smoked a cigarette and leaned against the fence that
encircled the exercise track in back of Belmont Park.
He was a last minute substitute in the eighth race. A
half hour earlier, Distant Sun’s regular jockey had twisted
his ankle. Nobody saw what happened.
Distant Sun ran well in
New York. He’d won nine straight, coming from behind
each time; and three days earlier, he’d worked five furlongs
in a breezing 1:02. Based on the two-dollar track program,
this horse couldn’t lose.
It wasn’t that simple.
McLaughlin knew. He’d seen colts go out too fast and
tire. He’d watched them stay too far off the lead and
be unable to make up the ground. Horses dumped their
riders, or got knocked around at the start, or came up
lame. Jockeys got disqualified. And sometimes, despite
whipping and urging, the stupid nag just loped along
in the middle of the pack and didn’t fire.
A chunky exercise rider
led Distant Sun out of his stall. McLaughlin saw only
the colt: light bay with a milky stripe on his nose;
seventeen hands tall, good size for a come-from-behind
horse. Eyes told the story—arrogance toward fellow horses
and disdain for the two-legged humans who used him to
run their races for them. This one was a competitor.
He’d be hard to catch once he got moving.
The exercise rider approached
with trepidation, searching the jockey’s taut face for
danger. McLaughlin’s foul temper was common knowledge
among the stable hands. Standing only five-feet tall
and weighing ninety-eight pounds, he carried himself
like a giant—especially in the barrooms. His tiny nose,
reddened by booze, had been beaten flat.
The jockey glared at the
exercise rider. This pantywaist looked ready to bolt
at any second. He was holding the reins as if they were
burning his hand. “Who’s leading who?” McLaughlin asked.
“This one’s got a mean
streak,” the exercise rider explained. “Bit a nice chunk
out of a stable boy’s arm yesterday. Had to be taken
to the hospital. Took fifteen stitches to close him up!”
McLaughlin stroked the
horse’s nose without hesitation. “Any racehorse worth
his weight in shit has a little spunk,” he said. For
a 100-pound jockey to have any hope of controlling a
1000-pound horse, he had to establish authority without
antagonism. McLaughlin sought a horse’s trust before
taking the reins. Distant Sun snorted and pawed the ground,
but tolerated the jockey’s overture.
Relieved to hand over the
reins, the exercise rider shrunk back—too abruptly—and
Distant Sun reared on muscular hind legs. McLaughlin
acted fast. Mindful of flailing hoofs, he secured a tight
hold on the colt’s bridle. A horse couldn’t stand on
his back hoofs forever. After a couple of seconds crawled
by, Distant Sun returned to all-fours. The jockey patted
the colt and pulled the reins, firmly, but not forcibly,
using mindset rather than strength to bring the temperamental
thoroughbred under control.
“I told you he was mean,” the
exercise rider whined.
“I ought to knock the hell
out of you!” McLaughlin snapped, secretly pleased. He
loved aggressive horses.
Twenty minutes later, the
jockeys rode out onto Belmont Park’s racetrack for the
post parade warm-ups. They kept their mounts reined in
as they ambled up-and-down the home stretch in front
of the grandstand. This easy jaunt was a thoroughbred’s
only race-day activity. The idea: to loosen him up with
minimal effort. Seasoned bettors studied this pre-race
ritual closely, hoping for any sort of tip.
With the track’s sprawling
mile-and-a-half oval looming in the background, remnants
of dust from the previous race settled onto the neatly
raked sod. Bright sunshine added luster to the fresh-cut
grass in the infield, and a light breeze softened the
seventy-five degree temperature, lulling the large New
York crowd into an unusual good humor. His catch-up style
favored by mild weather, Distant Sun was the overwhelming
favorite at 1-3. Other horses in the field-of-six were
steep odds, including 25-1 long shot, Charming Dan.
This race was a mile-and-a-quarter.
The starting gate was positioned on the first turn to
accommodate that distance. Damn strange for Belmont.
Generally, mile-and-a-quarter races were run at Aqueduct.
One minute till post time.
Distant Sun was ready. McLaughlin kept him calm. With
the first two horses already in place, Distant Sun entered
gate-3. The back door to gate-3 clanged shut, and Charming
Dan went into gate-4. Cricket Jones balked at gate-5,
refusing to go through the narrow opening. Becky’s Boy
entered gate-6 while four men pulled and shoved, trying
to get Cricket Jones into position. As soon as this troublesome
gelding was in place, the front doors would fly open;
and the field, a tempest of raw power, would charge out
of the open chutes.
