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The numbers game

9/28/2006

Here's what horse racing is up against as it competes for the gambling dollar: a world-wide campaign of unprecedented mindlessness.

His and Her Corvettes and big boats are the least of what they're giving away at Indian casinos near where I live. Recently, a mini-mansion was given away in a drawing.

You can check your troubles and brains at the doors at most casinos, where people are stuffing money into slot machines without knowing anything about the house take-out rate. Not even some employees at the casinos know what percentage of the money being bet is raked into the vault. At some of the Indian casinos, at the blackjack tables, a 50-cent ante is required of all hands. This tax encourages players to bet more to reduce the sting. If you're a $5 blackjack player, it's like a cover charge at the door where a bouncer turns you upside-down and shakes out ten percent of what you brought.

How can a casino gambler complain about the price of pork and beans and then stuff hundred-dollar bills into slot machines without even knowing of the house take-out rate?

The contemporary casino gambler is willing to pay a stiff surcharge in order not to have to think. The great appeal of casino gambling is that after a tough day of work, or after a rugged morning of retirement, you don't have to ponder much, even at cards, where, once you memorize a few probability charts, you can operate on remote control until it's time to use the rest room.

Slots? A monkey's uncle could play them and still have some brain power in reserve.

A prevailing thought about gambling today seems to be: If we're going to lose, anyway, why waste time on preparation?

In a private room at the horse race simulcast venue one day recently, there were but eight of us in attendance, and not a double negative in the joint. It wasn't a MENSA meeting. But for gamblers, it seemed to be a well-read room comprised of professional-enough people.

During this evening of racing, one of the men in the private room hit a Trifecta that couldn't be picked. It was one of those that made you wonder who besides the next of kin of the main parties had it. It was such a nice payoff that the victorious horse player couldn't sit quietly for the photo finish involving the first three places, then rise calmly and go collect his winnings, his handicapping secrets safe.

The Trifecta paid almost $2,000.

After the results were made official, the other horse players in the room went directly to their Racing Forms to see how anybody could have solved that jumble. Usually, there's some way of explaining a long shot play: So-and-so the trainer is really good with horses coming back after being pulled up four months ago. Not here. One horse had fair form. It ran third. The winner was a first-timer. The horse finishing second was off a limp.

The losers in the room looked at the winner: Where's you get those three numbers?

The winning numbers were the birthdays of his children, days, singularly, not the months.

He said that he usually played these birthdays at the high and low-dollar races -- the events that were the hardest to predict.

Similarly, a friend tells me that his wife has won many thousands of dollars at the horse races playing her telephone area code and a neighbor's street address.

The losers in the room on this evening were bought free dinners and drinks by the winner and later admitted to having lucky numbers with personal -- usually familial -- angles.

The point is this: Why play the state numbers lotteries, which is like making a bet on a 40-horse field, when you can sometimes play the horse race lottery involving but ten or 11 chances?

Thoughtless gambling blows a horse player's intellectual cover but is good for the game.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com