- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2003

LOUISVILLE, Ky. Katherine De Francis turned misfortune into a small fortune.
De Francis wanted to bet Vicar as the key horse in exactas and triples for the 1999 Kentucky Derby. But she noticed that the mutuel clerk accidentally had punched No.11 Charismatic instead of her horse at No.12.
Too late. All tickets are final once the bettor leaves the window. She was stuck with the wrong horse.
"She started to curse; [it] would have made a longshoreman blush," said her husband, Joe De Francis, the owner of the Maryland Jockey Club.
The racing gods, for once, proved kind: Charismatic won, a 31-to-1 long shot. The victory produced a $64.60 win payoff, a $727.80 exacta and $5,866.20 triple. For a no-longer livid De Francis, the clerk's error produced a five-figure windfall.
Oh, and Vicar finished 18th.
Sometimes, the Run for the Roses smells sweet. Sometimes, it just stinks.
More than 150,000 fans will cram into Churchill Downs on Saturday, looking for more than just pageantry and parties. Many come hoping for a lucrative score, and they come in all kinds.
There are the high rollers and their cousins, the Texas Slammers.
There are the pros and the tightwad millionaires.
There are the once-a-year racegoers who are too inexperienced to spot the difference between a Secretariat and a bob-tailed nag and too inebriated to remember to pick up their money when they luck into a winning ticket. Indeed, nearly $1million in such tickets go uncashed at the Derby each year.
There was the high roller who brought a pair of Texas Rangers for security, perhaps a sensible if unusual precaution for someone ready to plunk down $300,000 on a single race. A typical (for him) Derby wager: $50,000 to win, $100,000 to place and $150,000 to show. Some years he wins, some years he strikes out.
A bettor once won more than $400,000 on a $5,000 exacta and brought home the bacon in a grocery bag.
The owner of a runner in the 2001 Derby bet more than $250,000 on his long shot horse over the course of two days. It finished last at 47-to-1 and probably would have been 99-to-1 without the owner's wagers. The colt's name was Talk is Money. It wasn't cheap, though.
The rich may be different, but they tend to bet less than the "dems and does" of the infield. The rich and famous along "Millionaire's Row" at Churchill Downs don't easily part with their cash, falling below the average $125 a person wagered on Derby Day.
Billionaire John Kluge, a Derby regular during the 1980s, loved to bet on the races but only with small bills. The Charlottesville resident was at the time the richest man in the country, but he preferred to pass by the $50 window and just bet $2 and $5.
Why wasn't he betting hundreds or thousands of dollars instead of deuces and nickels? Kluge said the fun was in just being right.
"What would be the point of winning more money?" he said.
The real Derby Day action is on the grandstand ground floor, where the regulars bet. There are no fancy hats or lucky charms in this crowd. These are serious handicappers, and as a group they wager the most money at the Derby.
The biggest single wagers, however, are placed in the third-floor clubhouse. This is where the experienced box-seat holders reside, the bettors with the money and knowledge necessary to take a big plunge.
The most patience is found among the 1,150 mutuel clerks who work the infield. The grassy set is a real cross-section of Derby-goers: old and young, rich and poor, novices and veterans. A lot of them are more interested in catching a buzz than a glimpse of the horses, but they still line up deep at the windows to place wagers on races they will be too busy partying to watch.
"Many of them don't have a clue what they're doing," mutuels manager Rick Smith said. "It's lot of college kids who want to experience the Derby, not horse players who will place a bet. They bring envelopes of bets for everybody."
Wagering holds a paradox that sucks in even the winners: Win or lose, the bettor curses his bad luck. A losing wager stinks for obvious reasons. Those with a winning ticket lament their bad luck for not betting more.
Michael Geraghty was standing at the Churchill betting window, angry even though he had just won nearly $900 on the 1992 Derby. The equine artist from Laurel, Md., always makes a token bet using the numbers 7-3-1 (for his July 31 birthday), but he discovered the Louisville course didn't offer the triples on the Derby that many other tracks do.
Geraghty settled for a 7-3 exacta. Sure enough, No.7 Lil E. Tee won at 17-to-1, with No.3 Casual Lies second at 30-to-1. The bet paid Geraghty $854.40 for a $2 exacta plus $35.60 for a $2 win wager. Naturally, No.1 Dance Floor finished third at 33-to-1, which produced a $10,000 triple at some tracks nationwide just not at the one at which Geraghty watched the race live.
"I felt like Mike Tyson just worked me over," he said. "I had almost $1,000 through pure blind dumb luck. I'm unable to bet a straight trifecta. It was posted in places like Chicago and it was staggering, but I got none of that. Is that being a poor sport? I was so frustrated."
Two years later, the Derby began offering triples.
Some people can't win even when they pick the right horse. Forward Pass was listed as the 2-1 favorite in 1968, but he couldn't get past Dancer's Image in the stretch and finished second. Two days later, Dancer's Image was disqualified for a banned medication.
Still, Dancer's Image backers won $9.20; Forward Pass punters were just out of luck.
"We all bet our lungs on Forward Pass and collected absolutely nothing," Las Vegas handicapper Kelso Sturgeon said. "I did feel cheated, but there's nothing you can do about it. I felt terrible."
There's no limit to the strange ways devised to pick a winner.
Wall Street investment analyst Peter Rotondo Sr. became a cult figure among colleagues by playing his version of the winning race call over the in-house speakers on Fridays, touching off a different form of investment frenzy.
"He won so many times it became frightening," said his son, Peter Rotondo Jr.
Maryland Jockey Club vice president Tim Capps decided on a different strategy: listen to the media's picks and bet the opposite. After learning that At The Threshold was the press box pool favorite to finish last in 1984, Capps bet the colt to finish third. Sure enough, the 37-to-1 long shot finished third to pay $13.80 $5 more than Swale paid to win.
It's not unusual for friends to pool their money and share the wealth, much like co-workers banding together to try to hit the lottery.
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas' stable workers gained a windfall in 1988 when their Derby entrant, Winning Colors, won without trailing. The filly paid only $8.40 to Derby goers, but the workers had found odds elsewhere that were more to their liking.
They had pooled $100 several months earlier and placed a bet at a Tijuana sports book that offered 1,000-to-1 odds on Winning Colors. The $100,000 payoff they won seemed like millions to a group of backstretch workers, who often made $150 to $300 each week back then.
Indeed, rather than send one representative to the sports book to collect their winnings, the workers went as a group with the sole purpose of ensuring that one of their number didn't take the cash and keep heading south.
After all, the real long-shot bet would have been to expect one person to return with the money.

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