The haze and excitement make it easy to overlook a small, unassuming door in the far left corner, near the concession stand and the bathrooms. Attached to this door is a key pad. Enter a code onto the pad, and the door opens into a plain, almost ugly room with beige shag carpeting and vinyl chairs that have surely been there for going on four decades. A large window adorns the far side, looking out onto the track. Monitors are everywhere, some showing races, most blank and silent. There is none of the hustle bustle from the world outside. This room has a different kind of energy, a tension. Something serious is going on.
A few average-looking men are scattered about. They don't speak, and they don't look up from the piles of papers, folders, and journals strewn on the tables in front of them. Here and there a cell phone rings.
Libraries are louder than this place.
Gone are the boisterous festivities of the outside world--and that's exactly how the room's occupants like it. This space is not so much a sports venue as it is their office. They place money on horses, but they are gamblers in only the loosest sense of the word. For unlike most gamblers, the odds are in their favor. The track is their business, this room their corporate headquarters. They are professional gamblers, and they need this sanctuary to do their work.
A tall, shambling man with sharp blue eyes, a moustache, and a tropical shirt greets me at the door. This is the man I have been waiting to talk to: a pro. Before finding him, I wandered the Meadows for several hours, talking with a slew of regulars who throw down large amounts of cash at the track daily, but do not and cannot support themselves on the money they make.
Finally, I approached the president of Portland Meadows himself, Arthur McFadden, who informed me that there are only two, maybe three regulars that fit the definition I am seeking, and they value their privacy. He made some calls, and set me up with this guy--I'll call him Sam. Sam is very adamant that I don't use his real name.
"You get too many people bothering you," he says. "They want winners. They want the work that you've done on the horses. That's why we're in this club. That's why we have that locked, coded door. It's imperative for quiet study and not having to deal with questions."
I wonder if that was a hidden barb directed at me because I'm a journalist, a questioner. But I am too excited by his words to be deterred.
I am fascinated by gambling as an occupational form; a bona fide business where an income is assured. Thousands and thousands of people come through Portland Meadows every year. Two or three have what it takes to do what Sam does. For the last nine months, Sam has not worked a job, only gambled. He is listed with the IRS as a professional gambler. A few months ago, he won $12,000 in a month. The next month he lost $14,000. The next month he broke back even. That is the nature of the game; there are a tiny amount of winners, many, many losers, and a few like Sam, who win some and lose some, but never lose everything.
Sam talks and I listen. He informs me that the skill of horseracing, the way to be successful at it, lies in what is known as "handicapping," or, as Sam puts it, the art of "assimilating information correctly."
Sam is an information assimilation machine, an endless fountain of horseracing and handicapping knowledge. It pours out of him like water, and I become aware during the interview of how difficult my task will be later, when I try to make sense of it all. He begins his lecture with deceptive simplicity.
"Write this down," he says.
I glance at the running tape recorder I'm holding in my hand, but pick up a pad and paper for fear he'll stop talking if I don't. For the first time since I've met him, he speaks slowly. What he is revealing is his doctrine, his Ten Commandments, though there are only three of them.
"Speed," he says. "Early speed, pressing speed, and late speed, are the three determining factors in the outcome of all races. That is the foundation of handicapping." I nod my head. Sounds easy enough. He elaborates:
"Ninety-five percent of the time, [horses] run their same type of race. If they go to the front, they go to the front; if they're a deep closer, they're a deep closer."
He explains that the first thing any good handicapper does is look at the racing history of all the horses to see what kind of finishers they are. The horses that tend to "go to the front," will have a record of performing well at sprints (races less than a mile in length). They start races strong and in the front of the pack. They also tire quickly. Horses known as "deep closers" start off slow, but speed up as the race deepens, performing well in longer races, outlasting the early frontrunners.
It is this assimilation of information--this interpretation of factors--in which Sam excels. When he "plays speed," the formula is simple: In a sprint, don't bet on the deep closers; in a longer race, don't bet on the sprinters. It sounds so simple, like anyone could do it. But of course there's a reason why Sam is a successful gambler, while 99.9 percent of the rest of the pack are not. On the iceberg of factors that Sam takes into account every time he handicaps, speed is only the tip.
