Horseplayers: Life at the Trackby Ted McClelland
A wildly diverse cast of horseplayers kindly adopts McClelland and teaches
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Nearly $16 billion is wagered every year on Thoroughbred horses. But only 2 to 5 percent of horseplayers turn a consistent profit. Is it possible for a reasonably intelligent, normal guy to actually make a living at the racetrack? Ted McClelland takes us on a yearlong journey to find out.
A wildly diverse cast of horseplayers kindly adopts McClelland and teaches him an array of techniques for playing the ponies. There's the intensely disciplined Scott "The Professor" McMannis, who uses a complicated formula to calculate speed figures; Creighton R. Schoenfeldt, a cranky gentleman who devotes practically 24 hours a day to studying the odds; "Bob the Brain" and Steve "Stat Man" Miller; and dozens more hustlers and high rollers who sacrifice their lives to betting at the track.
We join McClelland on his fascinating year of exactas, Daily Doubles, racing forms, and colorful track patrons, as he seeks to acquire the elusive skills of a professional winning horseplayer while betting his book publisher's advance during daily visits to Chicago's Hawthorne Race Course and Arlington Park, off-track betting facilities, and other tracks around the country.
Horseplayers affectionately records McClelland's all-consuming passion with horse gambling. He schools himself through devout and obsessive study of speed figures and horse and jockey statistics, reading books written by the pros, trying different betting and handicapping strategies he picks up from the horseplayers, and in the end, he achieves a sort of horseplayer wisdom.
"Immensely readable account, by a brutally honest writer...a gambler’s book that is well worth a punt" The Racing Post
"A delightful memoir . . . McClelland details his transformation from casual fan to obsessed racing geek with humor." Railbird
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Life at the Track
By Ted McClelland
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2005 Ted McClelland
All rights reserved.
The Blind Man and the Hustler
Hawthorne Race Course is a smoky urban racetrack on the western fringe of Chicago. It was laid out in pastureland over a century ago, but the city has overwhelmed it and suburbia leapt past it, so its highest seats look beyond the dirt oval onto an industrial skyline of round-bellied oil tanks and cigarette-slim chimneys, a vista that has earned it the nickname Refinery Downs. Hawthorne's three-tiered brick grandstand, as imposing as an old ironworks, replaced a sleeker model that was burned to the ground in 1978, supposedly by a pair of grifters who'd fixed a race and were trying to destroy the evidence. The air over the neighborhood is scented with a chemical tang from the world's largest sewage treatment plant, located a few blocks from the horse barns.
The blind man had been begging outside Hawthorne for decades. The track was open in the chilly months of spring and fall, and he sat outside the doors in the hour before post time, clattering his tin cup like a Salvation Army bell, crying, "Please help the bliiiiind" in a woodwind alto. In his paint-black sunglasses, he looked like a Maxwell Street bluesman. His cane was wrapped in rags and carpet strips, with an American flag bobbing from the handle. Hanging from his neck was an AM/FM radio, nested in a tangle of chains and trinkets.
Most horseplayers ignored the blind man as they lurched toward the doors. But I was hoping to see him squatting on his plastic chair. As I hurried across the parking lot, I felt in the pocket of my parka for a twenty-dollar bill to drop in his cup. I owed him.
A year and a half before, on an idle November afternoon during what Nelson Algren, another Chicago horseplayer, once called "that smoke-colored season between Indian summer and December's first true snow," I'd dropped a twenty in the blind man's cup. I wasn't trying to buy luck. I was writing a color piece on the racetrack for the Reader, and I wanted an interview. The bill was a terrific icebreaker. ("Twenty dollars?" he sang, his voice rising to the pitch of a penny-whistle. "Is this really a twenty? Oooh, a twenty-dollar bill. You're gonna make me get up and dance. You're gonna see an old blind man dance. Twenty dollars! You can ask me whatever you want.") We talked for half an hour in the cold, then I went inside and hit a $660 exacta. There was some serious juju in that cup.
The blind man was straddling a chair at the foot of the concrete ramp that leads to the two-dollar gate. As soon as the old beggar heard my boots scuffling up the ramp, he rattled his cup to arrest them. I stopped and called out to him.
"Who's that?" he asked, tilting his blank eyes in my direction.
"It's Ted. Remember me?"
"Taaaid," he drawled excitedly. "Sure, I remember. You got another twenty for me?"
