What could have been ... really

This piece is a study of another of the great race track characters.

Updated: January 13, 2005, 3:35 PM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

This piece is a study of another of the great race track characters.

A clean, new, secure horse racing facility doesn't mean that the characters have disappeared. It means the characters have to act in a lower tone of voice.

Understanding race track characters is important because they specialize in spreading negative thoughts. Without sounding like a yoga instructor, I have enough negatives thoughts of my own, who needs anybody else's?

I prefer the live races to the pinball races, those blurry images on a screen where, during the post parade, it can be difficult to tell which horse has the highest number of healthy legs. When at the races, you can't handicap in a vacuum. It helps to be on hand to get a feel of the track and the betting, and to look at the horses, something of a diminishing art.

The post parade on a small screen at a simulcast venue frequently shows little more than head and shoulder shots of a jockey and lasts about a minute and can make you seasick. More often than not, horses that look bad run that way. When there are crowds at live meets, it can be difficult to get from the post parade to a betting window.

It's why you need binoculars. In the grandstand at a live meet not long ago, I was the only one with binoculars. Good. More money for me. You think I'm announcing which horse lists?

Last time in this space, the character we looked at was the person, usually male, who frequently said he had a winning ticket on a race that did not compute or translate, a race where the easy winner at 75-1 had this form: last, last, next to last, last, next to last, way back there, who cares.

Hearing about somebody's impossible good fortune is not conducive to your own competent handicapping. Rather than listen to this stuff, I now ask to see any ticket that sounds like fiction.

The race track character worth a good look today is the person who comes stunningly close to winning something like $10,000 a week on a small bet.

There is one of these characters in every horse race track in the country, somebody with a hangdog expression spreading exotic tickets on a table and showing you that had a 15-1 shot run third instead of second, he would have won $9,000 on a $6 investment.

This character is almost always a man because if a woman gambler came within an inch of winning a small fortune every few days, she'd move onto something less stressful after a couple or three years.

The person who almost wins a lot of money on a regular basis has the evidence to back up his horror stories.

He gets up to use the restroom at the Indian casino, and somebody puts a dollar bill into that same machine and hits a jackpot.

His greeting is not hi, hello, how's the family.

His greeting is: You won't believe what just happened to me.

Last week, the one at my track with more brushes with the Internal Revenue Service window than all the other regulars combined spread three Trifecta tickets on a table to demonstrate how he almost hit a $6,000 payoff. Sure enough, the three winning numbers were accounted for in about every possible combination except what showed up on the tote board as Official.

Here's the point, here's the way to handle this character so you won't spend the rest of the afternoon sitting depressed in a corner because of a couple of inches worth of hard-charging bad luck.

You have to be good to come that close.

Anybody who comes so near a big payoff on a regular basis and keeps coming back for more figures to be winning his share without going into that in any detail.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@go.com

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