The Inside Track | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

The Inside Track 

Hope springs eternal at hawthorne.

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I've never walked into Hawthorne Race Course without pitching a quarter to the blind beggar who sits outside the grandstand. As they hunch toward the gate, most horseplayers ignore the clatter of coins in his tin cup, his long woodwind cry of "Please help the bliiiind!" I think he brings good luck. The first time I tipped him, I had a winning day, so I've been doing it since.

I got my start at the Reader by writing a cover story about the racetrack. It was my biggest break as a journalist, so I still rationalize my midweek trips to the races as "research." The track is lousy with losers and loan sharks, touts and hustlers, pimps and pushers, misfits and wastrels. You never know when you'll find a character worthy of a Dickensian sketch.

The beggar seemed like a good candidate. He is as much a fixture of Hawthorne as the tote board. He sits in his eternal spot at the bottom of the ramp that slopes up to the grandstand. His cane is wrapped in rags and strips of carpeting, and he wears a radio tied around his neck. Some days he sits alone, but other days you'll see one or two racetrack lifers lounging nearby, ready to run his errands.

When I walked in from the parking lot on the raw, bleak Wednesday after Thanksgiving, his cup clattered in response to my footsteps. I stopped, introduced myself, and pulled out a $20 bill. It was a great icebreaker.

"I'd like to interview you for my newspaper," I said. "I'll give you a 20 if you'll let me ask some questions."

"Twenty dollars?" His voice took on the pitch of a pennywhistle as he ran the bill through his fingers. He called to one of his attendants: "Is this really a 20?"

"It's a 20," one said, nodding laconically.

"Ooh, a $20 bill. You're gonna make me get up and dance. You're gonna see an old blind man dance. Twenty dollars! You can ask me whatever you want."

His name was Lewis. He wouldn't tell me his last name, or let me take his picture, because he was worried that "Soc Security" would cut off his check if they found out he was making money at the racetrack. He claimed to be 80--"I done made 80, young man"--but in his timeless, lightless mind he could not estimate how many years he had been sitting outside the racetrack. It started sometime after he went blind. In his 20s, his sight began to dim, due to a condition he said was "generated down through the family." He moved up to Chicago to see a doctor, who put him in a hospital and gave him "fever therapy," raising his temperature to save his eyes. It didn't help. During those sunset years, Lewis worked as a shoveler in a coal yard at Damen and Devon. He paid a friend to drive him to work.

"When my sight started going blind, I'd just started hiking coal," he said. "I'd make 30, 35 dollars a day. My sight just left me gradually. Each day would get dimmer and dimmer. My sight was good enough for me to find that coal and put it in the wheelbarrow. I was working half blind, but they didn't know it."

Lewis didn't start coming to the track until he went completely blind. He had never seen a horse race, even though he grew up in Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby. But horse racing, it seemed to him, was about numbers--a horse's number in the betting program, the dollars and cents of the payoffs--and numbers were something he could still apprehend.

"I didn't know anything about playing the horses till I went blind," he said. "I figured I had to do something to make money. I bet a 1-2-3 trifecta, and it won. It paid $270."

There's a large school of horseplayers who treat the races as a lottery, rather than a physical contest. You'll hear them say, "I bet the 6-3 exacta every race. Those are my lucky numbers." They never cheer horses by their names, but by the numbers on their saddlecloths: "Come on with that eight," or "Get that two up there." After the race is over, the losers blame themselves for getting the numbers wrong: "Damn. It came one-three-five and I had the one-five-three." The horses change every race, but the numbers don't, and many people believe they form recurring patterns. If an old woman's 6-3 exacta came in for $250 last year (the payoffs on lottery-style bets are usually large, since there's no handicapping logic behind them), it's bound to come in again someday, isn't it?

Numbers players never buy the Daily Racing Form, a handicappers' bible with columns of statistics on every horse. They tear out the tipsheet from the Sun-Times, or buy the Green Sheet ("Illinois Sports News Finest Little Newspaper"), which offers combinations about as reliable as the figures in lottery dream books.

