Horse Played

by Bob Raimonto


            The Boss sat in a leather chair in the study of his richly appointed, three-story townhouse in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn. The building was home not merely to the Boss, but to an enterprise called The Office by those who knew of its existence. And not many did.

            The operation had been launched as a traditional Cosa Nostra family by the Boss' father many years before. From its base in a dilapidated warehouse in the Greenpoint section, the criminal outfit spread throughout the borough, making money and enemies with equal enthusiasm and disposing of its adversaries in the traditional manner, through sudden death. It was only after the present Boss assumed command upon his father's passing, that peace was restored through an artful combination of diplomacy and currency.

            The present Boss did indeed recoil from the violence that seemingly intoxicated his father, and authorized its use only when all peaceful measures had failed. The Office was relocated to the family townhouse, where, from the first-floor study with mahogany conference table, chairs and shelves crowded with books, the Boss shifted into legitimate and lucrative businesses. In fact, he and his coterie of trusted subordinates seldom dirtied their fingers with criminal activities anymore, and then only out of a seeming boredom with the inexorable flow of cash from fast-food outlets, coffee houses and strip malls.

            The Boss was happily contemplating the financial success of The Office and the comforts that it provided when he decided to turn on the massive, high-def television in the study. Although primarily a baseball and football fan enamored of the Mets and Jets, he maintained a passing interest in thoroughbred racing by watching the broadcasts of the Triple Crown races in the spring and the Breeders' Cup events in the fall.

           On this particular Saturday, on a golden autumnal afternoon, the Boss was intrigued by the Champagne Stakes for 2-year-olds from Belmont Park on Long Island. The venerable Champagne served as an important, early steppingstone for the following year's Triple Crown for 3-year-olds. Making up the series: The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico and the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park.

            "And here's Armageddon destroying his competition," intoned the race caller. "He's rallied from 20 lengths back to draw away by five lengths in a brilliant performance. With his undeniable talent, he appears the early favorite not only for next year's Kentucky Derby, but for the other two jewels in the Triple Crown as well, the Preakness and Belmont."

            The Boss edged forward in his chair. Armageddon was being jogged to the Belmont winner's circle by his jockey. The rider's features gradually became recognizable to the Boss. It was his old friend Paulie Costa. He was waving his whip, which he barely used to spur his chestnut mount, and smiling like a Halloween pumpkin.

            Suddenly, the Boss was smiling, too.

            PAULIE WAS 33. The BOSS WAS 34. They played together as kids in their Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst. Both were dark-haired and attractive, with Paulie 5-4 and the Boss 5-10. Both liked the opposite sex. Enormously. But there was this one time that Paulie confided to the Boss that instead of bedding the usual white girls of the neighborhood, that what he really wanted to do was have sex some black chicks. He had heard friends brag that African-American women made wild lovers and that he wanted, in his crude description, "a taste of that brown meat." The Boss smiled and archived the information for future use. For he already had developed a habit of collecting "dirt" that might be used to soil others, even family members and friends.

      Paulie and the Boss were both intelligent enough to attend college, with the Boss especially possessed of a rapier-sharp - if corrupt- mind and addicted to reading anything and everything. Instead, the Boss was groomed to assume control of The Office, while Paulie embarked on a successful career as a jockey, first in Pennsylvania, then in New York, under the auspices of an uncle who worked as an assistant trainer.

        Through his evolution from nonentity to celebrity in the thoroughbred sport, Costa developed a reputation as not only a talented rider, but an incorruptible paragon - at least as far as racing went - whom no one dared approach with an unsavory scheme like fixing. Paulie soon got married. He tied the knot, like a suffocating noose around his neck, to a Puerto Rican girl who lived in a community adjoining Bensonhurst. The young woman's temper was as legendary as her sexual appetite. While exhausting Paulie before, during and after their wedding night, she would repeatedly warn, "If you ever cheat on me, I'll cut your balls off."

         Paulie would gulp, reach down involuntarily with both hands to protectively cover his genitals and respond with quivering voice: "I believe you. But you have nothing to worry about. I love you too much for that." And, indeed, Paulie's wife, Juanita, had nothing to worry about. He remained faithful to her as they had two kids and relocated to Long Island while he competed with great success on the New York circuit.

        The Boss, by contrast, remained single, squiring a succession of women to restaurants, clubs and shows while scorning the notion of settling down with any of them. "Marriage is a form of enslavement," he said at the time that he moved alone into the posh accommodations of the Cobble Hill brownstone.

DURING THE WINTER after Costa won the Champagne with Armageddon, the jockey traveled to Southern California to ride in a major stakes race for a New York-based trainer. He decided to stay in a simple motel room near the Los Angeles airport. About 11 o'clock the night before the race, he heard a knock on his door. He opened it to find a short, buxom, black woman smiling seductively at him.