"I've got another twenty for you."
The blind man extended a hand as worn as an old golf glove. I fed the bill to its hunting fingertips.
"I need some luck this year," I said. "You've always brought me good luck."
"You have good luck when you help the Hind," he assured me. "It's in the Bible. When you help the blind, you have good luck. I don't know where it's in the Bible, but I heard it's in the Bible."
The blind man's name was Lewis. He never revealed his last name, because he feared that "Soc' Security" would cut off his check if they discovered he was making money at the track. He claimed to be eighty — "I done made eighty young man," he'd once told me — but in his timeless, lightless mind he could not estimate how many years he had been sitting outside Hawthorne. It started sometime after he went blind. His sight began to dim when he was in his twenties, due to a condition "generated down through the family." He moved to Chicago to see a doctor, who sent him to a hospital for "fever therapy," raising his temperature to save his eyes. It didn't help. During those sunset years, Lewis worked as a shoveler in a coal yard, paying a friend to drive him to work.
Once the shades closed completely, Lewis started begging outside the track. He had never seen a horse race, even though he'd grown up in Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby. But horse racing, it seemed to him, was about numbers — a horse's number in the betting program, the dollars and cents of the payoffs — and numbers were something he could still apprehend.
"I didn't know anything about playing the horses until I went blind," he said. "I figured I had to do something to make money. I bet a 1-2-3 trifecta, and it won. It paid $270."
Lewis began each day by betting the Daily Double, trying to pick the winners of the first two races. He used numerology to make his selections. But in this, he needed help. Lingering behind him was a wall-eyed man in a green army jacket. Glenn was with the blind man most afternoons, ready to fetch his coffee and run his bets in exchange for a few of the bills that landed in the cup.
"Glenn, you got the paper?" he asked. Glenn slid the Chicago Sun-Times from under his arm and opened it to the "Hawthorne Line," in which the newspaper's handicapper ranked the horses in each race, listing them by name and program number. Lewis was only interested in the numbers.
"Add up the numbers of the top three horses in the first race and the last horse in the first three races," Lewis told Glenn. "What that add up to?"
"Twenty-four," Glenn responded.
"Now, count down twenty-four horses."
Glenn's index finger tapped down the page.
"What number you come up with?"
"Number 5 horse in the first race," Lewis declared. "You bet that 5 horse, you'll win some money. Daily Double's going to be 5–6."
Lewis pulled a pair of origami-folded singles from his pocket and asked Glenn to run inside and bet the Daily Double, using number 5, Limit Up, in the first race, and number 6, Light As a Cat, in the second.
* * *
There is a large school of horseplayers that treats the races as a lottery, rather than as a competition between animals. I know a man named 1-2-3 Don who's so devoted to the first three cardinal numbers that he always plays them in the exacta, and he drives a car with the license plate "DON D 123." He claims this system produces bigger profits than handicapping, or "logic," as he calls it. These gamblers never cheer horses by name, only by the numbers on their saddlecloths. "Come on with that 8!" they shout during a stretch run, or "Get that 2 up there!" After the race is over, they blame themselves for getting the numbers wrong. "Damn!" they curse. "It came 1-3-5 and I had it 1-5-3." The horses change every race, but the numbers don't, so the superstitious believe they form recurring patterns. If an old woman's lucky numbers are 6 and 3, and her 6-3 exacta came in for $250 (the payoffs on numbers bets are often large, since there's no handicapping logic behind them), it's bound to come in again someday, isn't it?
Numbers players never buy the Form. They can't be bothered with all that information. They tear out the tip sheet from the Chicago Sun-Times or buy the Green Sheet ("Illinois Sports News Finest Little Newspaper"), which offers exacta, trifecta, and superfecta (a wager requiring bettors to pick the top four finishers in a race), combinations that hit about as often as the figures in lottery dream books.
* * *
I asked Lewis how long it had been since he'd picked a winner.
"Oh, I don't know," he said. "'Bout a year ago."
But he seemed extremely confident about his 5 horse, and I hadn't had time to handicap, so I bet two dollars on the 5-6 Daily Double.
It didn't come in. In fact, Lewis's 5 horse finished last. After the race, Glenn hurried outside to report the results.
"How much we get?" Lewis asked excitedly.
"Hold out your hand," Glenn teased, dangling the losing ticket.
