On sports-betting touts

I’ve been around gambling since I was 10, when I placed my first wager, $2 to win, on the jet-black Allen Jerkens trainee Devil His Due in the 1993 Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park. (He finished third; Valley Crossing won the star-studded race that year.) I’ve bet the ponies ever since, added poker in college; have played backgammon and gin rummy for a few decades, and occasionally plunked down on sports. One thing I learned from a young age is to do your own handicapping; besides the enjoyment one finds in studying and learning from a lifetime of mistakes and rarer successes, it is also near-impossible to beat the game regularly. I know very few full-time horse bettors, and in the last few years, met a few full-time sports bettors. In horse racing, here in the U.S., you’re up against your fellow bettor; in sports, it’s even harder because you’re up against the bookmaker.

One of these sports bettors recently told me that there can only be so many winners; while designing and betting off of his MLB model some years ago, he was always fearful that the edges he had found would be discovered by other bettors, and then the betting markets would recalibrate, his advantage lost.

I’ve always been skeptical of tips, sure things, and people who want to sell you their expertise, a.k.a. touts. I’d seen these men on TV or heard them on the radio, citing information I knew was already baked into betting lines. I wondered why mainstream media outlets offered almost no skepticism to their claims. And if they were making good money from betting, I also wondered, why did they want the attention from selling picks for a relatively small amount of money? Who needs the grief?

I knew from experience. For one summer in 2006, I was the official program handicapper at Monmouth Park. Besides picking every race, in the Asbury Park Press’s long-running Daily Double feature I wagered off a mythical starting bankroll of $2,000. I was “The Man” and was pitted against a revolving “Fan of the Day.”

People came up to me all the time at the track to compliment a winning bet or, more likely, a loser. I finished positive by $100 or so, which given The Man’s finishing bankroll in previous years, felt like an incredible triumph. Nobody had to pay for this stuff.

So in the spring of 2015, I started looking at the modern tout industry — bettors who claim that, by paying them, they’ll help you win more than you would without them. I’ve worked on several stories alongside this one, but like any investigative issue, it turned out to be the most exhaustive. You can’t rush the time needed to understand a complex subject.

You can read it here, on Deadspin, a place I had written for before — including a feature on a high-profile horse-racing stable turned Ponzi scheme. I knew their editors had an appetite for a story like this.

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Borough Park

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June 13, 2016 · 12:16 pm

Los Mariachis

I had passed the faded sign countless times before: the words “Live Entertainment” next to a trumpet, cocktail glass, and music notes. It was a fabulous sign. In the window, neon likenesses of a mariachi band lit up the curb. This was Los Mariachis restaurant, on Coney Island Avenue near Dorchester, on the border of Ditmas Park and Kensington, and until last week I wondered what it was like inside. The interior decor looked to mirror the neon exterior — halogen lights of green and yellow cast a bright, harsh glare.

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But last week, my superintendent, a kind man named Fernando who has lived on Ocean Avenue most of his life, told me that Los Mariachis is true to its name: every Friday night, a mariachi band plays. I went with a friend. The scene inside was warm and jovial: families make an occasion of it, the four musicians moved slowly around the low-ceilinged room, moving from table to table taking requests. I wish I knew more Mexican classics to suggest. The guitarrón player was particularly adept. Just playing that oversized guitar seems like a challenge. The food wasn’t anything to write home about, but the music and margaritas were. We left close to 11, but the band, playing for more than two hours, still had another hour to go.

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Spielberg’s “St. James Place” filming in Ditmas Park

Yesterday, the historic section of Ditmas Park from E. 16th to E. 18th streets, and Dorchester to Ditmas, not far from where I live, was filled with old Studebakers and actors wearing period garb for the filming of 1960s spy thriller “St. James Place,” directed by Steven Spielberg. And Tom Hanks. None of the cars looked out of place next to early-20th century Victorian houses. With the streets blocked off and turned into one large vintage set, there was a quiet and mysterious feel to the neighborhood.

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There were about a dozen people milling about to get a sight of Hanks and one car scene being filmed. The most amusing part of this was a middle-aged Caribbean man named Leslie who was snapping as many photos of Hanks as he could on his bulky phone. He admitted he had no idea who Hanks was. One woman, stunned, asked him what he does if he doesn’t watch movies. “Read books,” he said. Hanks only rung a bell for him when this other gawker mentioned “You’ve Got Mail.” The mention of Forrest Gump drew a blank stare.

Here are some other photos.

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“Out there”

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I’m often told by my friends that I live out there. A shapeless, faceless, undefined place in south-central Brooklyn; too far from Manhattan, too far from the hip parts of Brooklyn, too far from anything that matters, too different. At first I resented that description. Now I enjoy it.

I have lived out there (Kensington, precisely) for more than a year now (14 months to be exact), and everything about it makes me feel at peace. Henry Miller wrote in “Air-Conditioned Nightmare” about feeling at home in the slums of New York, because these are where the immigrants are, and they’re European and hence not American in quality or outlook. I don’t live in the slums; in fact it is an unbelievably diverse, working-class, family-oriented community with folks who have landed from Tibet, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mexico, and a dozen other countries I’m forgetting. There is a timeless quality to living out there; a satisfaction and contentment among folks who aren’t worried about getting their kids into an expensive private pre-school, or moving to a hipper neighborhood, or how they should spend their weekends according to what New York Magazine says. What’s better than living on Ocean Parkway? Playgrounds for your children, a tree-lined boulevard to stroll, concrete tables to play chess or backgammon, the sounds of dice competing with vehicular noise.

