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Welcome to Arcangues

By

I'm going with Southern Africa

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Everything I know about financial markets, about life really, I learned at the track. That's a bold statement. Most people would prefer not to admit such an awful thing. Most people would think it better to err on the side of discretion. But I have to level with you, I'm difficult to teach, dangerously curious, and what little filter I have between my brain and the keyboard isn't enough to put a pretty face on a story, no matter how grim it may be.

This story is ostensibly about a bet, but it's really about risk. It's about the black swan, the one thing you know will someday happen but don't, or can't, or maybe won't, prepare for. With the final jewel in the Triple Crown at Belmont Park tomorrow, I figured now is as good a time as any to tell you about Arcangues.

***

Dave gave me a stack of cash and a list of bets. I quickly scanned the list but stumbled when I got to the last line, "Hey, you got a typo here. $2 on 11? Should that be $20, or $200?"
"Oh, that," he said. "Nah, it's two. It's just a flyer in the Classic on the French horse."
"Oooo-kayy then," I said. "Good luck on that."
He just shrugged and walked away. And after enduring that little exchange I was off to the OTB to place the office Breeders' Cup bets.

One of the downsides of working at the Daily Racing Form was that unless the races were in your own backyard you were pretty much confined to the office on Saturdays, even on Breeders' Cup day, the Super Bowl of horseracing. So in the days before online wagering, that meant that one of us had to collect all the wagers from the office and trudge out to the OTB to stand in line and make the bets. It was a thankless chore without any benefit whatsoever. The losers hated you for getting their hapless wagers down. The winners gloated and demanded to know how you could be so stupid for ignoring their wisdom: "I mean, I GAVE YOU the bet to take out! Do I have to FORCE you to make money?"

On Breeders' Cup day the lines at the OTB are at least three-times longer than on any given Saturday. There's something miserable and depressing about standing in line to lose money. It's one thing to lose your wallet, but quite another thing to stand in line to lose your wallet. But I stood there anyway for over half an hour, drank a beer, made over a 150 bets for the office, handed the office money over to the teller, double checked all the tickets, and turned to leave. I was almost to the door when I stopped. Something was wrong. The amount was off. Something isn't right. Why is this amount wrong? Oh man, $2 to win on 11. I had just stood in line for 30 minutes to make over 150 bets and somehow forgot to make the stupid $2 win bet on the 11. I looked over at the lines at the windows, which now seemed even longer. Oh well, I thought, I'll book it. It's just $2.

When I got back to the office I gave Dave his tickets and tried to play down the whole thing since it was generally regarded as poor form to book somebody's bets. Don't get me wrong, it was always tempting, especially since it was pretty standard for most of us to lose somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 percent of our bets, but poor form nonetheless.

"Man, I forgot your $2 bet for some reason, so write me down to book you on that one. Or you can just have your $2 back now." Dave stood up and loudly cleared his throat. "Ladies and gentlemen, we've got a bookie in the house!" Laughter and groans erupted in response, and Dave continued. "Mr. Depew will be booking Arcangues in the Classic, get your wagers down now."
"No, no, no," I protested. "It wasn't supposed to be a book, it was accidental. Excuse me, but somehow while making REAL bets I forgot to bet Dave's TWO DOLLARS on Arcangues."

By the time they began loading the horses into the starting gate for the 1993 Breeders' Cup Classic, Dave was down for the day, though I still had two of his dollars in my pocket, the booked bet. Meanwhile, I was live in the Pick 6 with five horses. Everyone in the office knew this, of course, and so we all stood in a semi-circle around the television, brittle with tension. Dave's French horse, Arcangues, was a hopeless long shot, everyone knew that. Even the television announcers made a joke about it. Yes, as they loaded the horses into the gate, I was the man of the moment. I had a chance at the Pick 6.

The final horse went in and a moment later the gate opened. I had five horses. I just needed one. There were only 13 horses in the field. I had five of 13. I don't remember much about the stretch run even now. I just remember hearing the television announcer repeating "What an upset! What an upset!" over and over again. But I clearly remember Dave jumping around the office, bouncing off the walls like a lunatic. And I remember everyone else in the office jumping around with him. That's how quickly things can change. In just two minutes, they can change.

Now I owed Dave $269.20, not a lot of money, but it's the principle of the thing - I owed him MY money, not the track's money. And somehow in the brief span of two minutes, Dave was a hero. "How'd you do it, Dave?" people asked. "How in the world did you pick that horse?" I, on the other hand, was clearly an idiot. "Two dollars!? You booked a bet for two dollars? What is wrong with you?" Later that day someone emptied a coffee can and set it out with a sign that read, "The Kevin Depew Arcangues Relief Fund."

Of course, reality is in the eye of the beholder. One man's treasure, you know. I won a bit of money that day, even after paying Dave's Arcangues bet. Dave had actually lost money on the day even after I paid him his booked two-dollar bet. But did any of that matter? Not one bit. And so I learned some important lessons - that risk is nothing but a tiny word until it's made manifest, and that eventually it will be made manifest in a very personal way if you ignore it, and that sometimes winning isn't really about performance, but about something hidden, something intangible, something you can't buy. Welcome to Arcangues.


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