“Hello, sports fans!”
This was his worn greeting to Lentz and Roach, his long-time associates, and kindred racing aficionados. They were early, as always, to work the numbers from the “Sheets” and to catch the first at Calder, post time twelve noon.
“Where you been? Five minutes to Belmont. What Sheets you need? Your cut is twelve bucks. Gimme.”
This came from Roach who was referring to an often-valuable source of published racing data that was gaining popularity among the hard-core handicappers.
“Ignore him,” growled Lentz. “Roach, you’re a rude sumbitch. Here, Jack, we saved you a chair. They’re off the turf at Belmont and Pimlico. Wet as hell.”
Jack ignored Roach’s request for payment and edged into the booth next to Lentz. He checked the minutes-to-post at Pimlico, Belmont and Churchill and opened his form.
“Gimme Pimlico. I’m going to focus on one track today – unless I start winning.”
Jack was a traditional user of The Racing Form – “America’s Turf Authority Since 1894.” He preferred seeing the past performances laid out so he could assess the trainers’ strategies and the conditioning cycle of the horse. This was his present handicapping system, his latest in a series of abandoned stratagems that stretched back over the years. The Thorograph Sheets were just additional input to support his picks or point out something he might have missed reading The Form.
Lentz and Roach, however, were acolytes of The Sheets. This data was their primary handicapping source and The Form or a Daily Program was used only to reinforce selections. The Sheets gave you speed. That meant more tracks and more action. Jack’s friends would juggle tracks, races, horses, post times and wagers like they were performing in Circ du Soleil. On a good afternoon, they would study six to twelve horses per race for ten races at five tracks. The composite figures of The Sheets allowed a rapid arrival at the two or three picks in each race worth betting. A huddle just before post-time and a sprint to the betting machines took less than five minutes. Gliding in like Canada Geese returning to a familiar pond, they were in their seats in enough time to stare up at the appropriate TV to watch every start. On a five hundred-horse day, you could almost hear an electronic hum coming from them.
This was too close to real work for Jack. Where was the art of a well-handicapped win? Their process put you on the clock, big-time. Success was dependent upon getting into a frenetic groove. They were both quite good at it, though. If he were to guess, over time, his friends were probably a little ahead of the game. On occasion, they would have a spectacular day. This was especially true about Roach whose handicapping logic was inscrutable, often singing the praises of a “can’t miss,” then changing his selection at the betting window. This, of course, was infuriating to Lentz who would sit stewing, as Roach rooted for a horse they hadn’t even discussed.
“My Two’s got the lead! Come on, wire. Come on, wire! Hit him again, Pino. Christ, he’s dragging an anchor! Die Four, die! I’m gonna get beat! Where’d that piece of shit get the speed?”
“That horse is two for four in the mud. A grandson of Mr. Prospector. Has won here before. Some back class.” Jack answered his friend’s rhetorical question – a service that was not appreciated.
“D’you guys have that?” asked Roach, tucking his $5 win ticket in the band inside of his worn Preakness ’95 baseball cap. “Paid $21.80. He looked good to me.”
That revelation produced a sour stare from Lentz. The winner had not been discussed between them. But his loss didn’t last long. He was focused on another race, at another track before the horse that ran fourth got under the wire.
Jack hadn’t bet the race, the first there at Pimlico. He had not yet settled in and needed to get acclimated. He wove his fingers together, reversed his hands, stretched them out over his open Form and cracked his knuckles. Now he was ready.