McLaughlin’s heart pounded
like a jackhammer. He positioned himself on the lightweight
saddle that was smaller than most bicycle seats. He hooked
his feet into ridiculously short stirrups. He couched
forward until his chest almost touched his thighs. He
tucked his elbows in close as he gripped the reins. He
adjusted his goggles, holding onto the riding crop he
would need later. He did these things automatically,
without thinking, and nearly forgot that he’d been paid
to throw the race.
In the small back room
of a neighborhood bar in Queens, the radio broadcast
confirmed Distant Sun as the horse to beat. Jimmy D’Amato
shifted in his chair and used his expensive silk tie
to mop puddles of sweat from his round face. The floorboards
creaked in protest as a hulking stooge plodded over to
D’Amato, offering his handkerchief. D’Amato ignored the
giant. A cadaverous bookkeeper had his undivided attention.
The bookkeeper rifled through stacks of betting tickets
and punched the buttons on an adding machine.
“C’mon, how much?” D’Amato
demanded, walking over to the table.
“That’s all of it,” the
bookkeeper said in a reedy voice.
D’Amato squinted at the
total. “Hey, look at that! That’s over ninety Gs!” he
chortled. “What’s the line?”
“Radio just said our boy’s
going off at 25-1,” the giant marveled. “I’d like to
be there right now, just to see it.”
The long shot, Charming
Dan, was a ringer—a quality horse they’d been holding
back for six months. He’d amassed a losing streak that
would assure high odds in any race. Today he was going
Without drawing a whisper
of attention to themselves, D’Amato and his cronies had
placed modest wagers with small time bookies and off-track
betting parlors, spreading their bets thin to preserve
their sure thing as a long shot. They’d managed to avoid
sudden shifts in the odds (which could tip off the city’s
less informed gamblers). As the heavy favorite, Distant
Sun drew most of the action, and that made things a lot
But this favorite was too
strong; he needed help losing. One slight problem: double
fix, double risk. Any competent jockey (not even an inside
man, necessarily) could ride the winner. But the race-thrower
had to be good. Damn good. Track officials had a nasty
habit of scrutinizing every detail of a race—especially
questionable finishes. And most crooked jockeys were
too damn obvious. Not McLaughlin. He was a losing specialist
who always made it look good, as if he had a chance,
but was just unlucky.
McLaughlin planned to stay
near the lead and sprint out just a shade too early.
As expected, the heavy favorite would be in hot contention,
possibly holding on for a place or show finish. It would
look like questionable strategy. Nothing more. A good
horse upset by a long shot. The reason races are run
on the track and not in the pick sheets.
The gates flew open, and
the horses bolted out of their confined spaces, creating
a cloud of dust as their hoofs pounded the track. On
his own accord, Distant Sun settled comfortably into
the forth place along the rail, beautifully positioned
for his kind of race. “I didn’t have to do anything,” McLaughlin
marveled as they galloped around the first turn.
You never knew why a horse
was front-runner, or comfortable off the lead—except
horses remember certain things. A horse running in the
slop might get pelted by mud from the leader’s back hoofs
and move immediately to the front in every race thereafter;
or a colt hurt in an ugly start might want nothing more
to do with the wild melee out of the gate and hang back
from that point forward. Whatever its origin, Distant
Sun seemed born to his catch-up style.
The field rounded the first
turn, Distant Sun gaining ground on the inside. At the
start of the long back stretch, the track announcer reported
that the first half mile had been run in a sharp forty-six
seconds. “Pretty damn fast,” thought McLaughlin. This
long straightaway ahead of them had conquered many horses
over the years. Some never ran again.
Leaving nothing to chance,
McLaughlin prodded Distant Sun a little, just to get
him started, and the colt made a hell of a move. The
jockey found himself fighting to stay in the saddle,
searching for a way to weave through a tight group of
horses in front of him. Then they were running alone,
and McLaughlin had no idea how he’d managed to get clear
with no apparent opening.
That burst had been premature—more
than McLaughlin had in mind. But Distant Sun wasn’t laboring.
It wouldn’t last. No way in hell he’d keep up this pace.
Too damn bad. He was a good horse.
