High Horse Stakes

To hear Mike Lefebre tell it, these are desperate times for full-time horseplayers. In the not-too-distant past, he explains from his residence in West Palm Beach, "Out of nine or ten [daily] races at Gulfstream, I would bet seven of them. Now, maybe I bet two or three."

As a professional gambler for the past eighteen years, 38-year-old Lefebre has watched helplessly as a confluence of factors has whittled down his profit margin. "It used to be very easy if you did your work," he notes. "Now, even if you work real hard, it's difficult to win." The principal culprits: encroachment from horseplayers with whiz-bang computer software and a perniciously high percentage of "takeout" (money withdrawn from betting pools and divided between the state, racetrack owners, and horsemen) on exotic wagers (trifecta, pick six, et cetera).

Despite the dire realities of his profession, Lefebre nonetheless eagerly anticipates the opening of Gulfstream Park, a kind of annual rebirth for horseplayers. During most of the year Lefebre splits his gambling attention, betting through his home telephone account on thoroughbred racing in New York, Kentucky, and Florida. But with quality horse action on hiatus for the winter elsewhere in the East -- he does not follow the California circuits -- Lefebre devotes all of his energies for several months to Gulfstream.

Most days he plays the races while viewing the proceedings on the Racetrack TV Network, while still schlepping to the track about ten times during Gulfstream's four-month season. Like any veteran horseplayer, he has experienced ecstatic highs and dispiriting lows there: He held a winning ticket on a $116,000 pick six three years ago, while on another occasion, after witnessing his $40 exacta wager (horses must finish precisely first and second) on two longshots (25-1 and 68-1) romp home successfully, the Gulfstream stewards disqualified the 68-1 horse for interference. "I figured that the exacta was going to pay around $3000 or $4000," Lefebre recalls without a trace of rancor, "so it cost me 70 or 80 grand. That was probably the worst thing that ever happened to me."

That unfortunate exacta episode might eventually be eclipsed by something more philosophically debilitating: joining the working-stiff universe, something Lefebre has avoided. After two years in college he chucked higher education for a career gambling on dog racing. By age 24 he'd moved over to thoroughbreds, supporting himself comfortably ever since.

But given horseplaying's current exigencies, the situation may change. "This is probably the first time in my life that I've ever considered getting a job," he allows. "I'm not ashamed to admit it, because I know I was good. I made a living at it for a long time. But at this point you have to be so careful. You can't throw money away. You can't take chances. If you do that, you're merely throwing away profit. It's a shame, really."

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Michael Yockel