Sunday, May 20, 2001

Wagering a way of life for some

        It's an hour before post time, but Robert Cliff is already done with the Preakness. He's not interested in pageantry, but payoffs. He lost interest in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown when his Pick Four wagers became worthless in an earlier race Saturday afternoon. Cliff is a professional horseplayer and about as sentimental as a stone.

        “Jerry Bailey wins $15 to $18 million in purses every year,” Cliff says. “But if you bet $2 to win on every horse Jerry Bailey rides, you'd owe a loan shark for three years. Jerry Bailey and Pat Day would bust Donald Trump.”

        Cliff is sitting in the Race Book at Turfway Park, surrounded by simulcasting, oblivious to temptation. He can see television feeds from 15 different tracks without craning his neck, but he's only interested in the proceedings at Pimlico, and only when the odds shift in his favor.

        What smart money exists at the race track is selective. He was fixated on Pimlico not because of its tradition but because its payoff pool offered him the best percentage on his exotic wagers.

        By the time the Preakness horses were leaving the paddock, Cliff had lost $340 on his “gimmick” bets. He was hoping to get even on an 8-1 shot in the allowance race after the Preakness. A horse called Count Cash

Track crowded

        It's 21 minutes to post time and Ed Meyer is working the phones. A customer he doesn't know is trying to cash a check for $3,000, and there are not many customers Ed Meyer doesn't know.

        Turfway's player development manager's main task is cultivating customers. The track is crowded Saturday with Preakness bettors, but on most days the majority of the patrons are regulars. Meyer knows who sits where, who wants what and who wants to be left alone. He knows, too, that Robert Cliff is the exception — a man who can make a living betting the horses.

        “To put it kindly, maybe 10 to 20 percent make money (over time),” Meyer says. “Most of our regulars are in it to have fun.”

        What the guy with the $3,000 check has in mind Meyer can only guess. The track decides not to bet on the stranger.

Likes long shots

        It's one minute to post time and Carol Howarth is lighting a cigar. She believes in the favorite, Point Given, but she has bet on Mr. John at 20-1. Howarth is an accountant — she manages 17 West Side offices for H&R Block — but she is still susceptible to long shots.

        “I used to bet on horses by whether they looked at me and by the names,” she says. “But what attracts me now is the numbers. I just like the math and trying to figure it out.”

        On the counter before her is a copy of The Daily Racing Form, opened to the Preakness entries. In her hand is a smoldering Macanudo. She can tell the cigar's quality, she says, by how the ash clings to the unburned tobacco. She has learned to recognize a horse's quality in the cold statistics of its performance charts.

        “I'll never make a huge amount because I never bet a huge amount,” she says. “I think you have to come with the expectation that you're doing well if you break even.”

        When Point Given crosses the finish line in Baltimore, Howarth is down about $75 on the day. She takes her losses lightly. She wants to know more about Count Cash. Counting on Count Cash is costly. He finishes ninth.

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