Risk Patrol

Wagering on college basketball is nothing compared to working the tracks.

I'm here at the Off Track Betting room at the sprawling Red and Jerry's complex on Oxford and Santa Fe for one reason: to learn how to gamble.

Or more accurately, to learn how to play the horses. Gambling in its simplest state is no more challenging than sleep. Want to bet the kids' lunch money on college basketball or pro football? Grab a pen and a ten. Wagering on horses or greyhounds is far more complex, however. The regulars, the people who actually make money now and then, rely on a kind of specialized knowledge married to complete guesswork. The racing world is confusion squared, brimming with fractions, long, incongruous names and jargon. For instance, winners win, but horses and dogs don't come in second or third; they place and show.

I'm not entirely ill-equipped for this venture. I possess the most important trait a gambler-to-be can have: I lose money fearlessly and will bet on anything. And I do mean anything: March Madness, the NFL season, college football. Some of my buddies run a pool on the final score of every Rockies home game. We organize a large Masters Tournament pool, complete with a golfer draft. And, most shamefully, a few of those same shlubs and I bet on which classic-rock bands will be played on the Fox from 5 to 10 p.m. on weekdays. The first one with five bands wins the pool.

But just having the right attitude is not enough. OTBs offer pari-mutuel wagering, which literally means "betting among ourselves." So unlike in Vegas, you're not trying to win the house's money; you're trying to win the money put up by the Kool-puffing dude down the counter and by other gamblers in other OTBs across the nation. These are men and women who know their racing forms better than their alphabet, who can recall, Pete Rose-like, the odds on a filly in the sixth at Belmont on the windy third Tuesday of Lent, 1965.

"When you're betting on the horses or dogs in a pari-mutuel, you're betting against the pool," says Red and Jerry's general manager, Tim Nichols. "Eighty percent of that pool is paid back to the wagerers. You're betting that you know more about that race than they do."

I might know more about personal hygiene than some of these guys, but as I stand in line to buy my racing program -- a stack of papers several inches thick, full of indecipherable numbers and comments like "failed to menace" -- I realize that I know absolutely nothing about any of these races. My experience with horses is limited to childhood, when my sister would take me for rides on her quarter horse, Dodger, notable mainly for his massive shits. As for dogs, most of the ones my family owned didn't move particularly fast, if at all. But in the spirit of American social scientist John Dewey, I'm learning by doing. I will not be dissuaded or disheartened. After a quick look over the complimentary betting guide, I have a plan of action.

I choose to bet the ponies, because as Naum Nasif, who is sitting in the seat next to me, says, "With dogs, the last one that poops before the race runs the fastest." I'm going to start slow, with an easy bet: the exacta. Picking an exacta requires picking the first two horses or dogs to cross the finish line in order. But how do I choose? What in God's heaven differentiates Roaring Fever from Wild Wildcat? What if I pick Runnin' on Nitro and he fails to menace? I sought help from the only place to look: the bar. I find Ramiro and his buddy.

"Have any favorite numbers? Play 'em," Ramiro's buddy says. "Have a girlfriend? Let her look at the horses -- any name she likes, bet it." Ramiro laughs.

"Horse races, it's hard to figure who's really going to win the race. It really is," Ramiro adds. "You can go with the favorite, like everybody does -- smart money, they call it -- but you never know. That's why everybody plays long shots. There's no money to be made in favorite-picking. There is none. You always try to beat the favorite. That's the American way, isn't it?"

Heck, yeah, it is. I bet my exacta at the window: White Buck to win and The Lady's Groom to place in the eighth race at Pimlico. White Buck is a 20-to-1 underdog, virtually guaranteeing me a loss, but I don't care. American way, baby. Besides, how can a horse that evokes Pat Boone lose? While waiting for the race to start, I scan one of the millions of television sets for some pertinent info on the horses I picked. All I discover is that White Buck is entering the race three pounds heavy.

Just three? He might as well have been hauling a load of molybdenum up Rabbit Ears Pass. White Buck was one of the horses in the back, the ones the camera never even sees. For all I know, he might never have left the gate. He might never have shown up at the damn track. Some undeserving animal named Seattle Fitz wins, and just like that, Pat Boone and I are losers.

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