"No. Don't make me guess."
"Come on. Hold out your hand."
Lewis's scaly palm peeked out from a nylon cuff. Glenn set the wrinkled ticket in its hollow.
"We didn't get nothin'," he said. "That 5 horse ran last."
Lewis counted out eight quarters and handed them to Glenn. There was a second race to bet.
"You hold this," he said, as the coins dripped into Glenn's hand. "My luck ain't been good."
Glenn, who always needed two dollars, could have bet Lewis's money on his own horse, just as he could have lied and kept the winnings if Lewis's Double had come in. But the blind man trusted Glenn. And Glenn looked out for the blind man, fetching him coffee from the snack bar, reading to him from the newspaper, watching over his cup to make sure nobody filched a coin. Partly, he was loyal because Lewis was blessed with blindness to bring in the money and always tipped Glenn after a good day. But Glenn had been hustling at Hawthorne for over a dozen years, so he knew the track was full of desperate guys who would do anything for a two-dollar bet, including steal from a blind man.
After consulting the Chicago Sun-Times — his I Ching, his Magic 8 Ball — Lewis determined that the 3 horse, Golden Ellen, would win the second. Glenn dutifully bought him a ticket, even though it contradicted Lewis's earlier declaration that Light As a Cat would win, but Lewis left for the bus before the race even started. If the 3 won, his "housekeeper," the woman who cleaned his apartment and chauffeured him to the track, would cash the ticket tomorrow. And unlike Glenn, she wouldn't ask for a tip.
"If my number comes in, them dudes'll be beggin' me," Lewis whispered, when Glenn was out of earshot. "I got to get on the bus and get out of here."
He stood up and walked toward a wall. I grabbed the sleeve of his parka and then led him to the Hawthorne Shuttle, a minibus that plies the quarter mile between the grandstand and Cicero Avenue. Lewis lifted himself onto the bus a little bit at a time, resting both feet on each step before attempting the next. As soon as the smoked doors unfolded behind him, I jogged up the ramp and banged on a locked door, motioning for the security guard to let me in. I flashed the stamp on my hand to prove I'd already paid admission. I didn't want to miss the second race.
Glenn was standing by the rail, at the bottom of the sloping asphalt apron. He was alone out there. All the other gamblers were inside, watching the races on closed-circuit television, leaving the apron as deserted as Daley Plaza on a winter holiday. Glenn's army jacket was zipped against the chill, and a watch cap flattened his graying curls. The sun was pale and bright, but there was no warmth in its light. You could see the cold. You could hear it. The refinery smokestacks unfurled pale pennants of smoke, outlined sharply against the crisp sky. Above our heads, a portly Southwest Airlines jet, brightly colored as a Japanese carp, swayed to the bottom of the sky, drifting toward Midway Airport, three miles to the south. Its engines sounded as muffled, as far away, as static from a transistor radio.
"It's gonna be hard to hustle this year," Glenn said, as the second-race horses jogged past in their warm-up and the clock on the brick tote board clicked down the seconds to post time.
* * *
Before 2003 Hawthorne had let the masses in free and charged $1.75 for a program, or a "book" as Glenn called it. Glenn picked programs up off the floor and peddled them to late-arriving gamblers for a buck. Management should have loved him. He kept the track clean, and he bet all his earnings on the horses. But now Hawthorne was under new ownership. The track had merged with Sportsman's Park, which was right next door on Cicero Avenue. The two had operated side-by-side since the 1920s, when Al Capone founded Sportsman's as a dog track. Sportsman's eventually came into the possession of the Bidwill family, which also owned the Chicago Cardinals football team. In 1998 Charles Bidwill III, the family scion, converted Sportsman's into a dual racetrack/motor speedway by building a 60,000-seat erector set grandstand and pouring an asphalt racing oval. With its high walls and concrete infield, the new project looked like a prison yard. Horses and cars had never mixed well on the streets, and they didn't mix at Sportsman's, either. Horses broke their legs on the thin cushion of dirt spread over the asphalt. NASCAR decided to hold its local race in Joliet, Illinois, which was closer to its rural audience. Sportsman's was tagged for demolition, and the Bidwills began running their spring meet at Hawthorne.
The motor speedway fiasco cost the Bidwills over $30 million. It was costing Glenn money, too, because Hawthorne was now charging a two-dollar admission and throwing in a program, which meant he no longer had a market for his secondhand "books."