Many weeknights since I moved, I have jumped the B train to Brighton Beach for an evening swim or to walk the boardwalk. To be near the sea. This feels incredible to me, that I can get on a train and be on the sand in 15 minutes. Makes me think of early Lou Reed, singing “Coney Island Baby.” I took that above photo one night in the spring. An almost waif-like woman walking alone on the beach. Some nights I walk through Borough Park and feel transported in time. I see art-deco buildings and neon signs and think people would pay big bucks to live in these places, if it weren’t out there. People who tell me New York is dead are missing the picture. I mean, many parts of it are, and we all spend too much money to live here — Manhattan, save for Chinatown, feels like a foreign land to me now, a museum city, preserved in Formaldehyde. But out there, there’s a wildness to life. People fill the streets at night. When I lived in Cobble Hill for seven years, I used to walk through Brooklyn Heights on a summer night and see nobody on the street or on their front steps. Were they inside watching television? Upstate? They weren’t on the Promenade, which was rarely crowded. I never understood this. The playground next to my current building is like a children’s United Nations. On Coney Island Avenue, you can get a haircut or Sugarcane at any hour of the night. Men gather in small groups on Ocean Parkway, or outside cramped apartment houses. You almost never hear English, and I like that. On Ditmas Avenue, dozens of men, probably Russian or Azerbaijani, play backgammon late into the night at Brandon’s Tea & Grocery. They don’t sell produce there. Some nights, I have seen 40 people waiting to get on a table, or just watching the action. The other night at a new Turkish gyro place, four Russian men poured shots of vodka out of a porcelain tea kettle. It was 6:30. My friend and I call our neighborhood the Fertile Crescent; if you want to see what people looked like 3,000 years ago, come to Ditmas Avenue and Ocean Parkway.

If I want tranquility, I walk a few blocks into Ditmas Park. Down sycamore-lined Argyle Street, past the weeping willow on Dorchester, up streets with spacious front porches and privet hedges. It’s like walking through one large botanic garden, and I imagine it felt that way in the early 20th century when these districts were carved up from farmland. Some of these houses have turned over two or three times in a century. I tell people that I can see the stars at night, and they rarely believe me. And when I leave the Cortelyou Road station it’s like coming into a small village. Cafe Tibet looks like it’s about to tip over onto the tracks, at Vincent’s barbershop across the street prices haven’t changed in 25 years, and a few blocks away San Remo sells slices out of its window. I was sold on this area two years ago when I came on a Sunday, the farmer’s market was open, and I had never seen such humanity in my time in New York. This is what Old New York feels like.

And the food…I’ve never eaten so well in my life: Trinidadian, Pakistani, Tibetan, Turkish, Moldovan, Uighur, Uzbeki, Mexican, take your pick. I will write another essay on Shayna’s on Church Avenue, run by the matronly Joyce Bittan, one of my favorite people and favorite restaurants in the whole world. All cheap, all fresh, a little dirty, and bursting with life and character. No white tablecloths here, or fancy ratings, or preciousness.

Out there is not for everyone. It is not conventional, it is ageless, and I hope it stays that way.

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The Dark Horse

I wrote my first story for Deadspin today, “The Dark Horse: How Big Brown’s People Nearly Pulled Off Horse Racing’s Biggest Scam,” an approximately 5,000-word account of the downfall of Big Brown’s human connections since the colt finished last 5 years ago in his attempt to break the Triple Crown spell. You can read it here. Also deserving of credit is Barry Petchesky, who was the editor on the piece and is one of the few journalists still interested in horse racing, and thus was eagerly receptive to the idea.

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For new visitors to the site, feel free to look around and peruse the other stories I’ve written, in the Articles section.

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Eclipse Award

The last week of December I was honored to learn that I had won the Eclipse Award for feature writing, the national horse-racing journalism award. (The other writing category is for enterprise reporting, a category in which I received an honorable mention last year.) The piece that won it was my story on father-son jockeys Eibar and Keiber Coa, which ran in the Daily Racing Form’s Weekend section on July 7, and the latter’s decision to become a rider after watching his father recover from a career-ending, life-threatening riding accident. I’m thankful to both Eibar and Keiber for giving so freely and honestly of their emotions and memories on a very difficult subject.

Here is the press release from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association announcing the award. And here is the story itself, in the Daily Racing Form.

I used to see “Eclipse Award” attached to Sports Illustrated writer Bill Nack’s name, and since his collection of features “My Turf” had as great an influence on me as anything I read in my early teens, I always thought that award was something fit for gods. So it’s a humbling recognition. Hearing the news also made me think of the late Bill Handleman, as fine a wordsmith as I knew in those youthful years; he was the sports columnist for the Asbury Park Press, and at 15 I started sending Bill letters, which, as I remember it, asked for advice and the chance to break into the paper. After quite a few letters he handed them over to sports editor John Quinn who, out of curiosity and a little skepticism, invited me for an interview. It was September 1999, I was 16 and had only started my junior year of high school. We shot the breeze on horse racing, I knew my stuff and he saw my eagerness, and Quinn hired me as a cub high-school sports reporter. He took a chance, something I’ll never forget. I got to write about the horses the following summer. If Handleman had thrown those letters in the trash (that he didn’t reminds me that he was, despite outward cynicism, a dogged romantic at heart), I’d probably have ended up writing about something far less exciting and fake. Never a happy trooper at my high school, that job with the Asbury Park Press saved me.

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