When Lean Pirate came charging into the stretch to take the lead by a head this year Jan. 31 in a six-furlong sprint for 3-year-old maiden fillies, the race was practically over as far as the crowd was concerned. Bettors could see that the nag in this sixth race was the best of the eight-horse field, and she proved her worth when she extended her lead and won by 1 1/4 lengths over It's All Relative.
Lean Pirate was the favorite of the field and paid backers $5.80 to win. As the totalizator board flashed the prices of the first three finishers in the race, "The Driver," turned from his favorite position by the rail at Santa Anita and strolled back to the betting windows to cash in his ticket.
It wasn't The Driver's first victory that day. He had already won two races and would cash in another, winning four of the six races that he bet. About 6-foot-5, with sparse blond hair and a blond beard, and always in a dark suit, black tie and sunglasses, The Driver steers a stretch limousine for a businessman in Century City, picking up his boss at 7 in the morning.
By noon, The Driver is finished with work until 7 the same evening, when he has to wait for his boss and take the man home. From noon to 7 p.m., The Driver likes to go to the track to bet the ponies.
Because The Driver spends much of his time at the race track, he has devised a system that enables him to get through the day's races with a small profit.
The Driver bets favorites that are less than 2-1 odds. This sort of system, of course, requires patience because backers of such a system don't bet every race. On most days, only about five to six races qualify. Sometimes only one qualifies. And if as many as seven do, that's a rarity.
Since favorites of 2-1 odds or less win almost every day, The Driver will sometimes use a money management system instead of making straight bets. Once he wins, he goes back to his original bet, which is $2.
During the 1989-90 season, until Feb. 28, there were 50 racing days. Only on four of these days was The Driver shut out. And of 214 races, The Driver cashed in 86, for a 40% winning percentage.
The day that The Driver won with Lean Pirate, his first of four wins began in the second race where Bold and High, a 3-year-old maiden, took the lead at the quarter-pole, entered the stretch ahead by a large margin and hit the finish 2 1/4 lengths in front.
Bold and High paid backers $4.20 to win. The Driver's second victory was in the third race, where a 3-year-old filly, Fast Discovery, easily won a six-furlong race by 5 1/2 lengths, paying $3.80 to win.
The Driver lost the fifth race, where the favorite, Ariosa, came in second to a long shot, Hail The Foxbaybe.
In the eighth, about 6 1/2 furlongs on the turf for 4-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, Dancing Tribute took on five other nags and easily romped to a 1 1/4-length victory, paying $4.20 to win. The ninth race was a losing effort as the odds-on favorite, I Love Racing, after leading nearly all the way, hung on for second.
Although The Driver posted four wins and two seconds for the day, all that counted were the four wins. Returns came to $18 and bets amounted to $12, for a $6 profit.
For those who sneer at a measly $6 profit, consider The Driver's money management progression instead.
For example, straight betting on Dec. 30, 1989, at Santa Anita would have resulted in a 60-cent loss as two horses won out of six races. However, a simple $2-4-8-16-32 progression would have resulted in a $12.40 profit.
On that day, the first horse that qualified for The Driver was Redneck Ways in the second race, and it came in fourth. In the fifth race, the qualifier, Big English, pulled up and finished last in an 11-horse field.
Hidden Beauty won the sixth and paid $5.80. The qualifier, Sexy Slew, lost the seventh race, but Tarascon raced home by 2 1/2 lengths to win the eighth and pay $5.60. In the ninth race, K's Charger, another horse that ran into trouble, pulled up and finished last.
The most winners in a day at Santa Anita for the system came Feb. 15, when five of six horses finished first. After the initial qualifying horse lost, there were five consecutive wins by system nags, paying $3.60, $4, $4.60, $3.40 and $4.80.
Total betting was $12, and returns came to $20.40 for an $8.40 profit.
Extreme self-control and patience were exhibited by The Driver on Jan. 25 when after the qualifying horse, Scotch and Irish, lost the first race, he made no other bets and left the track a $2 loser.
Most people at that point would have discarded the system like passengers and crew fleeing the Titanic.
The Driver believes, however, that once you make a commitment, you have to stick to it.
"It's not like a legal contract," he will tell listeners, "but it's a matter of dedication and discipline. Just like the horses themselves. Although they lose practically all of their races, they just keep coming back for more. Now that's discipline!"