The Holy Ghost Betting Society (HGBS) is meeting in Rome today and will probably throw me out of the lodge.
First of all, the sole purpose of the society is to perpetuate one of racing's more arcane betting systems. When horses with the same number win two races on any given racing card, exponents of the holy-ghost system bet that number religiously the rest of the day. The theory is that the same number will come in three times.
A natural for people who go to the track thinking they don't have a prayer, the system was inspired by Catholicism's sign of the cross, which invokes God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, which was originally called the Holy Ghost. After the Father and Son comes the Holy Ghost.
When Lure won the Breeders' Cup Mile last Saturday at Santa Anita, he was No. 11. Then Kotashaan won the Turf Stakes, and he was No. 11.
The duplicate number activated the vaunted holy-ghost system. You can probably guess which horse was No. 11 in the next race, the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Arcangues, the angular 5-year-old French horse, thundered down the stretch and won by two lengths. He had No. 11 on his saddlecloth, all right, and paid $269.20 for a $2 win ticket, a Breeders' Cup record.
My customary bet on the holy ghost is $5. The boss will be happy to know that I was working so hard Saturday that I didn't get to the windows, so Arcangues' victory cost me a payoff of $673.
For blowing this bet, the best I can hope for from the HGBS is probation. This is my second offense, and perhaps the statute of limitations negates my first crime, which I committed in 1980 at Belmont Park. While working in racing public relations, I was in the press box for that year's Belmont Stakes. A pair of No. 3 horses won races early on the card. The race before the Belmont, I remembered to bet No. 3, hoping that the holy ghost would come in.
The No. 3 horse was scratched at the gate, so I got my $5 back. This confused me later, because in the back of my mind I had the feeling that I had already cashed on the holy ghost, but actually all I had done was get a refund. So the No. 3 was still alive as a potential holy ghost, and this hit me as they were loading the horses into the gate for the Belmont.
I made a mad dash for the windows but got shut out. Temperence Hill won the Belmont and paid $108.80 for $2. He was No. 3, of course, and my loss for the $5 bet was $272. This was bad enough, but a little later I saw my friend, Charley Feeney, and he was happy because his wife, Bea, had bet $5 on Temperence Hill.
"Oh, she plays the holy ghost," I said.
"No," Feeney said. "She always bets No. 3 in stakes races."
The only system worse than the holy ghost might be Bea Feeney's.
To partly balance this account, however, I must say that the holy ghost was good to have on your side on a Kentucky Derby day in the late 1970s. The first nine races at Churchill Downs were won by only three numbers. In other words, a triple holy ghost. And all three holy-ghost winners were longshots. The HGBS still lists this day as an unofficial modern record, holy ghost-wise.
The Churchill Downs phenomenon occurred about the time I was introducing my friend in Pittsburgh, Hugo Iacovetti, to the holy ghost.
"I love the system, and can't wait to play it," said Iacovetti, who happens to be an old Notre Dame man. "But isn't the name a tad sacrilegious?"
The next time I saw Iacovetti, at the old Waterford Park track in West Virginia, he was playing the holy ghost at every opportunity.
"Only I decided to call it the Peter, Paul and Mary system," he said.
A former college chum, Rick Talley, has taken the system a step further. After the same number comes in three times on a card, Talley continues playing that number, even though he has already cashed the holy ghost.
"The fourth time you play the number, you're hoping for the amen horse," Talley said. "After the holy ghost, you've got amen. Get it?"
Only an offbeat system like the holy ghost would have led a bettor to Arcangues on Breeders' Cup day. Of all the handicappers and analysts, hardly any gave the horse a second glance. I myself wrote before the Classic, "Who is Arcangues and what is he doing in this race?"
Janet Slade, a French racing writer, was an exception, leaving the door slightly ajar. The day of the race, Slade wrote in the Daily Racing Form:
"Andre Fabre produced Jolypha to finish third in the Classic last year at Gulfstream Park, where conditions (hot weather) were much more difficult for European raiders than they should be at Santa Anita. Arcangues has a lot going for him. He's a tough, consistent horse who very rarely runs a bad race and has worked well on the dirt (at Santa Anita). All French horses are accustomed to galloping on sand, so the surface should be no problem. . . . We can't have Fabre beating you Yanks in your Classic, can we?"