      "Who are you?" Costa asked.

     "Candy," she said. "Want some?"

     Paulie most certainly did. He was dazzled by the girl's oversized cleavage. He felt an erection leap eagerly to life beneath his plush bathrobe.

     "Who sent you?" he said. "I didn't order a girl from room service or anywhere else."

     "You didn't have to," Candy said. "A friend did it for you."

      At first Paulie was going to ask what friend. He considered resisting and sending the girl on her way. But he found himself leering at the mountainous boobs before him. His wife's acrobatic performances had had the unintentional effect of leaving the switch to his libido in the permanent "on" position. Besides, he always did find black women sexy. So Paulie relented.

     "Come on in," he said.

     The girl's entrance into Paulie's room was recorded by a powerful mini-cam held by one Irv Gold. Irv, stationed in a van in the motel parking lot, was hailed as "The Director" for the fine, incriminating film that he recorded. In this instance, the video showed Candy and Costa going into a sudden, convulsive clinch before they even kicked the motel-room door closed behind them. Later, Irv would tape Candy leaving Costa's room, with the jockey leaning and grinning in the doorway, obviously drained and clearly delighted by their amorous exertions.

       "Candy, you did a great job," Irv said to himself about the woman whose employment as a full-time porn star might actually have been the most reputable entry on her resume. Irv later sent the video by express delivery to a posh address in Brooklyn. It was received there and viewed by none other than the Boss, about the time that he watched on TV as a clearly debilitated Paulie barely kept himself upright on his mount to win the California track's stakes race by a desperate nose.

      The Boss then called Irv.

       "The little bastard was so tired he damned near fell off the horse," the Boss chortled. "I see you used black bait to lure my old friend, just as I requested. I remembered Paulie had expressed a preference in that direction."

      "It worked out beautifully," Irv said.

       "I'll be sending your fee immediately. And I'm doubling it."

       "Thanks very much."

       And the two men rang off.

      The California stakes was run in February. The Wood Memorial, the most important New York prep for the Kentucky Derby, was run the opening week in April, one month before the Kentucky Derby's traditional slot on the first Saturday in May. Armageddon and Costa took the Wood Memorial handily, touching off a roar from the large crowd that packed Aqueduct. The colt's performance merely strengthened the already widespread opinion in racing that Costa's mount was the premier 3-year-old in the nation.

       One of those who cheerfully supported that view was the Boss. Ever since he watched the Champagne the previous October - and saw that it was old pal Costa who was the horse's partner - the Boss began to formulate a blackmail plan targeting Paulie.

PAULIE'S TRYST WITH CANDY, a seasoned accomplice in such ventures, officially launched the Boss' Operation Derby. Now, with barely a month to the Run for the Roses, the crime lord contacted Costa through old neighborhood intermediaries, inviting the jockey to meet him at the townhouse. Paulie, having not heard from the Boss for years, was clearly surprised. He also was deeply suspicious. Nonetheless, one morning before riding at Aqueduct, Costa presented himself to the Boss in the first-floor study of the townhouse.

       "First of all," the Boss said, "long time no see. How are you doing?"

       "Oh, great," Paulie said. "What do you want?"

       "I want you to see this."

        The Boss screened the video, starring Paulie and Candy, on his high-def TV.

         Paulie was thunderstruck.

         "What the hell is this?" he said.

          "This," the Boss said, "is the reason you are going to lose the Kentucky Derby."

         "No way," Costa said. "My horse is best by a furlong."

         "Well, if you don't throw the race, I will arrange a private screening of this video for your wife. I'm sure that you will agree that it is a cinematic experience of outstanding production values."

          Paulie stood gaping, silent as a statue. Since that night in Los Angeles, he had given hardly a thought to his encounter with Candy. He was that preoccupied with family and career. He certainly had not viewed the girl as a key component in a blackmail plot with him as the intended victim.

        "Boy," he said as much to himself as the Boss, "how damned stupid have I been."

        Then he stood silent again.

        "You know," the Boss said, "if you don't go along with my plan, that wife of yours will kill you, or castrate you, or subject you to some other dire fate."

       Paulie was about to say defiantly that he didn't give a damn. Then a vision of a crazed Juanita appeared before his eyes.

       "All right," Paulie said. "I will go along with this. Just make sure my wife never finds out what happened or sees that video."

        "She won't as long as you do as you're told. And what you're told is this: You and wonder horse Armageddon will get caught in traffic early, you'll stay in the back of the pack until the stretch, you'll cut Armageddon loose on the outside, then you'll close for fourth or fifth.

