The woman in front of me in line had a single $20 place ticket on a horse that did in fact finish second.
Here's how that happened.
The horse barely broke. Then it shot forward as though late for dinner and took the lead by a couple or three. Then it remembered who it was and fell back to fourth. Then three of them went looking for fresh air on the turn for home and drifted wide. The horse that the woman had put $20 to show on got to the rail, for support it almost seemed, and finished second half a length ahead of one who probably wondered what all the weaving was about.
The horse paid a fat $10 to place, a hundred bucks on the woman's bet.
She took the winnings, tipped the teller five, and went on about her business like she had drawn it up that way. You would have thought she might have said something, like, "Wasn't that the craziest thing you've ever seen."
I excused myself and said I had overheard her collecting and asked where she had gotten that horse to finish second.
"From above," she said.
Place bets are hard to hit.
Other sports don't have place bets. The gaming house doesn't pay off on football teams that finish second in a division.
Place bets I have known, have had, usually run first or third. The ones that win make me wonder why I didn't get the $30 instead of the $10. The ones that run third are self-explanatory.
Lots of people put money in a pot and try to hit show parlays. A decent payoff in a show parlay is $3, or 50 percent profit. I was in a show parlay once when we hit six in a row, all of which paid $2-something. We missed the seventh. That's what I have noticed about high-dollar parlays where you let the winnings ride until a fight almost starts about when you should quit and take the money: it's natural to go one race too many. Parlays with many members participating in a parlay gambit with lots of money in the pot at least make a person appreciate and cheer hard for chalk.
You don't hear of many place parlays.
That's because they're so hard to hit.
I've heard of one place parlay. It lasted two races. The parlay team members got into a shoving match about what to bet next, the second choice on the board or a 10-1 shot, and divided up the winnings five ways and each went home about 20 bucks to the good. The second favorite won the race and would have paid them $4 to place, a fine score as those things go.
What's particularly painful is to bet a long shot to place and watch it run third by a slight margin.
It was on just such an occasion that I gave up making single place bets.
Second-place horses are frequently bad favorites, and long shots. Sometimes a long shot will close late and finish second ten lengths from the winner at odds of 30-1 and pay a lot to place. But my "Never Again" notebook says never again make a stand-alone place bet, that if a long shot can run second, it can often win, and will still pay decently to run third. That's why it makes more sense to use the grandfather's bet on a horse that you think could run second at a decent price: bet it across the board. Outside of parlays, short-priced horses are for multiple-pick-win only sequences. That's the only bet my grandfather ever made. He'd say a number, and the teller would get him win, place and show tickets on it, John Across they called him.
Never Again notebooks work.
Mine has saved me a fortune.
I have an addendum marked Seldom Do This.
The latest addition there is: Seldom play a layoff in a stakes race.
The next to enter the Never Again notebook probably will be: Never again play a straight exacta.
That's because picking anything but first is like trying to pick fifth.