The game has changed, but then again it hasn’t moved a muscle. Once upon a time, there were nine races and few exotic wagers. If you missed the daily double, you might as well stay home. The pools were swelled, and the place was packed. Those were the days of Thoroughbred racing. Bookies were everywhere, and you couldn’t find a phone on the property. A cup of coffee was cold and cost more than a bet, and most didn’t bother unless they hit a race. I began my love of racing with the tail-end days of this scene, and it continues today where it has taken on a whole new feel.
“Coffee” was the kind of guy who looked like he lived his life on his face. Rough and dry, and looks like he shaved with a dull butter knife. He was a runner for a couple of bookies back in the 60’s, and continues his daily trips to the track. He outlived the bastards he once told me, but he said, “there is no prize for sticking around too long.” He received the name years ago, as he always had a cup of coffee in his hand. There was always a shot of vodka or two in each cup, and he would drink it all day long. His job was to visit three bars where bookies took bets. They would load him down with money, and he would go out to the track and get rid of wagers that were too big to book. This was a way to protect their operations, and he would get a cut for his efforts. Life treated him pretty well.
I met him years ago when I was a parking lot kid. He drove a beat-up junker, and tipped $10 for a spot next to the door. “Never judge a man by the car he drives,” Coffee used to say. Every once in a while he would give us a “steamer” and would give us each a $5 to bet. He had a swagger to his gait, and walked like man who held the secrets of the world. But the bookie operations mainly switched to sports wagering, and with on-line betting and simulcast outlets. Bookmakers were out of business for horses, with the exception of small-timers who wanted to bet on the cuff. Coffee had seen enough, and retired to Florida to live with his sister.
He was gone for over 10 years, until I saw him sitting in the carrel seats watching races. He looked like a million bucks, and still had a large coffee in his hand. “Coffee, how are you doing my friend?” “Great, Eddie. I’m back in Kentucky now. Ever since Ester passed away, I had no reason to stay down there with those old folks.” We talked about life, racing and how he was doing. His sister had a crippling form of arthritis, and he had to walk with her twice a day, and massaged her aching joints. Neither of them had married, and he always took care of his baby sister. Over the years, his body stayed firm, and his mind was sharp. He used to go to the dog races twice a week, and started playing simulcast races.
“I used to bring out the big wagers long ago. There was so much money, and the books didn’t need losing tickets.” There was no need to have $5,000 worth of losing tickets laying around. Coffee would have to make a $2,000 bet to win on a 2-5 shot, and he would take the money and bet it to place. It was going to pay $2.80 to win, and he figured if he ran a close second. The books would collect their money from the bettors, and he would have $2,000 to place on a horse that paid $2.20. He made a cool $2,200, and would do this about five or six times a month. He didn’t use his own money, and would bet the house cash. They were getting their money, and he used to bet about 95% of the wagers he carried so workers would always see him hitting the windows hard. There were some times he would have to kick in a few thousand, but stuck to making the place bets on short price runners. If they won, he would owe about $300 for a shot of winning a couple grand. Good work if you can get it.
When Coffee decided to call it quits, he had over $580,000 in cash. Add this in with his pension as a delivery driver, and life was looking good in the Florida sun. He came back to Kentucky to take care of an old friend. One of the last from his old days, and he could come back to where he used to call home. His health was good, and his cash flow was solid. Life was looking pretty good as we sat and talked.
“I make guerilla wagers now. I don’t make a bet all day, and then nail three races in-a-row. All short prices, and looking to live on the margins,” He said. He was excellent at watching for biases, and would bet New York, Florida, or California. They could offer up a short field with a solid chalk. “I have made 42 wagers in 2014, and have won 39. I can’t say I’ve hit the pick-six, but I’m doing well. Who do you like in the Preakness, Eddie?” “I don’t think they can beat California Chrome after all said and done.” He just listened, and nodded his head. “Me too,” he added. I saw him the next day, and he was walking in with that same gait, but just a little slower. “Coffee, how did you do??” “Not bad, Eddie. I had $4,000 to place on him.” He paid a sweet $3.00 for him.
In the third row sitting in the end seat. You will see Coffee sitting alone with a small notepad and pen taking notes, and a large cup of hot java sitting not far from his hand. Life has been good for this man from another time. He played his cards right with a guerilla attack, and he made his life’s work into a sweet walk into the sunset.