       "It'll appear that you tried your best but were unlucky. This will throw off the racing authorities' suspicions, preserve your unimpeachable reputation for professional honesty - marital fidelity being another matter, of course - and I'll collect on all the bets that I am going to place on the race."

      "Wait a minute," Paulie said. "If you want to make money on the Derby, why don't you simply bet on Armageddon? He's a cinch to win."

      "He's a cinch to win and pay bupkis," the Boss said. "He's going to be a huge favorite."

       Once again Costa stood silent. He saw no way to escape the crime magnate's trap.

         He heard himself concede, "All right, I'll go along with this."

        "Good," the Boss said. "Oh, one final thing: I am going to call you the Tuesday night before the Derby to make sure you are still cooperating."

       "All right, here is how to get me on my cell," Paulie said, reciting the number.

       And with that, the seething Costa lowered his head and left.

THE DAY AFTER HIS SESSION with Costa, the Boss summoned his closest subordinates to a conclave at the townhouse. Fat and short Sal ran The Office's coffee houses, thin and tall Dominick its fast-food restaurants, and handsome and medium-sized Carlo its strip malls. Carlo, who functioned as the Boss' chief of staff, also ran Sal and Dominick. Unlike Carlo, they had not attended college. Also unlike Carlo, they could be hot-headed.

       The Boss smiled upon his eager underlings seated around the study's gleaming conference table. The meeting had been scheduled for 10 a.m. They all came 10 minutes early. They knew the Boss would note their ultra-punctuality with satisfaction. And they all wanted to keep the Boss satisfied.

      "We," the Boss announced without preamble, "are going to fix the Kentucky Derby."

       His pronouncement was greeted with total astonishment.

       "No way," Sal said.

      "That's crazy," Dominick said.

      "It can't be done," Carlo said.

       "It can and will be done," the Boss said.

       "How?" Carlo said.

       "We're going to get our old buddy from Bensonhurst, renowned jockey Paulie Costa, to stiff his horse, Armageddon, which just happens to be the big favorite for the race. While Paulie finishes out of the money, we'll be backing all the other contenders. We'll make a killing."

      Suddenly, Sal and Dominick were thrilled. Carlo, too, was happy. But, characteristically, he politely sounded a note of caution.

       "Why should Paulie go along with this?" he said. "We all know how disgustingly honest he is. Remember a number of years ago when he was approached to throw a little race in Pennsylvania? He said no, loudly. Why would he risk losing the biggest race of his life, or any other jockey's life?"

      "Because he'll have to," the Boss said.

      Carlo immediately concluded that Paulie had been blackmailed. Then Sal and Dominick recognized what was afoot. There was much grinning and nodding of heads.

       The Boss concluded: "I want you all to return in two days, at the same time. That's when I will fill you in on the following: How much money we will bet, how much we can expect to win, what kind of bets we will make, how the bets will be made and which horses we will be backing."

        With that, Sal, Dominick and Carlo departed. Outside, a brilliant sunshine illuminated the elegant street on which the Boss' home was located. Carlo was enchanted by the glowing scene.

      "A good omen," Carlo said aloud. "A very good omen."

THE BOSS AND HIS FUNCTIONARIES reconvened as scheduled. A convivial atmosphere prevailed in the study.

       "Here's what we are going to do, and here is how we are going to do it," said the Boss.

       "First, we are going to bet between $40,000 and $50,000.

       "Second, we can expect to make back several hundred thousand dollars, depending on the odds of the horses that finish first, second and third - excluding Armageddon, of course.

        "Third, we are going to bet exactas and trifectas only.

         "Fourth, the bets will be made through online betting sites.

          "And, fifth, here are the horses we will be playing: Robert's Rules, Sir Christopher, Ways and Means, Back to Europe, The Armada and Medalist. They are considered the only ones with even a remote chance of upsetting Armageddon."

          The Boss' assistants absorbed the details of the scheme.

          "Where did you get the names of the contenders?" Carlo asked. "From Vincent?"

           "Yes," the Boss answered, "from my cousin Vincent the handicapping genius."

            Vincent was indeed the Leonardo da Vinci of thoroughbred handicapping. He was unmarried, except to the Sport of Kings, and devoted hours of single-minded study to beating the pari-mutuels. His monastic existence was unremarkable, but his gambling successes were extraordinary, and even earned him a fawning profile in a national sports magazine.

           The Boss called Cousin Vincent, caressed his already engorged ego and promised him a $5,000 fee for simply producing his list of the Derby's top seven contenders. Vincent called the Boss back and released his roster of names, as instructed. At the top of the list, predictably, was Armageddon. The rest were the other runners already named by the Boss.

