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The Significant Seven
By John McEvoy
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2010 John McEvoy
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Chapter OneAugust 22, 2002
Six tremendously excited friends, middle-aged white men who had known each other since college, chattered and laughed and occasionally shouted in triumph.
Their faces were flushed, and not just because of the Saratoga Springs heat layer that hovered over the old upstate New York racetrack like a giant steam-bath towel. The late afternoon sun boiled down upon the departing crowd where many looked with curiosity at the half-dozen obviously revved up men still seated at their picnic table near the paddock, one occasionally slamming the table with his palm to emphasize a point, another passing around the iced beer cans he'd pulled from their cooler. The men grew even more animated when big Arnie Rison approached. Rison was sweating, grinning, doing a lumbering dance of celebration, and shouting loud enough to shake the leaves off the old elm trees, "We got the money, boys. We got the money!"
Walking just behind the jubilant Rison was a stockily built, thirtyish man with a bemused smile stamped on his broad face. Rison stopped at the table and gripped the young man's arm and raised it like a referee with a winning boxer. "This is Ira Kaplan," Rison announced. "He's a reporter for Racing Daily. He wants to write us up in the paper. What do you think of that?" They hooted and clapped as Kaplan sat down at the picnic table bench.
"Ira," said Rison, "let me tell you whose happy faces you're looking at. That little guy at the end with the big brain is Chris Carson, a CPA from Milwaukee. Next to him, with an old fullback's beer belly, is attorney Mike Barnhill, lives in Chicago, defending society's dregs for hefty fees. To his left is Joey Zabrauskis, 'Mr. Z', the Peoria area's biggest beer distributor."
Rison paused for a swig of beer. He nodded approvingly as Kaplan thrust his tape recorder farther into the middle of the table. "This side of the table," Rison said, "at the end, sits the honorable Henry Toomey, circuit judge of Dane County, which includes Madison, where we all met years ago as young, degenerate horse players." The others cheered that description. Rison continued, "Next to him is Steve Charous, one of the Chicago area's top insurance adjusters. We love him anyway. To your immediate left is Marty Higgins of beautiful Evanston, IL, Realtor supreme. Me, I'm from Skokie, IL. I run a car dealership."
"Or two, or three," interjected Carson, the little guy at the end. "He's no small potatoes, Kaplan, don't let him yank your chain."
Rison reached for the red cooler beneath the table and offered a beer to the reporter, who politely refused, saying, "Not while I'm working, thanks." Kaplan glanced at his notebook. "I've got a few questions to ask you."
To Kaplan's first query, Rison said, "We've been friends and horse players since we met back in Madison over thirty years ago, at the U. I don't remember exactly how we came together in the first place, probably in Doherty's Den, our favorite saloon, watching the Kentucky Derby the first Saturday of every May. The owner, Tim Doherty, came from Ireland. Great guy. Loved horses and betting. Doherty did a little bookmaking on the side. That's where we got to know each other, found out we liked horse racing, and each other, for that matter. For years now we've been going to the races together at Heartland Downs outside Chicago at least twice a month in the summer. And, for the last fifteen years, we've been leaving our wives and families and meeting here at Saratoga for a week of betting at this grand old place.
"And," Rison continued, "I guarantee you that we never, ever had a day at the races like we had today." He reached into his pocket for his wallet. He extracted a check. After glancing over his shoulder, he hunched forward and displayed the front of the check to his friends, then to Kaplan. Judge Toomey put on his glasses to see it clearly. Little Chris Carson had to stand up and lean forward.
"Holy shit," Carson said. "I didn't calculate it to be that big."
"Neither did I," Rison said. "Until the pari-mutuel manager told me I was bringing him today's only winning ticket in the carryover Pick Six."
Kaplan said, "What was the payoff? They wouldn't give me the figure earlier. Said they had to wait until they'd paid off the winner."
Rison slid the piece of paper toward the reporter. Kaplan saw $999,976. "Wow," Kaplan said. "That's a million, rounded off."
"Round it off, my new friend," Rison said, "and that's after taxes. I had to sign the IRS form having the track deduct 25 percent. I paid that tax in my name. When we split this up, I'll write checks to each of my guys here, deducting their portion of the tax from their shares. We're each going to get nearly one-hundred fifty grand."
Mike Barnhill let out a whoop. He shouted, "I'm ahead for life betting horses!" Barnhill's laughter was interrupted by Rison's coughing jag. Zabrauskis pounded his friend on the back, then reached over to snuff out Rison's Marlboro. "Arnie, you got to give up those damn cancer sticks," he said. "I know, I know," Rison managed to gasp before he'd completely recovered.
Kaplan said, "What did your ticket cost you guys? Do you mind telling me?"
Steve Charous laughed. "We had tickets, not a ticket. One main ticket, then some backup tickets. It was the main ticket that hit. This was the biggest shot we ever took. We knew the Pick Six pool was going to be huge. So last night, after several enlightening hours of drinking and handicapping at the bed and breakfast where we're staying, we decided to put in two hundred bucks each. That gave us $1,400 to invest. Far and away the biggest bet we'd ever made."
