Once would have been a fluke. Twice a coincidence. But Cassie Vidal's 16-year-old son, Ethan, kept picking winners. He nailed 10 of 11 thoroughbred races at Sunland in New Mexico two winters ago; he picked 68% of all college basketball games straight up last season; 523 out of 763 in college football this year. Finally, Cassie thought, she had proof. Her boy is special.
She'd been saying it for years. Cassie even framed the fortune Ethan ripped from a cookie at their favorite Chinese restaurant—The Lucky Buffet in Marble Falls, Texas—and hung it on her bedroom wall. "You will soon be in the limelight," it reads.
When you believe, you look for signs. And, for a long time, Cassie collected them like lucky charms.
Ethan was two when she realized he was different. He hadn't said a single word. He didn't socialize with kids his age. He went into rages around strangers. He wouldn't hug her. Tantrums followed by hugs are what two year olds do best, and Cassie had two older sons who proved it. But something wasn't clicking with her youngest. She took him to a specialist. "The doctor said he had the development of a four-month old," she says.
Ethan was diagnosed with a double-whammy of troubles: Autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Doctors thought he might never talk. Cassie and her husband, Juan, denied it, grieved about it, prayed over it. "Try to imagine the mind of my son compared to someone with a normal mind," Cassie says. "It's overwhelming."
Then they rallied, and figured out how to live with Ethan.
If he threw a fit, they learned to pinpoint what triggered it. They taught him sign language so he could communicate. Cassie became a certified pharmacy technician to better understand the complicated side effects of Ethan's medication. Soon, she would give doctors her own prescription suggestions.
There was progress. And there were setbacks. When Ethan turned five, he spoke his first word. At 7, he moved into the Marble Falls public school system. When he was 12, he was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and borderline schizophrenia. That meant learning to deal with new triggers and recalibrating his medicine. But at 13, he gave Cassie a hug.
Meanwhile, Cassie and Juan took him everywhere—the movies, dinner, shopping. Partly because they wanted to, partly because Cassie is the only one who gives him his meds, some of which he needs every five-and-a-half hours. Miss by a minute and, well, "If we're out people look like they're afraid of Ethan when he acts up," says Cassie. She's never guarded when she talks about his condition. "But they need to know all these kids have a gift."
Two years ago, She discovered Ethan's.
Cassie and Juan, a quarter horse trainer, had taken Ethan along to Houston's Sam Houston racetrack. As Cassie scanned the racing program, Ethan, then 14, asked his mom if he could make some picks.
"He made four," Cassie says. "And he won."
All of them.
They stayed in town for two days, and Ethan kept picking and winning. He liked certain jockeys or certain horses, running certain races. Thing is, he'd never heard of any of them. Did he see patterns in the numbers? In the letters? Cassie couldn't explain it. Maybe he just had a knack for this course.
So she tried a different track. On December 29, 2006—"I still have the program," Cassie says—they went online and checked out the races at Sunland Park, New Mexico. There were 11 races that day. Ethan finished in the money on 10, with seven wins, one place, two shows. The money he won was a pittance—$18 here, $2.80 there—and beside the point. This won't cure him. He still adds at a first-grade level. Reads at a fourth-grade level. Getting him to take a shower leads to meltdowns. But the picking had unlocked something in his brain. He engaged.
After watching him with the ponies, Cassie wondered what other sports he might be good at. In the fall of 2007, Ethan's brother, Andrew, printed out the college football and basketball schedules for the season. Every day, Cassie asked Ethan who'd win that night. They were teams he'd never heard of playing games he'd never watched. He ticked off his choices while thumbing his PS2. With more than 300 Division I schools, no sport is more difficult to keep tabs on than college hoops. But Ethan won at a 68% clip last season. And he did it by siding with obscure mid-majors like Bowling Green, Ball State and Oral Roberts. What's he seeing? Two-name schools? Schools with O's, R's, B's? Only Ethan knows, and he can't explain it.
This year, it's been more of the same. A 69% success rate in college football heading into the bowls. On Dec. 11 he made eight college hoops picks—he won seven. Ethan's psychiatrist not only encourages the exercise, he's joked that Ethan might be a brilliant bookmaker. The truth is, he'll never live alone. Even the concept of money is something that eludes him. When Cassie's friends tell her to put Ethan in the front seat and drive to Vegas, she shrugs it off.
"He thinks a $100 bill is a dollar. Besides, to me, that's exploiting him," she says. "It's not about the money. It's about the gift."
Not just his, but hers, too. Like when Ethan rests his head on her belly as they make his NFL picks. Or the night he won $60 at the track and then announced he was taking her to dinner. They went to Lucky Buffet. She had crab legs. He had shrimp.
And a fortune cookie.
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Chad Millman is a Senior Deputy Editor at ESPN The Magazine, and once wrote a book called The Odds. His column takes a close look at the culture surrounding the bet.