          "We're covering almost one-third of the field, since the Derby is expected to draw its customary 20 entrants," the Boss told his assistants. "My cousin told me something that I already pointed out to our dear friend Paulie Costa: Favorites such as Armageddon can sometimes be highly vulnerable because of their come-from-behind style and the need to go through or around so many opponents to reach contention. So, the defeat of Costa's horse might not be such a shock or generate much suspicion."

         Sal signaled that he had a question.

         "Forgive my ignorance," he said to the Boss. "I know far more about coffee-house menus than horse-betting menus. You mentioned exactas and trifectas. What are those? And what other kinds of bets are there?"

          The Boss gestured for Carlo to respond. The latter's liberal education at a local university had been punctuated with frequent trips to a nearby racecourse. He could see where the Boss was going with his emphasis on exactas and trifectas. He agreed with the basic wagering philosophy espoused by his superior and expanded upon it.

         "Well," Carlo said. "There are win, place and show bets. With these you are essentially betting on your horse to run first, second or third.

          "With exactas, you are betting on two horses to run one-two.

          "With trifectas, it's three horses finishing first, second and third.

          "There's also something called a superfecta in which you are shooting for four horses to come in first, second, third and fourth.

          "Of course, you can 'box' your picks so that you can cover any number of combinations of horses to fill the exacta, trifecta and superfecta slots."

           Carlo further noted that win, place and show bets paid too little to be bothered with.

          "By comparison, superfectas pay a lot but are much harder to hit," he added. "In my opinion they are virtually hopeless propositions that require too much money spread too thinly. They are for stupid tourists or hopeless gamblers. We are neither. As it is, the cost of those exactas and trifectas add up, but they are, by comparison, 'hitable' if less lucrative."

          Carlo made a final point.

          "Most people put the favorite in their exactas and trifectas because they frequently finish first, second or third," he said. "That's why if the favorite runs worse than third or out of the money, the prices can soar on the horses that do finish 1-2-3. And that's why we could make a very big scoop with our dear friend Paulie and his dear friend Armageddon finishing fourth or worse."

         "Thanks," Sal said. "I'm beginning to like horse racing a lot."

         "Me, too," Dominick said.

         "One other very important thing," the Boss said. "Carlo, with you obviously knowledgeable about the sport, you will be opening our betting accounts and making our bets from a desktop computer set up here in the study."

          Carlo nodded in accord. The plan seemed sound. All felt confident. The Boss expressed this feeling.

          "I like our chances a lot," he said. "We should make a lot of money. We also should make history. For as far as I have been able to determine, nobody has ever fixed the Derby, not even Arnold Rothstein, the revered 1920s gambling czar. All right, that's it for today. I'll be in touch."

         The Boss rose from his chair. The others did likewise.

         "Oh, wait," the crime magnate said. "I want Costa tailed up to and including the race on Saturday. I want to know if it looks like he has suffered an attack of honesty and started venting, in no special order, to the feds, the cops, his wife, or his priest - assuming the little SOB has one. He shouldn't talk, but you never know."

          "I'll have Gleason do it," Sal said of an out-of-town associate often sub-contracted jobs by The Office. "He's very good, very discreet."

          "Fine," the Boss said.

           And with that the meeting did end.

THE BOSS HAD NOT MENTIONED to his underlings that he already had commissioned Gleason to complete another assignment: To find out that Paulie would ride in that California stakes over the winter and discover where the jockey would be staying. This allowed the Boss to hire Irv Gold, who in turn recruited Candy and recorded the incriminating video of Paulie. The Boss had withheld these details because he did not want to divulge to his subordinates the manner in which he had compromised the jockey. In his view, the less they knew - and the more he did know - the better.

        Paulie, as per his arrangement with the Boss, was contacted by his tormentor on the Tuesday night before the Derby. Costa took the phone call on his cell in the basement of his Long Island home. He had locked the door to this wood-paneled sanctuary. It was his custom to do so whenever he didn't want his kids - or especially his wife - to bother him as he rested. At this particular time, he was brooding about the Boss, the questionable character he exhibited even as a kid when he bullied his playmates and the even more sinister side he showed in victimizing others as an adult.

       And here was the very cause of his bleak mood on the phone.

       "I'm just calling to confirm you're in," the Boss said.

       "Yes," Paulie said.

       "Good," came the response.

        Then the blackmailer and his target hung up simultaneously.

THE WEDNESDAY BEFORE THE DERBY was an even busier time for The Office. In the morning, Gleason was assigned to monitor Costa, especially his activities in Louisville, home of the Run for the Roses. Also in the morning, Carlo opened 12 accounts with online betting sites, both domestic and abroad, to wager on the big race.

         While Derby entries were taken that very afternoon, with Armageddon landing in post 14 in the field of 20, Carlo waited until Saturday morning before actually backing a dizzying array of exacta and trifecta combinations totaling $47,750. He did this in case any of the six horses designated by the Boss was scratched. None was.

