The Professional

I am resting up after four days in Las Vegas.

The good news is the city hasn't changed. It has only gotten bigger and the old timers (yours truly included) have gotten grayer, balder, gained a few pounds and developed nervous twitches that come with old age.

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I spent some time in the New Orleans Casino horse room and tried to make a killing on the ponies. At the start, I had a couple of winners, but I couldn't keep the momentum going. My faithful readers know how much I depend on momentum and when it doesn't happen, it's time to take a walk.

Back in the comforts of the home I share with Jeff and Junior in Phoenix, I went through my emails. Joe Pizza sent me a story that he had received from one of his lifelong friends. The guy happens to be a horse player and there are two things horse players are famous for -- losing tickets and having stories.

Now I know about horse players. The guy in the front row studying a Daily Racing Form and chewing on his fingernails might be a former jockey or trainer. The older gentleman in the black suit and tie could be a bank president or an attorney testing his system against the horses. The woman in her 60s may be a secretary, a school teacher, or a retired showgirl trying to upgrade her financial condition in the city that never sleeps.

The story Joe's friend sent him happened in the summer of 1968. Pizza was between his junior and senior years in high school. He and a couple of friends had developed an interest in horse racing. Because of their age, they were not permitted to enter the track, but they overcame that obstacle by producing fraudulent identification cards and dressing to look older.

Joe's friend had a math teacher named Vince Moscella. He was dark-haired, cool, wore Brooks Brothers while the other teachers were content to buy their suits off the rack, and his shoes were Italian loafers. He even drove a Cadillac while his peers were driving Fords and Chevrolets. Moscella was in his mid-30s, handsome and friendly to the students. But he wore an aura that placed him a cut above the average person. Teaching was a way to legitimize himself. His real passion was thoroughbred horse racing.

The math teacher spent many afternoons at the race track clubhouse with the Daily Racing Form and his Zeiss Binoculars. He was a steady player who rarely lost. And he had a system that worked perfectly for him.

Joe's friend wrote him, 'At the time, me and my friends were track lovers too. This was before the internet, X-box and cell phones, so we had to find our vices and entertainment in the conventional pastimes of the day. During that era, Vegas was the only place in the country you could place a legal bet, but race tracks provided one of the few action outlets available to the masses.'

He and his fellow students would sneak into the track, lying about their age or showing fake IDs. Once inside, they would get a glimpse of Moscella as he studied the racing form and looked at the odds on the tote board. He was always alone and while he studied all the races, he rarely made a wager.

The email continues, 'We were mesmerized by his character and quiet charisma. It was exciting just being near him in this setting. But one thing we noticed was that he didn't often get up to make a bet. Matter of fact, unless we missed something, we only ever saw him make about ONE bet on any given trip. We wondered about that. How could a guy be there all day, through 8-9-10 or more races and only make only one or two wagers?'

They were soon to find out.

The students finally worked up their courage to approach him. He was surprised to see them, but seemed amused at their presence. In those days, teachers and students didn't hang out together. But after a while they grew comfortable with his presence and even answered his question of what they were doing at the track.

His friend wrote, 'We sheepishly told him that we come often and we've seen him before but never felt it appropriate to approach him. He acknowledged that he got to the track as often as he could. Our small talk was instantly cut short by the shriek of the starter's bell followed by the ever familiar, "They're Off!"

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He immediately raised his binoculars and trained them on the pack breaking from the gate.....tracing their every stride. He stalked them right down the stretch to the finish line and only lowered the glasses when the last stallion crossed the finish line. "So who'd you have," my buddy blurted out, "Did you win?" He just smiled and said, "Nah, I didn't bet the race.'

That really triggered their interest. They prodded him on which horse he liked in the next trace, how much he was betting, and how he picked winners. The teacher told them choosing winners at the track was one of the hardest accomplishments in sports. Even the best handicappers could pick only one or two winners in an entire race card and the horse was usually bet down to chalk.

The teacher was very careful with his bets, making only the safest of wagers when he felt confident his handicapping warranted a bet.

After a few races and more questions, he stood up and said, 'I'll be right back.' He headed for the cashier's window. When he returned, Joe's friend blurted, 'Who did ya bet, Mr. K?'

The teacher looked at him impassively. 'The horse I came to bet.. The number seven horse, Missy's Dancer.'

Their eyes went to the tote board. Missy's Dancer was the heavy favorite at 4/5 odds. The students looked at each other and thought, 'This horse won't pay anything.' Then they watched the race. Moscella had his binoculars to his eyes as the horses burst from the chute. It was a blazing pace and as the pack of horses hit the stretch and turned for him, Missy's Dancer was in a group of three other horses in front. They hit the finish line three abreast in a photo finish.

Moscella made some notes on his program, seemingly unconcerned about the results. The results were announced -- Thunderbolt was the winner and Missy's Dancer cxame in second.

'Damn, Mr. M, we're sorry,' the students said in unison.

The teacher smiled. 'Don't be,' he said quietly. He pulled a thick stack of tickets from his pocket. They totaled $5,000 -- to show. He had a winner. The show bet paid $2.40 and Moscella had won nearly $1,000 on his $5,000 bet.

Before he left the track, Moscella told the students, 'I hope you boys learned something today. This is how the professionals do it.'

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