Judge Toomey, his long face stolid but eyes alight with excitement, said, "We're getting to that point in life where chance is more appealing. We're pretty much past midlife crises, if we ever had any, and still the near side of the grave with some juice left in the tank." He took a sip of beer. "We took a fucking shot," declared the normally austere jurist, making his buddies roar with laughter.
Kaplan looked around the table, memorizing some details for his story of these faces, old friends on a late afternoon at Saratoga Race Course, enjoying what was undoubtedly the pinnacle of their horse-playing careers.
"I want to ask you about your handicapping, how you put together your ticket," Kaplan said. "Would you talk about that?"
Rison said, "Why not?" He looked around the table. "I think we'd all agree it was a combination of smarts and luck. The first race of the Pick Six, we used five horses. We had the winner, she pays $18.80. Five again in the second leg. A real bomber, this time, pays $42.20. Third leg, we singled a grass sprinter trained by Hinda Rice, she's dynamite with those kind of horses. He wins for fun as the fourth choice in the race. For fun! Hey, we're starting to get kind of excited now. There are people all around the racetrack crumpling up their dead Pick Six tickets and tossing them into the trash."
"Tell Ira about the next one," Charous said.
Rison said, "We bowed to the expertise of Mr. Carson. We had all kinds of different opinions, some fierce arguments. Then Chris said, 'I don't care what other horse you use, but you've got to throw in Sean's Dream. Sean's the name of my first grandson, born two weeks ago.' Well, we couldn't argue with that. We tack Sean's Dream on as our fourth horse in that race. The son of a gun wins at 33 to 1! We're leaping around now. Mike Barnhill is starting to pace up and down, wearing a path in the grass. Like he's depending on a place kicker he doesn't trust to hit the winning field goal. The Judge? The Judge appeared to be in silent prayer.
"We had three horses in the fifth leg. One of them, CC's Camp, wins in a photo finish and pays $27.20. This is unfucking-believable for all of us. We're not just excited, we're starting to sweat. Scrotums are tightening. We've never been in a position like this before. Chris tries to calm us down, says 'At least we'll have five out of six for the consolation payment.' I thought Mr. Z was going to strangle him."
Zabrauskis, like Barnhill another ex-footballer but a lineman, laid his large right hand gently on little Carson's arm. "What I was thinking," he said softly, "was that we're going to goddam win this thing. Honest to God, I knew it was going to happen. I could feel it in my Polish bones."
Kaplan said, "Okay, going into the final leg of the Pick Six, you're alive to how many horses?"
The men at the table answered in chorus, "Two," then laughed uproariously at this sign of unanimity. Higgins stood up hoisting his beer can. "Two for the fucking money. That's what we had." Cheers from his table mates ascended.
Kaplan looked down at his notes. "The favorite didn't win," the reporter said. "I see who did. That old hard knocker trained by Cecil Granitz." Kaplan looked inquiringly around the picnic table. He said, "How the heck did you come up with him?"
Rison said, "Ask the insurance guy." Charous sat back, spreading his arms expansively. Track custodians were working their way around the picnic area that was now deserted except for this table. Rison waved them off. Their foreman, a young Latino, signaled okay, and the green-suited crew moved their brooms and rakes to a different area.
"What can I tell you? It was an act of pure genius," Charous said, eliciting some derisive comments from Carson and Higgins. "Seriously, we all thought we'd single the big favorite in the final leg of the Pick Six. He looked like the cinch of cinches, the lock of locks. But I had a feeling, and inkling ..."
Rison said, "For Chrissakes, Steve, get to it."
"All right," Charous replied, "I insisted—I'm saying insisted—that what turned out to be the winner be used on that ticket in the last leg."
Kaplan examined his racing program. He shook his head, chuckling, as he looked up at the insurance man.
"Horse named Actuarial Tables," Kaplan said. "Nips the favorite and pays twenty-three to one. He closed the million-dollar deal for you guys. I'll be a son of a gun." He was chuckling as he closed the cover of his notebook and put it in his sport-coat pocket.
Kaplan looked at his watch. "One last question. What are you going to do with this bonanza?"
Rison got to his feet. The others followed. "Gentlemen, I say that we all go next door and spend some money before we address that question." He patted Kaplan on the shoulder. "You, too, scribe."
Almost all of the track crowd had cleared out by now. Maintenance men were spearing discarded papers and cups from the grassy patches between the numerous picnic tables. The sun was momentarily obscured by a procession of clouds. Kaplan and those he would call "The Significant Seven" in his story—a title soon to become famous in racing circles—trekked out of the track grounds into the nearby patio bar of one of this expensive little city's most expensive restaurants. Zabrauskis carried the ice-filled beer cooler in one big hand until he reached the patio entrance, where he handed it to a waiter who staggered slightly on receipt.
"All yours, buddy," Zabrauskis told the young man, patting him on the shoulder.
