Tropical Downs

by Ed Meyer

posted on December 17, 2008 in General Discussion | No Comments >>

Noted author Mark Cramer’s latest novel, “Tropical Downs,” is an allegory about a proposed racetrack of the same name. By the time readers reach the end of the story, they have learned a lot more than whether Thoroughbreds will ever compete at the Bolivian oval.

Tropical Downs continues the story of Matthew Bosch, who readers first met in Cramer’s acclaimed earlier novel, “Scared Money.” Matt was on a search for personal validation as a horse player in Scared Money, a status he ultimately attains. Tropical Downs takes Matt’s journey to the next level. As the subtitle says, it is a tale “of peril and misadventure in search of the elusive automatic bet.”

When Cramer crafted Matthew Bosch, he created the perfect character for a racing theme. Matt is an anti-hero — a man who sometimes does the right thing for the wrong reasons, and vice-versa. Like any good horse bettor, he weighs the odds before making his play. As is always the case in real life, Matt’s calculated risk-taking can be influenced by fear, greed, or lust. He is as human as it gets.

The realm of politics in the Capital District has its William Kennedy. Schenectady native Cramer brings the racing narrative right into our backyard.

In Tropical Downs, Matt’s misadventures only begin in Bolivia. He visits Saratoga, Glens Falls, and Albany along the way, with Hollywood Park and Laurel Race Course added for good measure. Cramer knows these places intimately. He provides just as much detail as the reader needs for a better understanding of the location and story.

A person who has little interest in the racing milieu will find Tropical Downs worth the trip for the Bolivian chapters alone. Many Americans know nothing more about this South American country than as it was presented in the classic 1960s movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

Cramer lived and worked in Bolivia for a number of years. Like many Central and South American countries, it is a study in contrasts. According to Cramer, it’s irregular topography results in almost every climatic zone or condition known to the human race. In one afternoon’s hike, you can go from the rarefied, oxygen-starved condition and bitter cold of the high Andes, down to a tropical rainforest, where shorts are the appropriate clothing choice. All that’s missing is a seashore since Bolivia is land-locked. The latter becomes part of the story when Matt encounters strong-armed thugs bent on having influence over Tropical Downs.

Woven into the landscape is interaction between social classes, the stark contrast between modern five-star hotels within walking district of slums as abject as any in the world, and even the practical detente between longtime adversaries like Cuba and the United States.

The triangular relationship between Matt, his still-seductive wife Sonia, and Bolivian temptress Muneca (pronounced moon-yea’-ca), is more than extraneous titillation in Tropical Downs.

Sonia is an official with a group of social missionaries working to uplift the status of Bolivia’s peasant class. Muneca enters as an operative for the land-owning oligarchs who have beaten down the peasants for centuries. As the story develops, she becomes much more. Both are intimately connected with whether a racetrack will ever get built.

Matt stands to profit when and if Tropical Downs becomes reality. Not only will he earn a $200,000 bonus, he is earmarked to become part of track management. What better place for a horseplayer to work than at a racetrack where the search for the automatic bet can proceed on a daily basis?

Both Tropical Downs and Scared Money explore Matt’s background and its influence. For starters, he is a true Latin American. Matt’s father was a Colombian scientist, his mother a secular Jewish woman from New York City. Born in his father’s homeland, Matt had to overcome roadblocks thrown up by those who speculated whether he was connected to a drug cartel. His professional work as a jazz musician only added to the stigma.

Don’t be mislead into thinking the racing and handicapping aspects of Tropical Downs are minor aspects of the drama. On the contrary, Cramer and alter ego Bosch, explore the psychology and methodology of successful wagering.

Cramer’s primary writing has been on straight handicapping and betting subjects. He’s authored such classics as “Kinky Handicapping” and “The Odds on Your Side: The Logic of Racetrack Investing.” Cramer is respected by bettors and fellow writers alike as one of the most inventive minds in the game.

Tropical Downs explores possible automatic betting plays with names like “the short form method,” “the informed minority” play, and “the maiden comeback.” Cramer doesn’t pluck these ideas out of thin air. Each is supported with extensive research of the past performances.

Where else are you going to learn about how handicapping and betting strategy can get validated by a scientific study of Thailand’s fighting fish?

Full disclosure requires that you know Cramer and I have been friends for a number of years. When you read Tropical Downs, you will encounter some semi-fictional characters with familiar names.

Nevertheless, there is one, overriding reason to read Tropical Downs, as well as Scared Money, and keep them nearby.

Cramer’s writing is like a fueling station for horseplayers. Are you a little tired of the game…burned out? Then read Mark Cramer. I have never found anyone connected with playing horses, who communicates the sheer joy of solving the puzzle and making successful bets, like Mark.

You can find Tropical Downs at the Daily Racing Form website ( or My guess is that by the time you’ve read 100 pages, you’ll be ready to rush out and make a wager. With your restored, Cramer-induced confidence, it will likely be a winning move.