What makes a winner?

Two people called this week to talk about horse racing. Each person asked the same question. Do you ever win?

Updated: February 24, 2004, 2:16 PM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

Two people called this week to talk about horse racing, one a sports talk radio show host, the other a man writing a book about track-hopping.

Each person asked the same question.

The question was: Do you ever win?

These were not people who pick at winners off the program at a company outing at the track. Both men considered themselves to be regulars to the races, going at least once a week on average, once every couple of weeks at the outside.

Do you ever win?

This question set off periods of thoughtful silence during the remainders of the conversations.

Ever win?

Did you ever hit a home run off Roger Clemens?

Did you ever make a hole in one?

If you get paid a little something to work around the horse races, it stands to reason that somebody might think you could come up a loser every day of your betting life and continue trying to do better. Or if you had major league baseball player money, it might be a legitimate question because you could lose $100 per day forever and never even feel the pinch. A retired person betting $2 per race: Do you win? Ever?

I said yeah, I won.

Silence.

And more frequently than ever, by the way.

More silence.

Here's something interesting to think about: Most people seem to win at the horse races sometimes. When it comes to gambling, sometimes happens more often than occasionally. People who win occasionally win one out of five trips. People who win sometimes bat about .250, one for four. In both instances, you sometimes and occasional winners need to hit some nice prices so you won't fall into problem-gambler territory.

This is not a popular subject to broach in the pari-mutuel line.

But if the majority of horse players wins only sometimes and keeps going, what's that called?

What separates a healthy diversion from a gambling problem?

Somebody can spend twenty grand a year on catching and releasing trout and say it greatly improved the quality of his life, and maybe even kept him alive.

Somebody with the same income can lose twenty grand gambling and all of a sudden he's certifiable.

Somebody could be making NBA seventh-man money and lose $100,000 a year and not have a gambling problem.

It's hard to put together numbers on gamblers.

Request: Please write in the box the sum result of your horse racing wagering over the previous 12-month period.

In the box: Not that bad.

On the backs of some racing programs is a number to call if you think you have a gambling problem. Maybe this number should be on tip sheets, the way warnings about tar and nicotine are on cigarette packs.

There used to be a test a person could give him or herself to determine if he had a gambling problem.

This test made a problem gambler seem like something out of "The Days of Wine and the Run for the Roses," a madman or woman shaking quarters out of Junior's piggy bank and calling in sick at work from under the grandstand.

A more contemporary definition of a program gambler might be useful to those who could stand a winner.

A problem gambler could be simply this: Somebody who can't afford to lose the money.

How can you tell if you can afford to lose?

If you could have given to the needy what you just lost, you could be fairly normal.