Every afternoon, Lewis plays the Daily Double, trying to pick the winners of the first two races. He depends entirely on numerology to choose his horses. The day I met Lewis, he had his friend Eli read him the Sun-Times's "Hawthorne Line," which ranks each race. He asked Eli to add up the numbers of the three favored horses in the first race, and the worst horses in each of the first three races. The sum was 24, so he told Eli to count down, starting at the top of the first race, to the 24th horse on the page.

"What number you come up with?" Lewis asked.

"Seven."

"Seven horse in the first race," Lewis announced. "You bet that seven horse, you'll win some money. Daily Double's going to be 7-6

or 6-7."

Lewis told Eli to run up to the grandstand and bet a 7-6 Daily Double. He touted his number to friends who walked past. An acquaintance named Annie scraped up the ramp, moaning about the ache of her feet and the emptiness of her pocketbook.

"I don't know how I'm gonna make it with $5," she lamented to Lewis.

"Play a winning horse," he said, with great conviction. "I b'lieve the seven's gonna win."

"Oooh, don't mess my mind," Annie shot back. "Let's play it together. Get the seven to win for $3. I'll get a dollar's worth."

Lewis shook his head. He didn't want the bother of sharing his winning ticket.

"I thought you loved me, baby," Annie pouted.

"I do love you, but I can't get in trouble."

I asked Lewis how long it had been since he picked a winner.

"Oh, I don't know," he said. "Last year sometime."

But he seemed extremely confident about his seven horse, and I hadn't had time to handicap, so I bet $2 on the 7-6 Daily Double.

"You've always brought me good luck," I told Lewis.

"You have good luck when you help the blind," he assured me. "It's in the Bible. When you help the blind, you will have good luck. I don't know where it's in the Bible, but I heard it's in the Bible."

Lewis left the track before the first race even started. He wanted to protect his winnings from his friends. If the seven won, his housekeeper, a woman who cleans his apartment and drives him around, would come back the next day to cash the ticket.

"If my number comes in, them dudes'll be beggin' me. I got to get on the bus and get out of here."

He stood up and walked toward a wall. I grabbed the sleeve of his parka, then led him to the Hawthorne Shuttle, a converted school bus that plies the quarter mile between Cicero Avenue and the grandstand.

I went inside with my Daily Double ticket and sat down to watch the first race with Lewis's helper Eli. Eli has been coming to the track since 1969. He's known Lewis the whole time, but only in the last four years have they become friends. Four years ago, Eli went broke and became a beggar himself. Lewis has the advantage of blindness to bring in the money, Eli said, so he runs Lewis's errands. Sometimes Lewis gives him a dollar for his trouble.

"I go get his hot chocolate, coffee, doughnuts, his newspaper," said Eli, a lean man in a thin winter coat and an LA Raiders cap. "He'll tell you what to do. Like in the first race, maybe he'll start with yesterday's paper. He'll have me read Tuesday's, then he'll go to Wednesday's. He changes all the time. He'll have me add the numbers and he'll say 'seven.' It's just a numbers thing, whatever he visualizes."

Eli had been lucky once. Over 30 years ago, a friend he knew from "Jew Town," the old Maxwell Street Market, tipped him off to some horses. Eli won $80,000 in two days. He put a down payment on a house for his soon-to-be-ex-wife, bought some furniture, bought a new Buick Electra, and banked the rest.

"Then I got cut off," he said. "Guy saw my new car. He gave me three losers in a row."

That was the end of Eli's good fortune. For 25 years, he scraped by on odd jobs--construction, exterminating--which gave him the freedom to spend his days at the track, chasing the next big winner. He gambled with the remnant of his 80 grand, but the money dwindled. One day, three or four years ago, he called his daughter, asked her to bring him $300 from the bank. She told him, "Dad, you've only got $80 in your account."

