A TALE OF WOEFUL WAGERING

Sad but true: Nack lacked a knack at the track
December 17, 1990

In the early evening of Sunday, Oct. 7, I was chauffeuring Andrew Beyer, his wife, Susan, and my girlfriend, Christine Hauser, from Belmont Park to LaGuardia Airport for the 7 p.m. shuttle to Washington, D.C. In the car Beyer, the turf writer for The Washington Post, suggested in no uncertain terms that I should keep in touch with him over the next few days.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"The double-triple at Laurel hasn't been won in two weeks," he said, "and the carryover has gotten huge. It could be worth more than $200,000. We can win some real money."

The double-triple is an exotic wager at Laurel Race Course, in Maryland, in which the winning bettor must pick the first three horses, in their order of finish, in two races—the third and the fifth. When the money bet on the double-triple is not won, part of it is "carried over" to the next afternoon, and, as long as no one wins it, the jackpot builds day by day. As it grows, the big sharks of the game come sniffing out of their lairs. In Maryland, Beyer is a very big shark, a sort of amiable, indigenous great white who knows the Laurel waters well (SI, June 5, 1989). I know Laurel quite well, too, but as a gambler, I view myself less as a predator and more like Flipper, standing up in the water, chattering to friends and swimming backward.

So there I was, tooling up the Cross Island Parkway on Long Island—Beyer and I had been covering a weekend of racing at Belmont—and once again he was inviting me to put up $64.80 to buy 5% of his action in the double-triple at Laurel on Monday. I was not going home to Washington with Beyer and the women; I was staying the night in Manhattan so that I could huddle with some of my editors the next day.

Beyer had that glint in his eye. "Be sure to stay in touch with me," he said. "I'd hate to see you miss out again on another big score. What a shame that you weren't around for the one in April! Boy, that was really fun."

Here I felt a slight but palpable stab of pain, a tremor of remorse. On April 14, Black Saturday, the double-triple pot at Laurel's sister track, Pimlico, had not been won in a month and had increased to more than $1 million. Beyer had strongly suggested that I keep in touch back then, too, but on that particular day I was in Kentucky at Keeneland to see the Blue Grass Stakes, and I got so involved in what I was doing that I forgot about the double-triple. On Sunday morning, back at home, I picked up The Washington Post's sports page and nearly gagged on my English muffin. Beyer's column began: "Playing the horses is the greatest game in the world, and I do not say this only because I was one of the 10 people who held a winning $134,161.80 ticket on Pimlico's double-triple yesterday." For a moment I thought only the Heimlich maneuver could save me. When the seizure passed, a kind of mild palsy set in, but I managed to hold a pencil steady enough to compute what I would have won with 5% of Beyer's action, minus, of course, the federal taxes—$5,366.47!

Beyer is an old friend who has been trying to make money for me for years, but it's as if the goddess of wagering always sees fit to intervene, punishing me for unexpiated sins, and at the last minute she slips me into this diverting trance. Six years ago, on the afternoon of the 1984 Belmont Stakes, Beyer appeared before me with his face flushed and his eyes blazing. "I just won $11,000 on the daily double," he said, "but that's nothing compared to what we're going to win this afternoon. Mortgage the house, sell the kids, and play the Swale-Pine Circle exacta."

In the paddock, 15 minutes before the race, I decided to avoid the long lines at the betting windows and gave $5 for a Swale-Pine Circle exacta to a horseplaying friend. When Swale and Pine Circle finished one-two, the tote board screamed the exacta payoff of $125.80 for $2.1 was already dreaming of what I would order for dinner at Lutèce as I dashed madly up to my friend, who looked like the saddest man on earth. Handing me back the $5, he said, "Sorry, but it was so crowded that I couldn't get to a window."

"That's too bad," Beyer later commiserated. "How much did I win? Well, let's just say that any middle-class American family would regard my exacta winnings as a very good annual income."

Oh, but those two fiascoes were behind me now. Ever since Black Saturday, I had vowed never to make the same mistake again with the double-triple. I have four children in college, after all, and so dreamed blissfully of cashing a bet and stashing it away for next semester's tuition and books. At the airport, the last thing Beyer said to me was, "I've been hot at Laurel lately. Don't forget: Stay in touch."

The next day so much was popping at the magazine that I stayed the entire afternoon and drifted from office to office. I never called Beyer, figuring I would join him at Laurel in the middle of the week. I returned to Washington that night, and the next afternoon, as I was leafing through the Post, a 42-point headline, stretched across the top of page 9 of the sports section, sent me reeling back in horror. My two cats leaped into the air and raced upstairs as I bellowed, "Oh, god, nooooooo!"

The headline: POST'S BEYER HITS DOUBLE-TRIPLE, WINS $195,070.50 AT LAUREL.

I slumped in a chair. What unspeakable act had I committed to deserve this? A 5% share of that pot would have been worth $7,802.82. It was Black Monday. Between that and Black Saturday, I would have had $13,000 for the year. For the second time in six months, I was at the very gates of Valhalla, about to step inside, when the door slammed.

"It wasn't the money," Beyer said sadly when I finally got in touch with him. "You missed the experience! It was the greatest triumph of my gambling life, and you weren't there to share in it. You should have stayed in touch. Next time."

No, thank you. Sometimes when Mickey Mantle was in a slump, he would bunt to get out of it. Similarly, I started playing the lottery this week. At the drawing, I recognized a lot of my numbers. Now, if I can just find the tickets. I know I set them down here someplace.

ILLUSTRATIONROBERT NEUBECKER
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)