         Finishing this chore, Carlo was suddenly struck by two thoughts as he sat alone before a desktop computer in the conference room of the Boss' townhouse. (The Office's leader himself was off in another part of his house.)

         Thought number one: Why didn't the Boss ask me to compile the list of horses to bet, given my own knowledge of the game? Thought number two: Did the Boss consider the tax ramifications of winning?

          Carlo concluded that Cousin Vincent did, indeed, know more than he did about racing and handicapping the horses, and had the mountain of winnings to support that opinion. And Carlo conjectured that the Boss might view the unprecedented fix of a race of worldwide importance such as the Derby -- or perhaps just skewering old neighborhood crony Paulie Costa over some childhood grudge -- worth jousting with the IRS.

         "Anyway," the Boss' most trusted advisor said aloud to himself, "I'm not bringing up either subject."

         And he never did.

COSTA FLEW INTO LOUSVILLE the day before the Derby and settled into a suite at a luxury downtown hotel that was booked - and paid for - by Armageddon's owner. He left his wife and kids at home. Otherwise, he would not have been able to focus on the formidable tasks at hand: Get out of the trap in which he was caught, win the biggest race of his career and escape the Boss' deadly clutches afterward.

          Paulie was tortured by sleeplessness. He woke up groggy on Derby Day, and ordered light, room-service fare befitting someone who must be constantly vigilant about his weight. He was on what seemed his 10th cigarette of the morning when the room phone suddenly rang. Costa reached for it. His wife was on the other end.

        "Good luck today," Juanita said, her voice chipper. "Not that you're going to need it. You've got the best horse. Now all that best horse needs is the best ride. And, just remember, honey, I've got the winning jockey fee already spent."

         "I know," he laughed, going along with the time-worn gag for fear that he would alert his wife that something was troubling him. "I loved this horse the first time I saw him, and he's given me no reason to love him less now."

          "I know," she said. "I know."

         "OK," he said. "I've got to go. I've got to get ready. The limo is going to pick me up just 45 minutes from now and take me to the track."

         "All right," she said. "I'll be watching on TV. I love you."

         "I love you, too," he said.

          They hung up. For several minutes, Costa didn't budge. He stared, transfixed, at the phone. He was feeling guilty about his wife; Armageddon's owner, car-dealership king Don Chevington, and the colt's veteran trainer, Joe Monaco.

         Juanita, however mercurial, had exhibited love and loyalty that had been unwavering, which is more than he could say of himself. Chevington was an honorable man who, after many years and vastly more dollars, finally had acquired a horse worthy of the glowing designation "Derby standout." And Monaco was another good guy whose unquestioned horsemanship largely had gone unrewarded until Chevington, his longtime patron, had given him Armageddon to train.

        What Paulie felt for his wife and these two men was vastly different from what he thought of the Boss. He admired them and respected them, and the idea of betraying their trust appalled him. But to Costa, the Boss was repugnant. And so was his plan.

DERBY DAY PRODUCED a shiny spring morning with temperatures rising to the mid-60s. The limousine dispatched by Chevington picked up Costa at his hotel promptly at noon and glided him to Churchill Downs for the races. Gleason, the Boss' hired babysitter, followed in a rental car.

        He reflected that the last time he had tracked Paulie, the rider had his encounter with the whore. Now, Paulie's behavior exactly matched that of a Trappist monk, as the rider was determined not to suffer another lapse as he did that fateful night with Candy. There was no in and out of various clubs - or beds - at unsocial hours of the night. Nor were there any brawls or arrests that had become the hallmark of athletes of all shapes, sizes and sexual proclivities. Instead, Costa holed up in his hotel like it was a frontier fortress.

         About a block from the track, Gleason stopped trailing Paulie's limo, called The Office on his cell phone, reported all was well and uneventful with Paulie, and drove back to his hotel to prepare for his flight home to Cleveland.

       "Costa," Gleason said out loud, "you are not the same guy I remembered from California."

        Paulie was stoic throughout the trip from hotel to track, largely ignoring the limo driver's unabated stream of consciousness. He alighted from the vehicle at the track's front gate, strode past onlookers, and used foot speed, sunglasses and a dark look in an effort to discourage autograph-seekers and well-wishers. He wanted contact with no one. It turned out to be too much to ask.

        "Costa, you're a lock," one fan called out.

         Yeah, a lock for a lockup, Paulie thought.

         The rider made no response to the cheerful fan, continued his broken-field dash through the customary Derby Day mob and reached the jockeys' room without further disturbance.

INSIDE THE RIDERS' QUARTERS, Costa kept largely to himself. He said hello to only a few acquaintances among his competitors and gave a perfunctory interview to a pretty sportscaster from the national network that was televising the Derby. But that was all.

