atlantic City some years ago when a horse named Nautigal got command down the backstretch on the turf course. According to the Daily Racing Form chart of the race, Nautigal "was still clear turning into the stretch and, when roused with the whip, went through the inner hedge, unseated his rider and went into the lake." Foto once lost a winning bet when his horse was disqualified for biting another during the race. And, he says, five times in a row at Timonium in 1946 he had the winning horse only to have all five horses disqualified. "The agony these tracks put you through," he groans. Fellow R.T.C. Aaron King says of Foto, "If they stopped racing, he would die. He's more interested in horses than women, and he's damn interested in women." Lewis readily admits that his love of the track cost him his wife, though, to his mind, it was not necessarily a bad deal.

Foto, whose real name is Ferdinand, got his nickname years ago because of his ability to pick the winning horse in photo finishes. Then, when somebody would say one horse won and Foto knew it was the other, he would negotiate a small wager. "They call me Foto," he says, "because I know all the angles." He won't let his name be spelled "Photo" because "that sounds like I take pictures at weddings."

The other day at Bowie, Foto was in heaven when the fourth race produced a photo finish. "Dead even!" screamed Foto. "Dead heat. If you think I ain't good, watch this. It will be the difference of the dirt under my nail. If it's not called a dead heat, No. 1 wins. You'll need a magnifying glass." Indeed, the No. 1 horse won, and by the dirt under Foto's fingernail. He chortled and bragged. "Everybody in the place is hollering that No. 2 won. Not me. You heard me say No. 1." In truth, nobody had hollered that No. 2 had won. But, also in truth, nobody, save Foto, had seemed sure who had won. "Never wrong," he boasted.

It is that sort of claim that makes Foto so wonderful. His favorite words are never, always, nobody, everybody. There is hardly an indefinite word in his vocabulary. Nor is he in the least reluctant to say something with ironclad certainty and then reverse himself when a race is over. "Look at this horse in the second," says Foto. "If he don't bolt, he wins." He didn't bolt, he lost. "Told you so," says Foto. Before another race, he says, "When it's over, they'll put up 6-2. Just watch." It's over; they put up 2-6. Says Foto, "See, just what I told you." Mere facts have little to do with Foto's perception of life. Foto is never wrong. It's just that the horses, because of some demon force, don't do right.

"You're a great handicapper, Foto," says Aaron King.

"Thank you."

"But," says King, "sometimes you screw up."

Would of, could of, should of and might of are the only conditional words in a Race Track Character's lexicon. Foto looks over the entries and complains, "This race is a disgrace to the track. I'm not even gonna bet. Wanna bet I don't bet?" He bets, wins $64 and is elated. "See, I told you I knew what I was doing. I knew he could win. But why didn't I bet more?" By the time he leaves the track late in the afternoon, Foto has salvaged $3 in winnings. He's delighted. "I'm a winner," he says. "If you win $3 or $3,000, you're a winner. How many people leaving this track can say that?"

And so Foto moves on to his place of employment. He is a doorman at the Villa Nova Show Bar on Baltimore's Block. The Block is the city's attempt to isolate every vice known to man and woman in one small area. The police attitude is that if nobody gets killed on the Block, the evening is a success.

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."

The problem is that not only are others skeptical of his numbers, but Foto is, too. Sometimes he bets his numbers, but often he makes adjustments—frequently to his sorrow. That is another aspect of the Race Track Character. He has a system he swears by. He touts his friends on his selections. He bigmouths all over the grandstand. Then, on the way to the window, he'll hear somebody say he has a tip on another horse and the R.T.C. will bet the tip. And—too often—lose. A horse named Tulle Tu doesn't add up in Foto's figures, but he has a tip. He touts his friends onto Tulle Tu, he plays the horse himself. Tulle Tu loses. "Tips, Goddamn tips," Foto moans. "All my life I go for these tips. What's wrong with me? Am I a dummy? I make my friends lose money, and this horse that wins goes out and runs like Secretariat."

He looks at another race. "O.K., Poolside will win from here to Georgia. Forget the four horse. She'll stop." Poolside is eighth; the No. 4 horse wins. But Foto has a few dollars on No. 4, too. Why? "Well, you gotta figure." Foto bets a 3-5-6 triple; the finish is 3-6-5 and pays $149.40. "That's O.K.," says Foto. "I ain't never gonna be broke. I have $10 worth of nickels and $14 worth of dimes stashed away at home."

His handicapping is repeatedly interrupted by a 4-year-old boy who comes to the track every day with his grandmother.

"Where's your ice cream?" says Foto, absently.

"I don't got none."

"Come on, Tim, you gotta talk right. Say, 'I don't have none.' "

"I don't have none."

Abruptly, Foto slaps his Racing Form against his head. "Here it is. The clue on Sarah Fox. Right here. She was the only 4-year-old in the race. The others are all 3-year-olds. A four beats a three almost every time. How could I have missed that? Normally I would have had a deuce on her. Why didn't I this time? That's what makes this game so baffling. Maybe the secret is to throw the class out and bet the bums."

PHOTO PHOTOFoto, a noted womanizer, helps fellow employees at Baltimore's Villa Nova Show Bar pick winners.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)