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Saturday, December 8, 2012
For kings and winners

By Gary West
Special to ESPN.com

He looked like a mountain climber whose rope had just broken. "You got a minute?" he asked. "I'd like to ask you a question."

All the experts, he said, and for emphasis he pointed at me, are idiots. But he, on the other hand, once upon a time picked a winner of the Kentucky Derby and once hit a superfecta at Trinity Meadows, and so he was the real expert.

Fifteen minutes later, he still had not asked a question. He explained that he was a great -- not just good, but great -- handicapper and had been coming out here to the racetrack since he was a child and had learned all there was to know at his father's knee. All the experts, he said, and for emphasis he pointed at me, are idiots. But he, on the other hand, once upon a time picked a winner of the Kentucky Derby and once hit a superfecta at Trinity Meadows, and so he was the real expert. Even though he never had been in a stall or atop a horse or even on the backside of a racetrack, he knew what was going on, really going on, because nothing got by him, this man who knew all there was to know about horse racing.

And something was wrong, he continued, when somebody such as himself, somebody so smart and knowledgeable, couldn't make money betting on horses at the racetrack. At first, he said, he thought the racing gods were punishing him. (For being insufferable?) But he had come to realize that the racing gods weren't responsible -- or at least not them alone. It's also the experts, with all their bogus numbers and information, and the trainers, with all their deceptions, and the jockeys, with their inconsistent efforts. The stewards, the racetrack operators, the regulators and the drugs -- oh my, all that Lasix -- the sport is just awash in drugs he knew because he read it somewhere -- they're all to blame for this sorry situation when the smartest, most knowledgeable and greatest handicapper in the entire world can't make money at the racetrack.

"Excuse me," I said, "but before you were born was your mother exposed to high levels of radiation?"

Later, I realized how strange that meeting was, and not just because the world's greatest handicapper was so strange and misinformed and solipsistic or because he carried off his stupidity with such grand hauteur. It was strange because he, or rather his type, the gambler who bet not to win but to lose, has become rare at the racetrack. If the world's greatest handicapper can't win, and if he's as frustrated as he appears, then why does he continue to come to the track and bet, I wondered. And the answer was clear: He bets to lose, to convince himself that he's not to blame for all his failures, and to give unmerciful fate an opportunity to scream, "Boola boola."

For the most part, these people who bet to lose -- Sigmund Freud theorized that Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for example, who wrote The Gambler to pay his gambling debts, actually gambled to punish himself -- have moved on to other games that are "cool" and easy, games such as poker, slots and Powerball lotteries.

A study described in the Journal of Gambling Studies found that people who play slots are idiots, although it didn't put it quite that way, saying instead that they "exhibit greater amounts of irrational thinking." Like lottery players, slot players gamble because they "hold a set of false beliefs" about their chances of winning and about their own expertise, much like the world's greatest handicapper. But are they really that delusional, or beneath it all is there a desire to lose?

I suspect that's always been true: that some people bet to lose. In ancient Rome, when the men played Tessarae and Tabula, or when they bet on the gladiators in the coliseum or the races at the Circus Maximus -- women could bet only during the Bona Dea Festival, or on Ladies' Night -- some bet for the action, no doubt, for the dopamine rush, but some bet to lose, not to win. It was probably true when the 13 original colonies all had lotteries, and when in the late 19th century Charles Fey of San Francisco invented the slot machine and George Armstrong Custer, using the pseudonym Nomad, was a turf writer at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, and it was probably still true in 2007, when Terrance Watanabe, on an extravagant binge of futile gambling combined with what must have been self-loathing, lost $127 million in Vegas.

The chronic losers once gathered on the grandstand aprons of America's racetracks, but they're moving on. They can find quicker ways to lose and punish themselves these days, easier ways to rationalize failure. And so most of the people on the apron at the racetrack today are looking for a good race, or the next concert, or, up in the Club House, they're looking over the buffet or searching for a dance floor. They're looking for entertainment. And just watching the fastest creature in the world for sustained speed can be, for many, entertainment enough.

Nelson Bunker Hunt, for example, would sometimes sit with his wife, Caroline, in the Lone Star Park grandstand and watch race after race. Once the richest man in the world, he couldn't bet enough to make it financially exciting; but he appreciated the beauty of the sport, the grace of the horses.

For many years, Hunt was a leading owner and breeder, both here and in Europe. In 1988, in a dispersal sale, after he and a brother had lost billions in an unhappy silver adventure, Hunt sold his horses for $46 million. But in 1999, just on a whim, he explained, he went to a sale and bought some 2-year-olds. He was back in the game, although in only a small way.

Some people drive fast cars, some jump out of planes, and some go the racetrack and bet on horses to satisfy their risk-taking, adrenalin-craving needs.

"You know, a million dollars is still a lot of money," he once told me over lunch, explaining why he didn't buy Candy Ride when he had the opportunity early in the horse's career. But he didn't need a million-dollar horse. He always has had a passion and love of the sport, and could enjoy watching a group of claimers as much as a Derby; for Hunt, just seeing determined horses in a race to define themselves, any race, could be an exquisite and exhilarating entertainment.

Some people, I know, go to the racetrack and bet on horses because they need to experience the risk. Is there something inherent in that, this need for risk-taking? If not for horse racing and gambling, would mountainsides be cluttered with adventurers and caves with spelunkers? Some people drive fast cars, some jump out of planes, and some go the racetrack and bet on horses to satisfy their risk-taking, adrenalin-craving needs.

And a few go to the racetrack and bet on horses to win. Yes, the entertainment and risk are all part of it, but without the possibility of winning, horse racing would be purely academic.

One of my closest friends, Marvin Small, a former oil company executive and racing commissioner who lives in Oklahoma City, goes to Remington Park each and every day of the season. He loves racing, appreciates the horses and the competition. But most of all, he goes to the racetrack for the intellectual challenge. He goes to win, and he does.

That's why horse racing remains the greatest of games. Most gambles will satisfy that risk-taking need, and many games are entertaining and exciting. But horse racing is for winners.