         Paulie was scheduled to ride in two races on the card: The Derby Damsel Stakes, the eighth, and the Derby itself, the 10th. The $100,000 Derby Damsel was for 3-year-old fillies at six furlongs. The $1,000,000 Derby was for 3-year-olds of both sexes at a mile and a quarter. In the Damsel, Costa was to handle the Chevington-Monaco filly Beware, a smallish gray. The ride was designed to get Costa warmed up for his Derby engagement with Armageddon, a big chestnut colt who dwarfed Beware in both stature and status, and give the jockey a feel for the Churchill Downs racing surface.

        In the bustling paddock for the Damsel, Costa greeted the tall and blond Chevington and the short and dark-haired Monaco. Paulie was wearing Chevington's silks, black with red sleeves and black cap.

        "Paulie," Monaco said, "the usual routine with this filly. Just keep her close to the front, and let her go near the top of the stretch. She should win. She's too good for what I've seen in this field."

        "You got it," Costa said.

        On the track, as Chevington and Monaco repaired to their box in the stands across from the finish line, Paulie put Beware into a slow canter over the light brown dirt, as other horses and riders pranced around them in their approach to the starting gate. Paulie knew that he would have to be prepared for the break, as the Damsel was a sprint that placed a premium on speed and position.

          The gate crashed open and Costa got off third on the outside, his filly moving smoothly into stride and tracking the two pacesetters inside her, Wonderful and Letsdanceallnight. Around the far turn, Costa pushed his hands on Beware's neck, and the well-conditioned little athlete beneath him took her cue, darted past a fatigued and discouraged Letsdanceallnight and charged after Wonderful.

         At headstretch, Paulie and Beware hooked Wonderful and her rider, Rod Tompkins, and Costa fully expected that his horse would open a huge lead, for Wonderful usually quit and nothing was rallying into contention behind them. But Wonderful was proving surprisingly resilient and, with their jockeys flailing madly with their whips only one furlong from the finish, the two fillies strained their necks on even terms.

         Suddenly, about 20 yards to the wire, Tompkins flogged his mount with his whip left-handed. Wonderful, on the inside, immediately veered to starboard, barging into Beware, almost unseating Costa and prevailing by a head.

         "You got it, Rod," Paulie called over to Wonderful's rider as their horses slowed on the clubhouse turn and the sound of the screaming, teeming Derby Day crowd subsided. "But, dammit, did you have to come out like that? You almost dropped me."

        "Sorry," Tomkins yelled back. "My filly never did that before when I hit her left-handed. But don't worry. They're going to take me down for sure."

        Costa did not respond. But he thought it unlikely that Wonderful would be disqualified. They don't take anybody around here, he thought.

        Costa, it turned out, was wrong. The stewards disqualified Wonderful from first to second. Beware was moved up from second to first. Paulie had won on a DQ - to his delight as well as that of Chevington and Monaco.

        "I can't believe it," Costa told Tompkins back in the jockeys' room. "When did the stewards start acting like stewards around here?"

        "Since the new head steward arrived," another jockey interjected. "His name is Joseph Wentz. He's tougher than anybody I've ever seen at this track. It's like the NBA. He's even calling touch fouls. And if you really whack another horse, forget it. Down you come. Like now."

        Costa digested the information. But the Derby, he believed, would be another story entirely. Rough-riding episodes abounded since its inception in 1875. Disqualifications were rare. He expected the same tolerant view of fouls to prevail in Armageddon's Derby - new head steward or no new head steward.

AT THIS VERY TIME, Carlo and the Boss were sitting in the first-floor conference room of the townhouse. They were reviewing all the bets that Carlo had made - there were no scratches from the original field of entrants -- and drinking expensive wine in anticipation of their big Derby payday. The TV, turned to the channel with Derby coverage, droned on in the background.

         "Look, Paulie just won this minor stakes on a disqualification," the Boss said. "He better not win the big one - DQ or no DQ."

         "I'm sure he won't," Carlo said, "if he knows what's good for him."

         The Boss nodded.

         "This will be a happy time for all of us," he said.

         "Amen," Carlo said.

          Then they both laughed.

THE TWO HOURS OR SO between the Damsel and Derby passed with agonizing slowness for Costa. The elation he experienced in taking the Damsel was succeeded by depression. He had never tried to lose any race before, no less the Derby in his first ride in that classic, and here he confronted the awful reality of having to blow the single biggest race of any rider's life.

          Paulie and the rest of the Derby jockeys were summoned to the paddock behind the grandstand for the big race. There, the outdoor walking ring with adjoining horse stalls was charged with anticipation and crowded with more people - the large retinues associated with the Derby's entrants -- than had stood in the same area for the far-less-important Damsel.