Without further prodding,
Distant Sun expanded his lead to twelve lengths, and
the only sounds McLaughlin heard came from the colt’s
steady breathing and rumbling gallop. The crowd was silent.
There were no other horses around, so he could hear the
track announcer clearly. “And Distant Sun’s opened up
a huge lead…The first mile run in a blistering ninety-three
Ninety-three seconds! McLaughlin
had known the pace was fast, but it sure as hell hadn’t
felt like a ninety-three second mile. That was too damn
fast even for a fix. Distant Sun would be spent before
the stretch run. He’d finish dead last, and it wouldn’t
look good. No wonder the crowd was quiet. If you had
money on the favorite, you knew you were all done.
They blew around the far
turn, and McLaughlin was surprised when the colt didn’t
fade. “Let’s get this over with,” he muttered, whipping
the horse into an all-out charge. The colt gave everything
he had, oblivious to the futility of his effort.
McLaughlin kept pushing
and waiting for the inevitable. Sluggishness would creep
into the sharp rhythm of the horse’s hoofs hitting the
track. Other telltale signs would follow: head down,
ponderous breathing, shortened gate. As the leader slowed
and came back to the pack, it would appear from the grandstand
that the other horses had sped up to overtake him.
The colt sprinted down
the home stretch, and the crowd went nuts. It wasn’t
quiet at Belmont anymore! McLaughlin couldn’t hear the
track announcer proclaim that they’d run a mile-and-an-eighth
in 1:44. But he knew they were flying. He knew Distant
Sun wasn’t tiring. And with only one-eighth of a mile
to go, he knew he had a big problem.
Blanketed by the deafening
crowd noise, they passed the sixteenth pole at full tilt.
McLaughlin glanced over his shoulder. Nobody close. The
only thing to do was pull up. Now! Instead he whipped
the colt and shouted, “C’mon, boy! WIN IT!”
Grabbing a wooden bat from
behind his desk, Jimmy D’Amato swung wildly at the radio.
His underlings gave him a wide berth. The radio flew
across the room and landed on the floor in pieces. Somehow
the internal speaker, dangling on loose wires, continued
the broadcast. Ready to inflict more damage, D’Amato
rushed over; and like a victim pleading for mercy, the
injured radio called up from the floor: “Just a moment
ladies and gentlemen. Hold all tickets. We have an inquiry.”
As McLaughlin crossed the
finish line, the saddle beneath him evaporated without
warning, and the ground flew up to meet him face-first.
He landed hard. Lying face down in the dirt, he was dimly
aware of the trailing horses thundering past him. His
lip stung as he spit out a mouthful of sod. But he got
up and limped off the track on a sore right knee. Brushing
himself off, he looked at the tote board where Distant
Sun’s number-3 was blinking in the first-place box. The
blinking number meant the horse had won unofficially,
pending an inquiry. Had McLaughlin fallen off before
crossing the finish line? He didn’t think so.
While the stewards reviewed
the finish via instant replay, hard-core gamblers in
attendance bet among themselves on whether number-3 would
be taken down. McLaughlin hadn’t fallen all the way off
when he crossed the line, but the deciding factor was
whether he’d been in control of the horse. If Distant
Sun were disqualified, all other finishers would move
up a notch. Those betting the 25-1 long shot, Charming
Dan, would enjoy a big payday.
The stunned crowd waited
for an agonizing five minutes as the number 3 continued
to blink. Bad news for anyone with money on the favorite.
The longer an inquiry lasted, the greater the odds of
The long shot’s number
4 shifted up to first place.
McLaughlin stormed the
steward’s box. Several sets of hands pulled him back
as he struggled and kicked. Denied the satisfaction of
physical assault, he accused them of unnatural acts with
farm animals and family members. He was still yelling
when they dragged him away.
“JESUS H. CHRIST, THAT’S
CUTTING IT CLOSE!” D’Amato shouted. His underlings were
“What the hell’s wrong
with you guys?” D’Amato laughed, slapping backs. “Hey.
It was in the bag all the time! The jockey came through.
Didn’t I tell you he’s the best? I mean, this guy is
something!” He cackled as he extracted a wad of cash
and gave several bills to the giant. “Here,” he instructed. “Give
this to McLaughlin as a bonus. They won’t suspect a thing
after the way he fixed this one up. Just tell him not
to cut it so goddamn close next time. My heart can’t