BLOOD AND STATISTICS: THE PLOT THICKENS
Sam opens up his Racing Form, a daily periodical that addresses all things horseracing, including detailed information on each horse in every race across the country. It's subtitled "AMERICA'S TURF AUTHORITY SINCE 1894."
Today (Thursday) there are 36 races covered. A seemingly endless stream of names rolls across every page: Lexi's Habit... Darling Demon... Kinzie Woo... Lil' Miss Obnoxious, and so on. A minimum of six horses run in each race, and some races have as many as 24 horses, which means there are at least three to four hundred horses covered in today's form. On the weekends, there are many, many more.
The Form is a massive web of statistics, names, and abbreviations. For the novice, looking at it is akin to perusing an organic chemistry textbook. Sam pulls out a Form from two months ago, points to a number listed on one of the races held at the Belmont track in New York.
"This is the variant number here," he says.
Then he points outside towards the track at Portland Meadows, where a heavy rain coats everything.
"When it rains like it is now, the topsoil gets pushed to the inside because the oval is banked around the turns, the racing surface is slanted, and so it gradually gets forced down and the topsoil can be heavier, and so the outside part of the track is better."
I blink. There is a statistic that describes the condition of the track, and that somehow helps Sam figure out which horse to bet on. I can glean that much.
Sam points. "The variant number here is 10. September 15... Belmont track was off 10 lengths. [At 10 lengths] you know that the inside ground was good."
He points to a horse that ran on the inside part of the track during the Belmont race, and lost. I scratch my head. There is a statistic for determining which part of the track the horse likes to run on.
"This guy ran poorly on the best part of the track," says Sam. "He's no good in his next start."
Horse speed, track condition, and position. So far, so good. I'm keeping pace. And then we round the bend, and Sam starts to dig in deep as he heads for the stretch. He points to another mysterious box hovering above one of the races.
"This race is for two-year-old fillies who were born in New York. That's what that box means--state-bred. Now, the incentive to run and breed in New York is that at the end of the year the state-bred bonus pool kicks in. From the total pool in New York, which is six to eight million dollars, two percent goes to the state-bred fund, and from that fund at the end of the year, the owners of the horses who ran first, second, or third get incentive bonuses for breeding and racing in New York."
He points to one of the horse's statistics. The name of the horse's owner is listed. "So at the end of the year if this guy, Marmac, has seven wins in New York, with his New York breds, he's going to get maybe another $100,000 because he bred and raced in New York. As a handicapper trying to survive in this deadly game, you have to understand what that means. You have to follow the course of information [in the Racing Form] and know that a race is an open race, but within are some state-bred horses who are not as well bred, or intended to win today because they're state breds. Why run against open company, against better horses, when you can run against your own kind and get incentive money?"
There are statistics for how much extra cash owners get if their horses win in the state they were born in. There are open races, composed of horses from one state, and there are state-bred races, composed of horses from many states.
Sam assimilates this information and uses it to read the owners' minds. If an owner's horse is racing in an open race, the owner will often let the horse lose in order to save its strength for an up and coming state-bred race, where it will get the normal money for winning, plus incentive money for winning in its native state.
I rub my eyes. My head is starting to spin a bit. Meanwhile, Sam gears up for the final sprint.
"Medication," he says, grinning at the next topic. "Lasix is a bleeding medication that keeps horses from bleeding in their lungs; if their lungs fill up with blood during the race, they stop running."
I stare at him. "Are blood-filled lungs a common occurrence in horse racing?" I ask.
"Up until 1992, Lasix was illegal," he replies. "They legalized it because so many horses bled and the public was getting ripped off by horses who would stop in the middle of a race. As a handicapper, you would come back to the next race and do what? Will he bleed today? Will he not? That was huge, and then the scientists developed Lasix. That stopped the bleeding."
Speed. Track condition. Race position. Owner psychology. Blood. I don't know if it's more amazing that there are actually statistics for all these things, or if it's more amazing that handicappers like Sam actually know how to use them to their advantage.
CLEANING THE CASH FLOW
A race starts on one of the monitors and Sam gets up abruptly to watch.
"I've got this horse big here."
He leans in close to the screen.
"Come on, Jimmy! Come on!"
The race ends and he sits back down. He is nonchalant.
"What happened?" I ask.
