The Doctor didn't seem to like it when I pumped my fists.
Sure, our ponies had finished one-two, just like we'd bet. And yeah, that meant we'd be splitting the $79 return on our $6 investment. But we were in the reserved boxes at Tampa Bay Downs, the land of high-rollers and handicappers, far above the guys clinging to the rail and betting the rent money. The boxes are like the back room at a Vegas casino — if you're good enough to be there, you don't gloat about winning. The Doctor got a kick out of my hooting and hollering, but only for a moment. Then he put his hand on my shoulder and nodded toward the program. There was another race to pick.
Last Saturday, more than 5,000 people made their way to Oldsmar for Opening Day of the 80th season at Tampa Bay Downs. Aside from the hundreds of TVs simulcasting races from around the country, the JumboTron above the old-fashioned green scoreboard and the disappointing lack of fedoras in the crowd, the track hasn't changed much in the last eight decades. The pace is still wonderfully slow; at least 20 minutes pass between each race. The white paint on the grandstand benches is cracking; the stench of the horses wafts through the crowd; and everyone has their own betting strategy. Except me. I didn't know a damn thing when I showed up Saturday morning. So I went looking for a winner.
For the first race, I sidled up to Stan and Nan Lobodinski in the clubhouse. Stan, who's been coming to the track for two decades, plugs stats from the racing form — the handicapper's bible, which lists everything from a horse's past performances to her current medications — into a formula he found in a betting guidebook. His glasses balanced on the end of his nose, three pens sticking out of the breast pocket of his gray Members Only jacket, he used his scientific method to settle on the favorite, Chatham Parkway.
He put $2 on Chatham to come in third or better. "Bet what you can lose," said the 82-year-old retired U.S. Army colonel. "Don't mortgage the house."
Sitting next to him, Nan studied her own racing form. For all her husband's research, Nan keeps it simple. She bets names. And in the first race, she liked I'm No Brat, a 20-1 longshot, to win.
Any strategy is better than what I had going, so I walked up to the teller and bet with both of the Lobodinskis. We headed out to the stands to watch the race, and that's when I felt it for the first time.
There's nothing like the backstretch.
The starting gate is hundreds of yards from the grandstand, and even with the JumboTron it's tough to tell where your horse is for the first two thirds of the race. But the air changes when they come around that final turn. The crowd's murmur grows into a roar — joy and pain escaping in a collective mass of gambling excitement. "Number Three! Number Three! C'mon Three, I need some dinnah!" It builds and builds until the horses cross the line and then the whole place — save the few folks who won — deflates.
Chatham Parkway took the first race, but I'm No Brat came in eighth. I was down 40 cents. And I was hooked.
I joined a few more people in bets, including a young man clad head to toe in Buffet gear, who, on principle, picked Savannah's Wish in the third race. (Jimmy's daughter is named Savannah ... we didn't win.) If I was going to bet with other people, I needed a winner, a pro. I needed that guy in the boxes, the one in the suit who kept shaking everyone's hand. I needed The Doctor.
Jose Dominguez Sr. has had the same box in the grandstand, 10 yards before the finish line at the edge of the balcony, since 1968. Though he spends his days working as a cardiologist, Dominguez has horses in his blood. His father owned them when Jose was a boy in Cuba. He's owned them himself, trained them and bred them. But, nowadays, the 76-year-old just handicaps races ... very, very well.
"I'm a cocky guy," he said, sliding up the sleeves of his elegant tan checked suit to reveal not one, but two gold Rolexes. He was wearing five rings on his left hand, a giant amethyst rock dwarfing the small gold wedding band on his fourth finger. On his right pinky, a diamond-encrusted horseshoe pointed toward the nail, framing a solid gold horse's head.
Seeing him sift through the racing form, marking weights and jockeys with his red pen, was something like watching CNBC with a virtuoso stockbroker — Dominguez can pull reams of priceless information out of a single, indecipherable line. "You see this horse?" he said to me before our first race together, pointing to one of the favorites. "He hasn't run in a year." That's all he had to say — we wouldn't be betting on Number Five.
But The Doctor doesn't just put money on the ponies he thinks will win. Instead, he'll wager more and pick the four strongest horses — boxing quinellas and exactas and such — betting several possible outcomes. "Watch what Doc does," said Charlie, the teller Dominguez goes to for every race, as we bet for the first time. We put down 40 bucks, 20 each. Back at his box, The Doctor knew we'd won even before the backstretch. The clamor hadn't even begun when he leaned in and whispered "it's over" in his thick Cuban accent. Of course, he was right.
It went on like this for four more races, The Doctor finessing his way through the racing form, me pretending to know what he was doing. And each time we went to see Charlie, we collected. $30. $12. $52. By the fifth race, I was up $138. If we weren't in the boxes, I'd have been flashing my new wad like a rookie pimp.
But if you're betting with The Doctor, you better know how to handle a win.
Tampa Bay Downs' season continues Saturday, Dec. 16, when beers, hot dogs at sodas will all be 80 cents from noon-3 p.m. Go to tampabaydowns.com for more information.