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Katrina shows what it really means to lose

We're an odd lot aren't we, all of us humans.

When somebody famous and 40 years of age has a heart attack, everybody else 40 thinks: Wait a minute. I have a heart. I love thin-crust pizza comprised of Italian sausage, garlic and extra cheese. I need to start exercising fast.

When somebody famous gets lung cancer, smokers think: Wait a minute. Maybe cigarettes are a health risk. Maybe I should think about stopping.

People drink and drive until they're arrested or until somebody they know winds up deceased.

Point is, many people are too distracted to think past noon; oftentimes, it takes bad news to get a person's attention.

Hurricane Katrina qualifies as bad news on several levels -- as a weather disaster and as a national television disaster.

National television has never been worse. As New Orleans began to drown, numerous pretty people on TV said the big one had been dodged. The only big one that had been dodged was one of the biggest news stories ever. They can get a camera on Mars but can't get a camera on a busted levee? As water rose past windows the morning after, they were running a story about a Scrabble tournament on Today. The national news coverage has been such that studies must be done to determine if there is a link between extreme beauty and the inability to ad-lib well, to think fast on your feet.

What could a tragedy like Katrina have to do with playing the horses?

Without sounding sappy, without wishing to sound sappy, handicapping a horse race takes on a different perspective after you have seen people lose everything, including their roots.

After watching an old woman in a boat on stinky water turn around for what could have been one last look at her house in New Orleans, winning thirty bucks on a 5-2 shot seemed somehow different -- when you're not being greedy, there is no such thing as a small victory. With tragedy at hand, you can't be greedy.

Upon returning to the simulcast joint for the first time after the hurricane, I told some friends that what we should do on this day was send along half of what we won to the Red Cross to help with storm relief. One of them said what if we don't win? I said we should then send half of what we lost. The table fell a silent a moment. Half of what we won, a little something if we lost, that was the deal. The Red Cross got about $100 from the four of us, not bad.

Here's something else about human nature that's worth a thought: If you're trying to play the horses for somebody who needs the money more than you do, you're more conservative with your bets.

We started a show pool and turned $80 into $110 and were proud of it.

If you're suddenly aware of the feelings of others, you also notice things like good manners, a thank-you from a teller, somebody letting you ahead in line.

Here's a good habit that's simple to pick up: routinely thinking of the Americans in Iraq, 9-11, New Orleans.