Today Eli describes himself as a "hustler." He usually arrives at the track around 9 AM, four hours before post time, then spends the day placing bets for the prosperous, fetching coffee, selling discarded programs at a discount to late-arriving horseplayers--anything to pick up a few bucks.

"My woman passed in June, the Monday after Father's Day," Eli said. "I was staying with her. My house, I gave it to my brother. It's boarded up anyway. I have no permanent residence now. I have a couple of lady friends, I might stay with them if I feel like it. Or my daughter. I might gamble all night."

We were sitting upstairs in the weekday afternoon emptiness of the second deck, waiting for the first race. Our seats looked down on the racing oval, and beyond, on Stickney's cluttered skyline of portly water towers, oil tanks, and cigarette-slim smokestacks puffing steam that, even on this chilly day, dissolved quickly into the backdrop of El Greco clouds. This is the vista that earned Hawthorne the nickname "Refinery Downs."

Lewis's seven horse (whose name, if it matters, was Tricky Surprise) didn't win the race. She finished last, 38 lengths behind the winner, Penny Pit.

In the five years I've been gambling at Hawthorne, I've noticed that horses in outside positions win more than their fair share of sprints--races of six or six-and-a-half furlongs. This is especially true in a crowded field of 11 or 12 entries. Horses banished to distant posts can't run near the rail, so they have to swing wide around the turn. At 440 yards, Hawthorne has an exceptionally long stretch, giving horses plenty of room to make up the lost ground. Out there on the fringes of the pack, they're less likely to get blocked by rivals. And some afternoons--after a rain, for example--the middle of the track is faster than the rail. Time and again, I've seen longshots wearing the numbers 9, 10, 11, or 12--horrible, chronic losers who would never have a chance at Sportsman's or Arlington--charge down the stretch to pip the exhausted leaders at the post. Andrew Beyer, the high priest of American handicapping, noticed the same thing in his 1993 book, Beyer on Speed. Out in Las Vegas, betting on races all over the country, "I tried to capitalize on an obvious dead-rail bias at Hawthorne, but all the jockeys in Chicago were aware of it, too, and they tried to take their horses 15-wide, 20-wide [15 or 20 horse-widths from the rail] if necessary," he wrote. "The races were so freakish that there was no way to predict who would go widest."

I've dealt with that freakishness by "boxing" the four outside horses in the exacta, a bet requiring a gambler to pick the top two finishers in a race. If any combination of my horses finishes first and second, I win. It's priced as 12 bets, since I have to cover each horse beating the other three horses on my ticket. I've caught exactas worth a couple hundred that way. Not enough for a weekend in Rockford, but enough to convince me that the system works.

The second race was an 11-horse sprint, so I went to the window and told the teller, "Dollar exacta box: eight, nine, ten, eleven." It cost me $12, and it came in. The 11 horse, Candy's Spy, finished first; the 10, Million Dollar Cat, came second. The payoff on a $2 bet was $51.80, but since I only had it for a buck I got half that. Eli must have done some quick math. After I cashed my ticket, he asked if he could borrow $13, most of my profit.

"You give me $13, and I'll give you half of whatever I win today. Don't worry. I ain't gonna disappear on you."

I didn't quite believe him--he'd told me he was a hustler--but I gave him the money, because I'd appreciated hearing his life story. In the third race, Eli boxed three horses in the exacta, for $2 a bet. His horses came in, but they were the favorites, so his $12 wager paid $11.20. In winning, he'd lost 80 cents. Eli cursed this latest in fortune's 30-year string of insults.

"That's what I'm talkin' about," he grumbled. "Them's the kind of bets I pick up. I'm serious."

Eli did disappear soon after that, to look for some friends in another part of the grandstand. I was left alone with my program. I paged ahead to see that the last four races were all sprints, with 11 or 12 horses apiece. I thanked the Lord and the Hawthorne Racing Secretary, and decided to bet as blindly as any numbers player. The sixth race came in 8-9, for a $74.40 exacta. This was like betting on a tilted roulette wheel.

