Monday, April 20, 2009

People Behind My Handicapping Habit - Uncle Pete

Asking someone, anyone willing to look up from their Form, tip sheet or indescribable computer printout of dots, dashes and numbers, why they're at the track or facsimile thereof, and you'll get a myriad of responses:
  • I like the 5 more than any other
  • My brother-in-law's friend hotwalks for trainer X and expects a big effort from the #2
  • I didn't have enough gas money to make it to the casino
  • A bad day at the track is better than (fill in your own response)
Chances are Thoroughbred handicappers, players, bettors (whatever you want to call yourself) make the attempt to pick a winner from the rail, a duck-taped chair at the OTB facility or from their couch - in one of states that allows you to bet from home - because someone once brought them to the track or in my case the dingy OTB parlor. Even if you are the exception to the rule and wandered into a horse wagering facility of your choosing, you've likely hooked up with a few "track buddies" that have helped you along. The intricacies of putting together a Pick 4 ticket or just being able to pronounce your bets correctly at the window demand help from "others" with more experience than a rookie horse gambler.

I'm going to start backwards with the last of three men who took me to the track, the OTB, the track disguised as an over sized OTB, etc. Peter Foss and I enjoyed many weekends at that "August Place to Be," Saratoga.

He served his country. He served his family. He served his God. These spheres of his life were bound, inseparable as the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost he worshipped so faithfully.

Oh and he was a storyteller and horse player, too. These two elements bound in the same Book of Great Luck - both his and ours for hearing his voice rise and fall with each tale or to see him lean left as several horses vied for for the finish line in his favorite exotic play - the
trifecta par wheel.

Peter Foss was a lucky man. Spend enough time with him and this fact as reiterated over and over again. Through his stories of growing up in the farmland of Minnesota, the compassionate and
sensible leader of boys (himself just a few years older) in Korea and Vietnam or just the latest joy in seeing his grandchild or a former journalism student.

Having heard many of these stories over and over again during our annual 3-hour drives to
Saratoga, I'm not sure were this luck originated. Was it the hard work and high expectations of his Depression-era family? The day he met his bride-to-be, a stewardess, on a plane? Or the time his platoon came into ambush, in which he and an enemy officer both drew guns at point-blank range, miraculously missing each other? Listen to Uncle Pete long enough and you couldn't help but understand his luck began long before he entered any track. And I think he knew it.

Maybe that's why he was such a good handicapper and gambler - he knew how to create and capitalize on his own luck. Uncle Pete's tickets usually included 30-42 possible combinations for horses to finish first, second and third. This is either called a
trifecta or triple depending on where you live and bet. A typical ticket with numbers would look like this:
  • Finishing first: 3-6-9
  • Finishing second: 2-3-8-9
  • Finishing third: 2-3-4-7-8-9
There are 34 possible outcomes for this ticket. Now, he certainly didn't win all the time, but Uncle Pete usually had something to root for. Anytime I was with him, he would average hitting at least three out of the nine races, sometimes five or maybe even eight if he was real lucky. (I was with him on Breeders Cup Day a few years back when he hit exactas - two horse combinations - and trifectas in four straight races. The lowest payout was around $300).

Peter Foss was the patriarch of my wife's family. He lead grace, held court and dispensed equal amounts of kindness, gratitude and humor. His war stories were never about false courage or bravado, but seemed to find the humanity under the most inhumane conditions. He led so well and so easily that many under his command kept in contact with him long after their service to God and country ended.

For me, Uncle Pete came into my life shortly after my father passed away. And my father created the magical and mythical Saratoga of my mind. A place he'd drive every August to play the ponies. A place he played so many trifecta combinations in one race that he unwittingly hit the thing four times. A place he took his last $90 and played the number 9 in race 9 simply because Angel Cordero was aboard. A place where he called to ask what horse I wanted to play in The Travers Stakes, and my reply was Willow Hour because my favorite jockey Eddie Maple was riding. (Willow Hour beat that year's Derby champ, Pleasant Colony by a nose and paid around $50).

I never made the trip to Saratoga with my dad. But Uncle Pete and I made the summer drive 15 straight years. From the hours we spent in the car, at the track and in our hotel, I knew all about his family - nuclear and extended - his exploits in foreign countries under harsh and violent conditions and opinions on everything from presidential politics to who he liked in the fourth race.

At the track, Uncle Pete hit far more often than I did. Win or lose he'd take me out for dinner - the barbecue joint or the Japanese steakhouse on Route 9 were two of our favorite spots. With the next day's Daily Racing Forms in hand we'd head back to our hotel room convenient enough, but far enough away to be affordable. We might watch some pre-season football while handicapping and then off to bed. Since Uncle Pete snored in about eight octaves I tried desperately to fall asleep before him.

If it was Sunday then it was off to church to pray for the daily double (I don't recall ever hitting it), bagels and coffee and another try at the Saratoga nine. I always felt a little smarter, a bit luckier and just damn appreciative that I was at the track with Uncle Pete.

Like my grandfather and my father, my other two handicapping mentors, Uncle Pete is no longer with us. He passed away in the hours following Rags to Riches Belmont Stakes win and this past Friday would have been his 80th birthday.

He is easily missed and impossible to replace.

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