          Costa, again bedecked in Chevington's colors, met the owner and Monaco as they stood outside Armageddon's stall. Monaco had the colt, held by a groom, facing the back of the narrow, enclosed area, the horse's eyes averted from the hyper-activity outside.

          "He'll be hit with all the craziness soon enough," Monaco explained to Chevington and Costa. "I just want to keep him as calm as I can for as long as I can."

         Both nodded, and Costa reflected that the owner and trainer had no idea how crazy things would become. Monaco turned and gave Costa his brief instructions for the race.

       "There's no sense in boring you with the obvious," Monaco said. "Let him find his best stride, circle horses and come home a winner."

        Costa merely said, "I'll do my best."

        The paddock judge called "riders up," and Monaco boosted Costa on to Armageddon's back. The colt actually seemed to be snorting derisively at the other animals around him. A groom led the eager youngster and Costa in the procession with the other 19 horses and jockeys around the walking ring, then through the tunnel under the grandstand for the post parade on the track, where he released the colt to an outrider.

        Costa was distracted - so much so that he barely heard some massive and off-key marching band crash into the song, "My Old Kentucky Home," which the urban-born and -bred Costa always detested for its countrified sappiness. Now he despised it all the more, for he considered, as he sat atop Armageddon, that it sounded very much like a dirge for his life and career.

       Armageddon, widely and predictably backed as 6-5 favorite, was soon led into stall 14 of the starting gate by an assistant starter. It was only after Armageddon and the other horses lunged from the contraption stationed at the head of the stretch - in a pandemonium of starting bell, metal gates and crowd noise - that Paulie was fully jolted back to his senses.

WITHIN MOMENTS COSTA found himself next to last. He looked ahead and to the left and saw the front-running and rail-skimming Robert's Rules leading the pounding herd through the stretch for the first time, around the clubhouse turn and onto the backstretch. The dirt from the other horses' hooves flew in Costa's face. He pulled down the first in a succession of goggles from the front of his jockey cap, replaced those that were smudged by the fusillade of soil and contemplated his next move - which was to steer Armageddon behind a phalanx of horses to make it appear impossible for him to advance toward Robert's Rules and the other early leaders.

       Armageddon was now 15th as the bulky field completed its run down the backstretch and into the far turn, with some runners moving up, some falling back, some running in place. It was here, as the real racing commenced, that the unexpected, and terrifying, occurred.

       Looking over and around his horse's lunging head, Costa saw it all clearly and definitively, as if the action had changed from real time to slow motion: A long shot named Time Traveler, which had been pressing the pacesetting Robert's Rules, abruptly tired and backed through the field. The Hunter, right behind, clipped Time Traveler's rear hooves with his front hooves, lost his balance and fell.

       Armageddon and Costa were heading directly toward the melee.

      "God almighty!" Paulie yelled.

       Armageddon, agile as well as large, hurdled the thrashing The Hunter and his flailing jockey. Costa somehow managed to stay on his mount's back as Armageddon quickly returned to earth and regained his equilibrium. The colt was now free of the traffic in which Paulie had steered him, as per the Boss' dictum, and was running with a fury to overtake the leaders. All efforts by Costa to restrain the animal were going for naught. Indeed, as in the Champagne the year before, Paulie didn't really even need his whip. Armageddon was speeding like a bullet train on his own.

       Robert's Rules dashed into the long Churchill Downs homestretch three lengths clear of his nearest pursuer. But he remained alone for just a few more strides. The stretch-runners were rallying, and Armageddon was among them.

        By mid-stretch, the rail-skimming Robert's Rules was still in the lead, but he had been joined from the inside out by Back to Europe, Armageddon and Sir Christopher in a tight, four-horse team, the huge throng and the track announcer roaring in a tremendous crescendo of noise.

        Robert's Rules persevered in a straight course to the wire. But Back to Europe bore out, Sir Christopher bore in, and Armageddon and Costa were squeezed back in the resultant crush of horseflesh as the finish line flashed overhead.

        Sir Christopher, the 6-1 third pick, finished first by a half-length over the 3-1 second choice Back to Europe. The 8-1 Robert's Rules was a head back in third, and another neck behind in fourth was the public's darling, Armageddon.

        The Boss' exacta of Sir Christopher and Back to Europe was saved in the unofficial order of finish. So was his trifecta of Sir Christopher, Back to Europe and Robert's Rules. Armageddon had indeed finished out of the money - to the Boss' eminent delight.

"WE'VE DONE THE IMPOSSIBLE!" the jubilant Boss shouted at Carlo. "But did it look to you like Paulie crossed us and was trying to win the race?"