He shrugs. "I won. More firepower for later. Right now I'm up $520. Today is safe. I'll hit a couple other things and I'll lose back some maybe, or I could walk away, but if I stay and play, I won't lose money today. And I have the potential, with what I've studied for later on, to have a big day because now I have some firepower. And when a player has my kind of information and history and longevity in this game, he can smash things. I can bet a $50 Exacta and get it 25 times and it pays $40. Boom. There's $900."
Horse-betting terminology is another story in itself, and I don't have the chops to understand what Sam is talking about, but it sounds impressive. It also raises the question of what he does with all that money once he wins it. Is it under the table? Does it get taxed?
Sam breaks into a broad grin. Clearly he loves talking about his money as much as he loves talking about earning his money. He pulls out a stack of receipts from the track.
"Two dollar bets over $600 are reportable to the IRS, and the track will send them a copy, and you have to deal with those pricks. They all know me, every agent in this town. I've taken them to tax court and battled them to a standstill."
Sam seems offended and hurt that the IRS would ever question him about his taxes, which is surprising considering what he rather gleefully says next:
"With no income and listed as a pro gambler, I get to incorporate (into his taxes) periodicals, race forms, programs, admissions--which I get all free anyway (because he is a VIP), but they don't know that. Seating. It's three dollars for a seat, 300 days a year; that's a $900 write-off."
He holds up the Racing Form.
"These cost four bucks, and there's two of them a day on the East Coast and West Coast. That's eight dollars a day times 300. Line 26 of Schedule A in your 10-40 form states you can offset winnings with losses up to the amount of the winnings. In 2001 I filed for $216,000 [!!] in signers [track receipts] that the IRS had record of. Guess how much I filed for?"
"$216,000," I answer, somewhat breathless.
I am impressed that a professional gambler can actually write off his losses as a business expense, but astounded by Sam's ability to pull numbers, rules, and laws out of thin air, then weave them together to work in his advantage. Of course, at this point, I shouldn't be surprised. It's all he does all day, after all, so it makes sense he would be good at it by now. I wonder about his personal life and if it is inhibited at all by this obsession with information.
ADDICTED TO LOVE
When I inquire about his life outside the track, a strange thing happens: Sam leans back in his chair and looks at the floor. When the conversation topic was horseracing he was upright, hands on his knees, his blue eyes staring fiercely into mine. When the topic is life outside of racing, he slouches, mumbles. His hands fold in his lap, then move to behind his head, then back to his lap. He talks briefly about trying to quit gambling in 1993 to make his fiancee happy. He failed, and the relationship eventually ended.
"So it's hard to have relationships with this lifestyle?" I ask.
He gazes out at the track. "Yeah... you sacrifice that."
I think back to a few weeks ago, when I was scouring the local Gamblers Anonymous sect, shamelessly interrogating severely addicted people with the hopes I could find someone like Sam. I never did find anyone at GA, mostly because I felt bad for being exploitative; for trying to use people who had truly fucked their lives as a source of entertainment. At the time, my definition of professional gamblers were people who could gamble full-time without letting it consume them to the point where it ruined their lives. The people at GA obviously do not fit that bill, so I moved on.
Sam has yet to ruin his life, but he will be the first to admit he is as consumed as anyone else, and clearly it has affected his life in ways that are not always positive. He does have an addiction to something.
"Not gambling," he says. "Horse racing. There's a huge distinction. I spent 33 days in a mental health facility in 1993, an experimental, compulsive gamblers wing of this hospital they tried to get me to say I was a compulsive gambler, and up until my last day there I wouldn't admit it, so they kept saying, 'You're never gonna be cured.' And I kept saying, 'I don't bet football, I don't play poker, I don't go play blackjack. I am not a gambler.'"
The topic is back where he likes it. He leans forward again, winks.
"I am a professional turf speculator."
Sam is addicted to handicapping. He is addicted to preparation, to study, to assimilation, to work. Sam is a true workaholic.
I notice the gleam in his eyes, the smile playing at the corners of his mouth as he watches the horses fly past. Everyone would be a workaholic if their work was as enjoyable to them as Sam's is to him.
"There's no funner place to be than the race track and gambling," he says, standing up.
Another race is beginning.
"And the second funnest place to be is at the race track, gambling, and losing."