Don't talk to Sister Mary Catherine Antczak about bad habits.
As the strict, sure-eyed principal of St. Michael's Elementary School, Antczak had always taken a dim view of what she calls irresponsible amusements such as gambling. But the 53-year-old disciplinarian found a whole new appreciation for the sport of kings Sunday when she ventured to Santa Anita racetrack and came home with a bundle for the school.
In a fund-raising gambit that Antczak still can't believe, she and a group of school supporters beat nearly astronomical odds on a Pick Six ticket, a wager in which the bettor must pick the winning horse in each of six races. They won about $200,000.
"I thought we might win a little something," an astonished Antczak said Monday. "But this was just extraordinary.... Everybody pulled out their calculators and just started adding it up."
About 100 school supporters had contributed $25 apiece to buy the ticket. After taxes, the school will get half the winnings, and the supporters will divide the rest.
St. Michael's share will amount to about $80,000 -- far more cash than the school has ever made on its usual fund-raiser, the Friday fish fry.
When the idea of going to the racetrack was raised at a meeting of the school supporters, everyone "lit up," Antczak said. (Her only previous experience with horses was being nearly thrown from one as a child at Griffith Park.) But the school needed the money.
Tucked amid faded stucco storefronts and weed-choked vacant lots in South-Central Los Angeles, St. Michael's Elementary School was established by the Order of Dominican Sisters exactly 100 years ago. The classic brick schoolhouse has 245 students, more than 70% of whom qualify for free school lunches.
A good chunk of the winnings will be used to replace the old desks.
"Buying new desks is something that will touch every student," Antczak said. "If your desk looks good and nice, won't you sit a little straighter?"
On Sunday morning before the races, Antczak and her fellow sisters knelt in the convent's modest chapel and prayed for a successful day at the races. Antczak racked her brain to recall if there was a patron saint for horse riders but couldn't name one. "The only reference to a horse I could think of was St. Paul, who rode a horse into Damascus. When he was thrown off the horse, he had a great conversion."
The prayer, beginners luck and the track's name all gave the school an extra edge, supporters believe.
"Some would call it luck," Antczak said. "But I call it a blessing."