"They ruined the hustle," he complained. "They're giving everybody a book when they come in. I used to be able to sell books outside the door. I made twenty or thirty dollars a day sometimes."
Glenn stopped talking, so we could watch Lewis's horse finish eighth. As a seer, Lewis was not exactly Tiresias. Glenn had done better. His horse had finished second. But he'd bet it to win. The ticket spun from his hand like a white leaf.
"Should have bet to place," he groaned.
Then Glenn ran off to aid another infirm gambler: a man in a wheelchair who needed his betting money carried to the window. He might have been the Hawthorne chapter of Little Brothers to the Elderly, except he had a financial interest.
"I'm gonna run a trifecta bet for this dude," he said, "and I'm gonna put in forty cents. That's all I got left. My forty cents may turn into ten dollars. Then I'll be able to bet again."
Glenn had not expected to spend his forties grifting at the track. He'd begun his working life as a crane operator at the U.S. Steel Works on the South Side. In the late 1970s, he was earning $40,000 a year — "more than a schoolteacher. I thought that was it."
Chicago doesn't make steel anymore. Glenn was laid off in 1986. When he worked at the mill, he'd spent every payday at the track, so once he was tossed out, he decided to turn it into a full-time occupation. In seventeen years he'd worked every hustle known to a man with an empty wallet and an urge to bet the Daily Double. For a while, he stood outside an offtrack betting parlor in the Loop, selling photocopied programs at far below the cost of real programs. The police broke up that scam. Glenn lived with his sister, who would always provide him a bed, since he'd put her through nursing school when he was a steelworker.
"I got brothers who are cops, I got a sister who makes $70,000 a year at the Board of Trade," he said. "They're wondering why I do this. It's my livelihood. I'm the black sheep of the family, but they ain't never gonna kick me out. When I was making $40,000 a year, I'd do anything for anyone."
* * *
There are worse addictions than horse racing. Glenn knew it, because he'd suffered most of them. As a young man, he'd played cards and shot dice with high-rolling South Side gangstas who laid out drug buffets at their gambling parties.
Back then, Glenn had blown his money at the racetrack every afternoon; in the evenings, he'd take whatever was left to the drug houses.
"I used to do cocaine, heroin," he told me once. "I went to four programs before I finally got clean. I been clean for five-and-a-half years. Betting is a different high from drugs. With drugs, you don't get nothin' back. When I got twenty dollars, I'd go straight out to the West Side, get me a bag. It was take a smoke, you'd be in the twilight zone. But that was it. You wouldn't have nothin' left. Here, you bet five dollars, you might be able to get some more money to keep gambling."
* * *
That Monday, the blind man was all alone at the bottom of the ramp, squatting on an overturned bucket.
"Where's Glenn?" I asked.
"He probably won't be here today," Lewis said. "Today's the third. He got his check."
"I didn't know he got a check."
"Probably a lot of people get Soc' Security checks you don't know about."
"Probably," I said. "So how are you going to pick your Daily Double?"
"I got a paper."
Lewis gripped the head of his cane as though it were a wizard's staff and lifted himself off the bucket with a hydraulic slowness. A blanket drooped over the rim. I peeled it away and found a ragged-edged Chicago Sun-Times racing page. It was something anyone could buy for thirty-five cents, but Lewis was hiding it as is if were a CIA codebook.
"What do you want me to do?" I asked, unfolding the sheet so Lewis could sit down again.
"I want you to add up the top and bottom numbers in the first three races."
"Thirty-one," I said, after summing in my head.
"Now, I want you to add up the top and bottom numbers in the last three races."
"That's seventy-one. Now, count down seventy-one horses."
My finger ticked down the page until Lewis asked, "What race you up to?"
"Go to the second horse in the eighth race."
"We need to do six more to get to seventy-one," I pointed out.
"Well, OK," he said. "Go to the sixth horse down."
"The sixth horse is number 2, Mr. Sandstorm."
"Now, what's the horse above that?"
"The 8 horse in the first race," Lewis pronounced. "That's the winner!"
"There is no 8 horse in the first race," I said.
Excerpted from Horseplayers by Ted McClelland. Copyright © 2005 Ted McClelland. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Ted McClelland is a staff writer for the Chicago Reader, where he writes a popular column called "At the Track" featuring his stories from the racetrack.
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