This restaurant/bar had been derisively described for years by one racetrack wag as the "Home of the $17.50 Cocktail."
For that reason, the long-time friends had never ventured into this always crowded spot. But when they entered the patio area, many people there seemed to know who they were. They were getting smiles and nods and waves from strangers. Money news travels through racing people as fast as champion sprinters run. Chris Carson said to Zabrauskis, "Joey, I'm glad you dumped our cooler. This doesn't look like a cooler crowd. Or place." Rison led his pals to the bar. "My man, haul out a few magnums of Verve Clicquot, if you will." He laid two $500 bills on the bar.
"Right away, sir," said the bartender. He signaled a couple of waitresses. They quickly produced plates of hors d'oeuvres, offered with winning smiles. An hour later, the party of eight was led to a choice table inside the restaurant. There was no stemming the tide of expensive French champagne. Kaplan, his tape recorder now stored away, remained in tow. Hours later, when the steak and lobster dinner plates had been cleared away and Courvosier orders taken, Kaplan said to his newest best friends, "Fellas, I got to ask again. What are you going to do with this money? I don't mean for publication," he hurriedly added, "just for me."
"Ira," said Arnie Rison, "for both you and for publication, I think I can speak for the bunch of us. Some of us who have kids to educate will lay away money for college tuitions. We'll probably each take our wives on expensive vacations—believe it or not, we're all still married to our originals after all these years of horse playing.
"But," Rison continued, "we'll still have a good chunk left, every one of us. And I would venture to say that with that part of the winnings, we're going to do what we've talked and dreamed of since our days back in college, in Madison."
Rison looked around the table. "Am I right, men?"
The reaction from this emotionally transported group was made obvious by their huge smiles and upraised thumbs. At the far end of this table, just as he had been in the Saratoga paddock, little Chris Carson got to his feet and answered for the seven. "Ira, we're going to buy some racehorses!"
Their waitress came to announce dessert choices. Judge Toomey said, "I'm so full, I'm recusing myself." Orders for coffee, ice cream, and a slab of peanut butter cake, a house specialty, were put in. The waitress waited, pen poised.
Rison said, "Steve, you want something else?"
Charous, cursed with a lifelong and once before nearly fatal allergic reaction to peanuts, said, "I'd like the lemon tart sitting over there in the booth with a codger, showing off her beautiful yellow dress and hair, but I think I'll settle for the lemon torte."
"Wise choice," said Rison.
* * *
Next morning The Significant Seven assembled for breakfast, slightly hung over but with traces of the previous day's jubilation still coursing through them. Chris Carson said, "I thought I dreamed what happened yesterday. But I didn't." Their talk soon turned to possible horse ownership. Judge Toomey brought out a notebook and began writing down names of trainers they would consider hiring once they got in the business.
It was agreed each one of the seven would interview at least one possible trainer choice face-to-face, then report back to the group. A hiring decision would evolve from this process.
"We've got to go about this in a business-like manner," Carson cautioned. There were nods of agreement all around the deck breakfast table of the Mansion Inn, where the seven men had stayed each August for so many years.
It was agreed that each syndicate member would put up $50,000. With a $350,000 bankroll, they calculated they could purchase three or four horses in the mid- forties/fifties range and pay for their training costs for one year. If one of them did very well, they theorized, and a "couple do decently," as Carson put it, "we might beat the odds. We sure as hell did yesterday," he laughed. Judge Toomey said, "We all know, of course, that 95 percent of horse owners lose money. Year after year. The fallout rate in horse ownership is as bad as the restaurant business."
"Ah, Henry," Arnie Rison said, "let us put that depressing statistic behind us." He beamed at his old friends around the table. "We defied the odds yesterday. Let's ride the goddam waves, that's what I say. All these years, we've been playing the horses. Up one year, down the next, on and on. Some of us were looking at it like what many an old horse player has said, 'Please, Lord, let me break even. I need the money.'"
Joe Zabrauskis picked up the orange juice pitcher and filled his glass. He said, "Remember that story about one of the horse-playing movie actors—Jack Klugman, maybe Mickey Rooney, Walter Matthau. I'm not sure. One of those guys."
"No," Charous said. "I don't." Neither had the others.
Zabrauskis said, "He's at Del Mar one day when this regular, a guy he's known at the track for years, comes rushing up to him. Guy called Harry the Hopeless Horse Player. Says he's got a huge problem. Harry's wife needs major surgery the next day. Yeah, they have health insurance, but with a big deductible. Could the actor loan him $2,500 for the operation that's set for the morning?
"The actor, a good-hearted fella, thinks it over and says, 'Well, okay. I'll have to cash a check. I'll meet you back here in twenty minutes.' When he comes back and hands over the cash, Harry is extremely grateful. He says thanks about a dozen times. Then they hear the bugle for the first race. The actor, he's in kind of a generous mood now, says, 'I know that money I loaned you is going for the operation, right? But, Harry, you need a few bucks to bet the double?'
Excerpted from The Significant Seven by John McEvoy Copyright © 2010 by John McEvoy. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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