I lost the seventh race, but an outsider, Shimed, rallied from the back of the pack to finish third. That persuaded me the track was still working in my favor. Ten minutes before the eighth race, I took my 12 dollars to the window and asked flatly for the usual: "Dollar exacta box, eight, nine, ten, eleven." I was still making dollar bets, despite Eli's admonition to "step it up" when you're winning. When I was a serious horseplayer, I'd been able to bet 50 or 60 dollars without thinking "This could pay my phone bill." Now I had bigger debts--a car loan, a mortgage--and I bet only as a lark.

Since I was betting on post positions, I didn't bother to handicap the race. Now, when I look back at the program, I can see that no sane handicapper would have bet two dollars on those nags. The eight horse, Sarcastic Cart, had never won at Hawthorne; the nine, Ze Fact, always took the lead, then faded at the wire; the ten, Odimas, hadn't run in two months, since finishing last at Arlington; the eleven, Pat A Stake, had lost his last two races by a total of 17 lengths. On paper, they all looked like circus ponies, which is why they went off at 17-1, 6-1, 30-1, and 35-1. But on that biased track, they ran like stallions. With a quarter mile to go, Pat A Stake was in last place. Forced to go around ten horses, his jockey swung him wide, found the sweet spot on the track, and rode it to victory. Sarcastic Cart was right behind him. I heard a losing bettor mumble, "Look like 11-8" but I had to run inside to watch the replay and confirm my coup. It was 11-8 all right, and I was Charlie Bucket holding the Golden Ticket. I knew it was going to be huge, but bystanders told me I started dancing when the "OFFICIAL" light bloomed in red neon, and the numbers "1310.60" sprawled across the bottom of the board in white bulbs. Even with my dollar bet, I'd won $655.

The $20 bill I'd given Lewis had come back to me, and brought 31 of its friends. It was the biggest win of my betting life, a longshot so stupendous I had to sign a form informing the IRS.

"How do you want it?" the green-vested teller asked me. "Six big ones?"

As I strolled away from the window with six big ones in my wallet, I ran into Eli, who must have a hustler's instinct for money.

"How'd you do?" he asked.

"I had half of that exacta. I won 655 dollars."

"My man!"

Eli put out his fist. I bumped mine on its top and bottom.

"Let me have a gapper," he said.

I peeled a ten from my bankroll. Maybe I was being rewarded for giving Eli $13, or for the bowl of apple cobbler I'd bought him after the third race.

"You know what happened to me?" Eli asked. "One of those security guards downstairs, I gave her two dollars. You know what she did with it? She bet it on the eleven"--that was Pat A Stake, who'd paid $74.20 to win. "She benefited. And now I benefited.

See, that two brings me ten. What goes around comes around. You're happy, I'm happy, the lady's happy, everybody's happy. I may make someone happy before the day is through."

I still had one more person to make happy. The next day, I got to the track at noon. Lewis was sitting alone. He rattled his cup to arrest my footsteps.

"Lewis, I've got another $20 for you." His hand found the offered bill. "I gave you $20 yesterday, and I had my biggest day ever."

"Someone told me you won $1,200. One of them boys that helps me out."

"It was $655."

"You gonna get rich. What kind of car you got?"

"Just a used car."

"You married?"

"If I were married, I don't think I could come out to the track on Thursday afternoon."

"You got a nice girlfriend, don't you? You give her some of that money, take her out for a nice dinner. Ted, I'm telling you, yesterday was your lucky day. When you gave me $20, that made you that much more lucky."

I had to agree. Could it be a coincidence that the day I gave

the most I won the most? Religious friends tell me that Lewis's favorite scripture is not in the Bible, but it's true nonetheless. I'll repeat it here, for all you horseplayers and all you squares too: when you help the blind, you have good luck.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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