Read Mortal Lock Online

Authors: Andrew Vachss

Tags: #Collections & Anthologies, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #General

Mortal Lock (6 page)

“One fifty-nine?” I guessed.

“Closer to the deuce, I think, but you’re in the right spot. So, could he win here, if he runs his number?”

I scanned the form, looking at each of the other horses. It was chilly out, with the wind blowing enough to move the flags. Maine, I’d never been up there, but I figured this kind of weather wouldn’t be any big deal to a horse that made his living in worse.

I went over the race real careful. Taking my time, the way the old man had told me to. The horse would be fifth from the inside when the race started. It wasn’t just the number on his blanket; the old man told me that every slot has to wear a color to match it, so you could tell them apart even on the back stretch. The horse had a black blanket.

“Early speed doesn’t mean as much as it used to here,” I remembered the old man saying. And, anyway, this horse never was first by the quarter mile even when he started from way inside, so I didn’t count that much.

“Yeah,” I finally said. “I think he could.”

“Me, too,” the old man said. “Even though those speed ratings are a pile of crap today, they give you some idea. Now I’ve been to that track in Maine, and, let me tell you, it’s one rotten joint.”

“The track itself?”

“Yeah. The track itself. See, the best tracks are firm, but they ain’t like concrete. A horse moving to a track like this, he’s going to feel like he’s floating.”


One of the things I had been reading about was the movable hub rail they have at Yonkers. The old man hated it. “Just another sign,” he’d said to me, when I asked him about it. “This whole track has gone lousy. One time, it was one of the top spots in the whole country … maybe the whole world. Had the best horses, biggest purses, huge crowds. Now look at it.

“First, they had to go and fuck with the starting line. Used to be, there was a long distance between the start line and that first turn, okay? Now, naturally, that means a real short home stretch, right? So, tell me, what kind of horse does that favor?”

“One with early speed?”

“You’ve been hitting those books,” he said. “I’ll have to bring some more down for you next time. More advanced stuff. Now listen: Before they had that movable rail on the inside, you could see the strategy and tactics play out right in front of you. Get to the front, dictate the fractions. That means, shoot that first quarter, then back off on the second. You want to keep the pace slow, because you know they’re all going to be coming at you down the stretch.

“Now, you go the whole way on the front end, there’s no cover, so it may be a tougher trip. But it’s a shorter distance home, too. If you’re still in front looking at the wire, you can’t block the others off—that’s a sure DQ—but you can ease your horse out a little to the right, give the other guys a few extra feet to cover, see?”

“Yeah,” I said. And I did.

“But you can’t do it that way no more,” the old man said, like they’d been out to cheat him, personal. “Now it’s all gimmicks.
This track, they even run some of the races at a mile and a sixteen. What’s that supposed to be, a joke? These horses aren’t bred for that distance. You can’t handicap them, ’cause you got no background to look at. Might as well make them run uphill.”

“Not standard.”

“Yeah,” he said, looking at me close. “That’s right. They say this track’s coming back. Big purses again. That’s true enough. But that’s all down to the fucking ‘casino’ they got inside. That’s where the real money is.”


A month went by with him talking to me like that. “You been making paper bets for a while now,” he said one night. “You ready to pick one for real?”

“I think so.”

“You already got one, don’t you?”

“I … guess,” I said. Wondering how he knew.

“Show me.”

He studied the form I held out. Asked me a bunch of questions. Kept nodding. Finally he said, “Your guy’s no overnighter; he’s been on the grounds for five weeks now. Been going in the same class every week, just one step down from the top. Hasn’t won here yet, but he’s been holding his own. And there’s a driver change, too. You see that?”

“Yeah. John Campbell. He’s good?”

“Good? The man’s an artist. Some of these drivers, they’re nothing but thugs. Campbell, he knows you can’t whip a horse into winning, you have to guide him home, act like you expect him to get there first. With pacers, he’s pretty good,” the old man said, “but you put him behind a trotter, there’s no driver out here that can touch him.”


