LAUREL — /TC LAUREL -- You want to see sheer terror on people's faces, you go to the racetrack on a weekday afternoon with a reporter's notebook in your hand, and you start asking for last names.
That's what I did the other day, innocently enough, because this is a big week for the resolute fraternity of horseplayers. Maybe their biggest week ever. So I went to Laurel and started asking them about the national Pick-7 coming up Saturday at the Breeders' Cup, with a pool expected to reach $10 million.
Down in the grandstand there was Nick from Baltimore, tie off, belly bulging at 30, explaining that he was in "the restaurant business," all wired up already with the Cup races still days away.
"Been looking at the past performances all week," he said. "That much money, you play serious."
Then: "Just put it 'Nick' in the story, OK?"
Near the finish line there was Sal, the roundish insurance salesman from Bowie, finding time "between clients" for a couple of races.
"It's a sucker bet," he said. "But I figure I'm going to put something on it anyway."
Then: "You don't want my last name, right?"
It's that maybe his wife, or ex-wife, kicks him in the ankle if she knows he's at the track. Or he's worried the tax bloodhounds might catch his scent. Or there's someone out there whom he doesn't want knowing he's even thinking about this Pick-7 jackpot. Or maybe he's just late.
Anyway, the way they see it, there's just no percentage in it. No upside in having a last name in the newspaper if you eat lunch at the track every afternoon.
So I settled for just Nick from Baltimore and just Sal from Bowie, and I settled for just Bob from Columbia, a plane-to-Vegas guy who manages an office and was ready to volunteer his last name but: "Why you want to know who I work for? You don't want to put that in, do you?"
They're all sweating extra this week. As if they don't already show up every day thinking too big, now this Pick-7 comes along getting them thinking way too big. Thinking about cashing a ticket the size of a lottery jackpot. You're not a serious player if that doesn't make you jumpy.
"This is the big one, the one that could change your life," said Landis, who is from Washington, in computers and -- eek! -- offered his last name (Marks). "That's why we keep coming back. You see people hitting big tickets and figure your day is coming. So maybe it's coming Saturday."
The chances are small, of course. Smaller than small. "As a proposition, it's not much different than the lottery," said Sal, the insurance man from Bowie. "It's a moonshot to win the thing."
You have to pick the winner of all seven Breeders' Cup races from Churchill Downs. Three winners in a day is a good day. Four is reason to celebrate. Seven? "The dream day," said Landis from Washington.
Almost every track in the country will take simulcast bets for what should be the largest racing pool ever. Seventy-five percent will go to those picking seven right, which could mean $7.5 million if you're the only one. Most people with even a passing interest in the races are plotting strategies.
Some friends are pooling their money and planning to make 40 or 50 or even 100 bets combining different horses in different races. Some "syndicates" of big-money bettors are doing the same, only on a grander scale.
There is one handicapper I know, last nameless, who has talked 20 friends into giving him money to increase his chances. In return for part of the payoff, of course.
"People have been talking about this for months," said Landis from Washington. "I know I've been doing some extra reading, trying to find out all I can about the horses. Especially these European horses."
The mysterious European horses are just one of the many factors making it such a tough call. There is the chance of a muddy track, the lack of an obvious favorite in six races, the certainty that some horses and riders will have bad days.
There are those who say you're better off just betting your telephone number. Seven digits, seven races.
The real and even semi-real players are far above that, though. For some, this is a reasonable play. The Breeders' Cup has held a no-wagering pick-em contest the past few years, and there have been some 7-for-7 winners.
"Someone is going to win big," said Gary from Seabrook, who spends every day at the track. "There are just too many people out there who know what they're doing."
It is Topic A at the races this week, this lottery you can touch, and so the customers are getting a little jumpy and losing their last names at the door. Thinking about what they might do with the money.
Maybe buy a house.
Or a car.
"Or," said Bob from Columbia, "bring it back out here and play it. We're talking about a hell of a bankroll, right?"