At 7:15 on a cloudy Wednesday night, Tom Thirlby is at his office, hard at work. Several charts and handmade ledgers are spread on the table in front of him, and he shifts quickly from one to another, scratching in tiny entries, fussing with numbers, dates, times, records. He is about to lose money.
Fifteen minutes later, he leaves his "office"--a corner table in the Garden Room bar across from the paddock at Los Alamitos Race Course--and makes a short walk to a nearby TV monitor, where he watches his bet on the first race crash to the track in a flail of hooves and jockey silks. His bet, a quarter horse named Miss Dashing Donna, has stumbled and fallen a few feet out of the gate after making a good break and pulling quickly into the lead.
Miss Dashing Donna was not the favorite. Thirlby doesn't like to bet favorites. He also doesn't curse when his horses lose. Neither do his friends, a Damon Runyonesque bunch with names like Tiny and Flypaper and The Hat and Video Ed. They're professional horse players, and they'll tell you it's bad form for pros to gripe about losses.
Each night during quarter horse season at Los Alamitos, the professional players--who number fewer than 10, by their own estimates--stake out their favorite spots in the stands and, armed with racing programs, tout sheets and the hand-printed results of hours of their own handicapping at home, try to make a fast buck. It's their job, and their only job.
"I'm a day-in, day-out bettor," Thirlby says. "I never miss a race. I work harder at this than I worked at anything in my life, but I love it."
Thirlby, 56, who lives in Garden Grove, ran a diagnostic medical instruments company for nearly 20 years, until about five years ago. It was then, he says, that he gave in to his fascination with racing quarter horses. He began playing the horses at Los Alamitos each day and selling less and less X-ray equipment.
"It went from a hobby to a business in about a year," he says. "Now, I just can't wait to get out to the track at night. There's a certain rush you get from gambling."
Gambling is actually something of a dirty word to the pros. They say they don't think they're leaving much to chance. Most of them, pouring over tout sheets, handicapping cards, racing forms and sheaves of their own personalized rundowns for each horse, work at their profession up to 12 hours a day before showing up at the track five nights a week. They see themselves more as students of the sport than as gamblers.
Tom Ciancio, 31, of Cypress, a machine-gun talker who says he commonly bets as much as $400 on a single race--and routinely makes a tidy profit--says that for the dedicated professional horse player, "it's almost impossible to lose. It's not even gambling. It's a science.
"I work about 16 hours a day. I don't have time to see my girlfriend. I don't have time to eat. I'll maybe go to bed at four in the morning and get up at noon and watch the videos straight through, about four hours. There's nothing else but this."
The videos are a relatively new arrow in the serious handicapper's quiver. Since the advent of easily obtainable videotape cartridges, the track makes tapes of each race and sells them to the handicappers the next day for review. Often, say the pros, two or three of them will split the cost of a $15 cassette, and it will make the rounds among them.
Over and over and over each day, through dozens of replays, the pros watch for such arcane giveaways as a horse that jerks its head sideways as the gate springs open. Or a jockey who appears to be pulling the horse one way when it wants to run another, maybe favoring a painful leg. Or a head carried a bit too high. Or a slow start followed by a quick finish.
Or any item in a vast catalogue of minutiae that the casual quarter horse racing fan probably would miss. But it's these details, plus a dogged determination to have all the information available, that makes the difference between a loser and a pro, says a rotund, amiable pro known to his colleagues as Tiny.
"You have to come up with a system that's comfortable for you," he says. "But it takes up your life unbelievably. There are two days a week when they don't run, but those days I'm doing my charts and my work. I can't rest."
Tiny, 28, is from Cypress and wants to keep his real name to himself. He says he has been making a full-time living off the horses for nearly 11 years. It's the only real job he's ever had.
"If I did anything else, I wouldn't be happy," he says. "I've always done it. I fell in love with it, and I enjoy it like nothing else. I like the challenge of trying to make a living at it. I don't call it gambling. I only bet when I think I have a big advantage. I'm not a gambler. Ninety-nine percent of the people who come out here, they're gamblers. They don't know how to do what we do. You really have to be dedicated to make a living at it."