My horse was a chesty bay named Little Eric, a Noble Gesture trotter out of an Arsenal mare. He was sluggish out of the six-hole, but he fired up and went first-over just past the quarter, which had gone in a soft thirty-flat. Just as he caught up to the lead horse, Simple Justice, that one picked up speed, and kept Little Eric parked out. The half went in fifty-eight and four.

Little Eric finally got clear by going slingshot on the clubhouse turn, but he’d come a long way without cover and the heavy chalk, Bruno’s Boy, had popped down into the inside lane, as the movable hub rail lived up to its name.

Bruno’s Boy was really rolling, but my horse kept chugging on, dead game. Little Eric held off Bruno’s Boy by a neck. The tote board said he paid $18.20 to win. On the program, he’d been what the old man told me was a classic overlay. That meant he wasn’t the favorite, and he didn’t deserve to be, but he was a lot better than the 13-1 morning line made him out to be.

“Nice,” is all the old man said. I didn’t know if he said that because I’d picked the horse, or because I didn’t jump up and down and scream as they came down the stretch, the way some people do. “Lames,” the old man called them. “Like chumps who yell at the dice in a casino. The horses hear all that shouting about as much as the dice do. Makes as much difference to them, too.”

I made my way to the window, waited my turn on line, the program open in front of me, heavily marked up in red. Under the brim of my hat, my eyes swept the area. But I didn’t see what I was looking for.


“Thanks,” the old man said, when I handed over the beer I brought back for him.

He took a sip. Looked over at me. “You never get one for yourself,” he said.

I just shrugged.

“You don’t smoke, neither. Against your religion?”

“I don’t do that, either,” I said.

He closed his eyes like he was thinking something over, but he didn’t say anything for a while.

I went back to looking at the program.

The old man tapped me on the forearm. “See that?” he said, pointing at the giant tote board in the infield. “Forget that Morning Line crap—you can watch the real action right here. Remember, the track don’t set the odds, the bettors do. That’s all ‘pari-mutuel’ means: you’re betting against all the other players. The track takes its piece off the top. Same as the house does in a poker game. That’s the only sure way to make money, any kind of gambling. Live off the takeout.”

“What about when you bet with a bookie?”

“Don’t bet with bookies,” he said, like we were done talking.

I studied the tote board. Watched the numbers jump around.

“Any chump can be a gambler,” he said. “All it takes is money. Or credit, if you’re fucked up enough. You, you’re learning to be a handicapper.”

“Handicappers don’t bet with bookies? Where do they go, then, OTB?”

“OTB? That’s Sucker Paradise. You bet with those thieves, there’s another takeout, on top of the track’s. A horse that pays ten dollars at the track, he’d be a nine-eighty horse at OTB, see? You let politicians run anything, the first thing they do is drain it dry. OTB, that’s the only bookie operation in history to lose money. A pro wouldn’t go near that joint. Let’s say you hit a big enough number—like a Pick 4, which is a righteous play for a handicapper, ’cause you’re stringing winners, not betting on horses to come
in third or crap like that. At OTB, IRS takes its cut right at the window. They rob you at both ends.”

I didn’t say anything. That’s the way things are, everywhere.

“Used to be, you got a wino to cash a big ticket for you,” he said. “Ten-percenters, we called them, ’cause that’s the piece they got out of it. All they had to do was show a Social Security card. It got reported to the IRS, sure, but they didn’t take out the money off the top. You walked off with ninety percent, all cash.”

I studied the tote board for a few minutes. “How come the show pool has so much money in it?” I asked him.

“There’s a bridge-jumper in the house,” he said.

“What’s that?”

The old man lit himself a smoke. “This is how it works. The more the bettors like any particular horse, the less it’s going to pay, understand? By law, the track has to pay at least $2.10 on each race, no matter what the odds. Now, you see the seven horse up there?”


“Look at those odds: one to nine. Only time you see something like that, the horse is a monster. The next race, you see it’s a Sire Stakes elimination, okay? There’s maybe fifty horses eligible for the final, so they break them into groups, then the winners get to race each other. See, on the program? There’s six of these races tonight. You with me so far?”