         "No," Carlo said. "From what I could see, the horse was in the rear of the field, completely caught in traffic. But the spill opened up things for the horse and he took off by himself. Paulie didn't seem to even push his hands on the horse's neck or even wave his whip. But I do wonder what the stewards are going to do about that crazy stretch run."

         A worried Carlo and his unnerved superior would soon find out.

         For now, the TV people showed an isolated-camera shot of Armageddon. It confirmed Carlo's account of the action, a spectacle that left everyone who witnessed it gasping.

          However, the race did not have the same heady effect on the track's dictatorial chief steward. First, Joseph Wentz and his two colleagues had to look into the spill on the far turn. The Hunter was still down on the track, where he would be euthanized with an irreparable leg injury, and his dazed but uninjured rider was just being assisted to his feet. Then there was the frenetic stretch run. From his perch atop the grandstand, Wentz ordered the inquiry sign posted on the infield tote board and instructed the track announcer in an adjoining booth to notify everyone of that fact.

         "Ladies and gentlemen, there is an inquiry into the running of the race," the announcer said. "Please hold all tickets until the result is declared official."

          Wentz and his cohorts studied the video of the spill and determined no foul had occurred, just as unfortunate collision of two horses in a big field packed into a limited space. But the jostling approaching the finish line was another matter altogether.

         Normally, such episodes were tolerated in the Derby, but Wentz could not overlook what had occurred. This, the head steward thought, was too visible, too blatant, happening directly in front of the grandstand and in full view of millions of TV viewers and bettors. Wentz spoke by phone with the four riders involved as they congregated at their weighing-out station trackside to give their versions of events: Henry Romero (Sir Christopher), Tompkins (Back to Europe), Arturo Diaz (Robert's Rules) and Costa, who, like Tompkins, was by now stunned by all the dangerous antics that had been experienced on the track that afternoon.

         Wentz hung up after speaking with Costa; looked at the video from various angles, including the head-on shot, with the other stewards, and decided the first- and second-place finishers should be disqualified for impeding Armageddon. Predictably, Wentz's fellow stewards agreed with his judgment. The decision was passed along to the track announcer.

        "Ladies and gentlemen," the announcer said, "the first-place finisher, Sir Christopher, and the second-place finisher, Back to Europe, have been disqualified for interfering with fourth-place finisher Armageddon during the stretch run. In the revised order of finish, the winner is Robert's Rules, with Armageddon second, Sir Christopher third and Back to Europe fourth."

PAULIE HEARD THE ANNOUNCEMENT as he brought back a dirty and sweaty Armageddon to be unsaddled in front of the buzzing, heaving masses in the grandstand. He practically reeled in the saddle as he thought: I didn't try to win or even come in the money, but the Boss will have that damned video of me and that stupid whore shown on YouTube, or simply have me shot, or both.

         The Boss and Carlo, meanwhile, stood stupefied in front of the TV. The stewards had followed the rules, placing the offending horses behind the runner they had bothered. In the process, the Boss' exactas and trifectas were ruined, with thousands upon thousands of dollars in bets incinerated. Wrecked also was what would have been the unparalleled fix of the Derby through the first disqualification of a winner and runner-up in the annals of the race.

         Carlo's initial reaction to the disaster was to recall the sun-spangled day on which the plot was announced and how he believed the splendid weather was a positive sign for the Boss' scheme. Carlo's second response to the catastrophe was to think: Positive sign, my adorable ass.

        An agitated Boss broke into Carlo's reverie.

        "What the hell am I going to do now?" he said. "Paulie doesn't try to win ...there's a spill in front of the horse...the horse somehow leaps over that like a kangaroo...the horse gets knocked around near the wire...the horse finishes out of the money just like we wanted...and we're still out enough money to retire the entire national debt of Guatemala."

         Carlo pondered for a moment and gave the Boss this advice:

          "You should do and say absolutely nothing. Both sides will benefit from a total cover-up. For his part, Paulie won't talk because he was our accomplice, however unwilling, and apparently didn't notify the stewards about this fix in advance. That could be a major problem for him, a career-killer in fact, given the importance of the Derby. Paulie also has to worry that if he opens his mouth at this point, something very bad could happen to him.

         "As for us, we won't talk because, well, we tried very hard to do something quite illegal and we don't need the heat. Finally, I suggest that we pay Sal and Dominick bonuses to ensure their silence in this matter. It's probably not necessary, but money never hurt."

         The Boss was about to make a retort, but resigned himself to the counsel offered by Carlo. He has the swagger of a matador, the crime lord thought of his principal assistant, but he's right far more often than wrong.

         "All right, Carlo," the Boss said. "I'll say nothing and do nothing. It would seem to be the best thing."

          "It really is," Carlo said. "We should just accept this defeat, which, in my view, is coming from a most unexpected source."

           "Which is?" the Boss said.

            "A horse."

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