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One last bet on the underdog

INSIDE/OUT

One of my happiest childhood memories is of the day my father hit the

exacta at Hollywood Park. It was just so long in coming for him --

not hitting it big at the track, but just winning a bet at all.

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I should say that of all my dad’s vices, gambling was the one that

concerned my mother the least. Our neighborhood abounded with stories

of compulsive gamblers -- husbands or wives or teenagers who would

periodically lose everything they owned at cards or at the track.

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Compared to them, my father’s gambling habits were a joke. It was

rare for him to bet on the horses more than once a month or so, and

even then his losses were almost never more than $50.

But still it bothered my mother, and for one very good reason: My

father happened to be the worst gambler she’d ever met. Any bet he

made, no matter how small, was money my mother knew we’d never see

again.

“Why don’t you try flushing the money down the toilet and hope

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some of it floats back up?” she’d say to him when he announced he was

going to Hollywood Park. “You’d have better luck doing that.”

It was true. My father’s gambling luck was horrible. He would play

20 hands of poker at one of my Uncle Angel’s monthly games, and would

lose money 20 times in a row. He would bet on all nine races at

Hollywood Park, and in each race his horse would stumble and gasp its

way across the finish line. His talent for losing was so acute that

we used to say the only way my father could win was if he bet against

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himself.

But it wasn’t like he gambled recklessly. Dad was fascinated with

the art of horse wagering, and would spend hours poring over racing

forms and studying tips from the “Horse and Jockey” betting service

(“That’s Horse and Jockeeeeey -- a POWERFUL source for WINNERS!” --

I’ll remember that jingle until the day I die). He would eyeball the

odds on the big board right up until the very last minute. Then he

would lay his money down cautiously, going with the favored horse

every time.

“Never bet on the underdog,” my father would tell me sternly.

“That’s a sucker’s bet.”

Instead, he would bank on the champions and the rising stars.

Thoroughbreds fresh from the Belmont Stakes would thunder out of the

gate with my father’s money and prayers riding on their shoulders.

But it didn’t matter. Nothing he tried could keep the ponies from

breaking his heart.

“And they’re coming around the far tuuurrrn ... And it’s This

Lady’s Pride by a full length, followed by Monkey’s Paw and Blue

Horseshoe and ... where’s No Love For San Juan? Wait ... there she

is! No Love for San Juan has stopped in the center of the track!

Wait! Now she’s running the wrong way! This is incredible, folks!”

And my father would tear up his ticket and walk dejectedly away.

Whenever Dad went to Hollywood Park, he would return home in a bad

temper, and we knew to leave him alone for awhile.

So when he came home from the track that remarkable Friday evening

in February and wordlessly marched into the kitchen, everyone assumed

he’d just had another bad day at the races. Then he called us all

into the kitchen.

“Mickey! Davey! Diana! Junior! Everyone! Get in here!”

We hurried into the kitchen. Something about his tone told us

something strange was going on. Dad turned to my sister Linda.

“How much did you say you needed for that prom dress?”

“Two hundred dollars,” Linda said sullenly. This was an extremely

sore subject for her -- money was tight at the time, and Linda was

worried she’d have to go to her prom in an old bridesmaid’s dress.

“Have you been drinking?” my mother demanded. But it was clear to

everyone that he was sober.

My father reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash as

big as his fist. He counted out six $50 bills and handed them to

Linda. “Get something nicer,” he said.

My brothers and sisters and I looked at each other. Then Dad

reached into his other pocket, pulled out another thick wad of bills

and tossed it into the air. Paper money rained on us like green

confetti. With a collective shriek my siblings and I hit the floor,

scooping up bills and stuffing them into our pockets.

We would discover later that my father had won almost $7,000 at

the track by hitting the exacta -- he had picked the horses that came

in first and second place in a race. We would also learn later that

Dad had converted about $200 into $1 bills before coming home. When

he tossed that money in the air, we just assumed it was raining

fifties. You can imagine the commotion.

My father roared with laughter, while my mother slapped her skull

in dismay. The moment she saw Dad pull out that first wad of cash,

visions of new kitchen appliances and a bunk bed or two started

dancing her in head. Now all those new appliances and furniture were

sinking beneath a tide of candy bars, comic books and cosmetics. She

decided it was time for some tough love.

“Louie! Put that money away! Kids! Hey! Kids! Give that money to

me and we’ll all go to DISNEYLAND!” It was the only thing, and I mean

the only thing, Mom could have said to make us part with those

fistfuls of cash.

“Yay!” the boys shouted and immediately handed her our money. The

girls, always smarter than their brothers when it came to our

parents, simply vanished.

“When are we going?” I asked Mom excitedly.

“Um ... tomorrow!” she replied, and walked off counting the money.

“Yay!”

The next morning, my mother woke to the highly unusual sight of

all three of her sons up and dressed before dawn on a Saturday. I was

first in her bedroom, humming the theme music to “Pirates of the

Caribbean.” “Wake up!” I shouted. “Time to go to Disneyland!”

“Um ... you know, mijo, it really looks like it’s going to rain

today,” she said. “We’d better wait until next week to see how it

goes.”

“There isn’t a cloud in the sky!” my brother Luis wailed.

“Yes, but that could change very quickly,” she said, then ordered

us out of her room.

My brothers and I stalked out. “I knew it!” Michael shouted.

“Dudes, we’ve been robbed!”

It took me awhile to get over the disappointment. It helped that

immediately afterward, things started to happen around the house that

I had believed never would, such as Michael and I getting bunk beds.

Not having to sleep in the same bed as my brother was a thousand

times better than a ride on the Matterhorn.

That Friday night was the last time I can recall my father going

to the track. Maybe he did and just kept quiet about it, but I doubt

it.

What I believe happened was that it took winning before Dad

finally realized how much he had been losing. And with that

realization, he finally understood that betting on his luck was

betting on the underdog.

* DAVID SILVA is the editor of the Claremont-Upland Voice and the

Rancho Cucamonga Voice. Reach him at (909) 484-7019, or by e-mail at

david.silva@latimes.com.


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