“What’s happening here is that the seven horse, Stephen’s Susie, she got put in with a bunch of stiffs. Those others don’t belong on the same track as her. Look at her lines: she’s already won a couple of hundred grand, see there? Next best filly to her has banked thirty-something and she had to run twice as many races to get even that much. Stephen’s Susie, she’s already gone in fifty-three. For a two-year-old trotting filly! Only one other horse in the field ever got below two flat, and that was at Woodbine, where they all fly. The next race, it’s going to be a slaughter.”

“So, if everybody bets on her, it’s not going to pay anything?”

“Not if you’re a ten dollar bettor, it won’t. But look at that board. Look at it close. When the odds get like that, you get the same $2.10 whether your horse comes in first, second, or third. So you play the monster to show, you’ve got the closest thing to a mortal lock you’ll ever see on a racetrack. Figure it that way, it’s a five percent return on your money in under two minutes. But that only works if you throw serious coin. You plunk down two, three hundred K, and, so long as the monster gets at least third, you get your stake back, plus ten, fifteen thousand profit.”

“But what if the horse, I don’t know, breaks stride, like you said? Even a great horse wouldn’t win, then.”

“That’s why they call them bridge-jumpers, kid.”


Back in my motel room, I studied the photographs they’d given me before I left.

“This is him,” the man who’d hired me said. “He knows he’s marked, but the fucking rat’s a degenerate gambler—he
to play. And he’s gotta watch the action, see it with his own eyes. He’s not crazy enough to walk into a real casino, so we figure it’s got to be the track. This one, it’s got those slots, too. Sooner or later, he’s going to show.

“So what you need is a reason to be there every night. And we’ve got that covered for you, too. You’re going to be a real hardcore gambler, the kind of guy who practically lives on the premises, never misses a day. After a while, you’re part of the scenery; nobody pays attention.”

I didn’t say anything. That’s what people like him expect.

“We might even get lucky with a heads-up,” he told me. “The only racehorses this little weasel knows anything about are the kind you rent by the hour. This Arnie guy, he’s all about flash. Never
goes anywhere without full front. He picks the wrong whore to bring with him one night, we’ll get a call. That happens, you’ll get one, too. But don’t count on it, all right? Just study those photos; make sure you’ll know him if you see him.”

I knew what they’d expect me to do with the photos after I was done studying. The man gave me half the money in front, like always. Said it was mine to keep even if I didn’t do the job. I knew that meant they had other people working the same job, but I didn’t ask any questions. That’s not my place—I’m a contract man, not a family member.

So I put in a couple of months, seeing the old man two-three nights a week, just like he’d said. Some days, too—he told me the real pros never miss the baby races—two-year-olds racing for stakes their connections put up when they were born—or the Qualifiers—where horses coming in from another track have to prove they can go the course in under a certain time.

You can’t bet on any of those races, but it’s the best place to get advance info. “Like scouting a farm team, see who’s going to be a star in a couple of years,” the old man said.

He kept a notebook, and he made a separate section for each new horse he liked. Every time that horse would go after that, the old man would be there, making his notes.

He showed me how to make a notebook of my own, but he never showed me what was in his—that wasn’t part of the deal.

“Every handicapper’s got his own system,” he said. “And it all comes down to weight.”

“I thought weight didn’t matter with trotters. You said it’s only the thoroughbreds who have to—”

“Not the weight they pull,” he said. “The weight you put.”


“Look, kid, you see this program?”


“Got all kinds of information, if you take the time to learn how to read it. Most of the suckers who come here, they don’t even bother to do that, and that’s good, because they’re the ones we’re betting against, remember? But even if you learn to read the program perfect, even if you check the breeding books, read everything you can get your hands on, you’re still working with the same information anyone can get: Like how many times the horse has been out, how much money he’s won, his fastest time, what class he’s been in … right?”

“I … guess. Sure. But, all that information, how do you know what piece is more important than another?”

“That’s the trick!” the old man, said, like he was proud of me for figuring it out. “That’s the weight I was talking about. Some handicappers, they’re speed whores. Others, they go for horses that race better in the mud. Or take a drop in class.”

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