“I thoroughly disapprove of gambling,” actor Walter Matthau explains primly as he whooshes toward Hollywood Park racetrack in his bronze Mercedes at 80 mph. “But I’m too rich and it’s good for me to lose.” He chuckles wickedly, rolling his eyes like dice. “Actually, I wallow in the pain of it all. It’s like an expensive psychoanalysis.”
“Big Walts,” as he is known, is Hollywood’s most flamboyant loser—one way or another he drops about $75,000 a year. “He will bet on anything,” says a Walter-watcher. “Sunspot cycles, mouse races, toenail-growing contests.” But the nags get most of his action, and on rough days L.A. horse-players see some Oscar-worthy Matthau performances.
“There he is!” the gateman cheers when Matthau arrives, and the actor does a little ramble through the turnstile. Once upstairs at the Turf Club dining level, Matthau airily dopes the daily double, then goes off to plunge $200 on Perla in the first race (“a shoo-in”) and War Souvenir in the second. A waitress arrives at the table Matthau is sharing with the track physician, Robert Kerlan. Matthau inquires about the chow mein. “Any roaches in it, Velma? Don’t like roaches. Too many calories.”
Cee’s Flair wins the first race. Matthau groans and claws his dewlaps. “Jerk! Why do you come here?” he asks himself. “Wasn’t one coronary enough?” (Matthau is referring to his 1966 heart attack.) Lunch arrives. Matthau stares at it. “I don’t know what it is, but I’d rather eat it than step in it.” Leaning close to a table mate, he mutters earnestly, “Do you think [film critic] Pauline Kael has put a curse on me?” After he bets War Souvenir again, Swordville wins a 30-to-1 shot. As the horses parade before the third race, Matthau whips out his field glasses. “Look for one with a bowed neck!” he whispers fiercely. “A horse with a bowed neck is a horse with confidence!” Dropping his glasses, he leers. “Though what I really like is a horse with a shapely ass.”
In the third race, Matthau bets No. 3. No. 2 wins. In a convulsion of disgust, Matthau tears up all his tickets, stuffs the pieces in his mouth and munches them. Revived by a huge bowl of ice cream, Matthau bets a C note on the fourth race—and loses again. He is now $600 down for the day. Matthau weaves to his feet: “I’ve got to find some luckier seat.” Dr. Kerlan: “I could take you to the directors’ lounge.” Matthau, milking the moment: “Do they know I’m Jewish?” Kerlan: “Hell, the owner of the track is Jewish.” Matthau, sniffishly: “In that case I don’t think I’ll go.”
Settled in a box seat, Matthau gets a mad gleam in his eye. “I’m going to bet My Precious Rose because my mother’s name is Rose and I always call her on Friday and today is Friday.” The gleam fades. “But then lately she hasn’t been answering the phone…”
He bets My Precious Rose. Araceles D. wins. The next race, in a follow-up hunch based on the color of his shirt, he goes with Pink Fantasy on the nose, and the horse comes in second. Matthau whirls at an acquaintance. “So far I’ve lost my ass and it’s all your fault! Six dogs in a row.”
He writes a $1,000 check which Dr. Kerlan cashes for the track. Matthau then sidles along the aisle to a box occupied by actor John Forsythe and director (and crack handicapper) Marty Ritt. Ritt says No. 6 will win the seventh race and No. 1 will place second. Matthau makes a $50 exacta bet that the two horses will finish in that order.
“They’re off!” At the turn, No. 1 is well back in the pack and No. 6 might as well be running at Hialeah. Coming into the stretch, 1 makes a bid but 4 fights him off. An audible oath escapes Matthau. Fifty feet from the wire, 6 comes on like an OD of amphetamines and wins by almost a length. But 4 hangs in and beats 1 by a nostril—or does he? Chewing his lips furiously, Matthau races for the nearest closed-circuit TV replay.
“I win!” Matthau gasps, whipsawed between ecstasy and agony. “$885!” He hums uneasily. “That means I’m ahead for the day…” Brooding about his good luck, Matthau arrives at the window too late to place a bet on the eighth race—and the horse he meant to bet on wins: “Omigawd!” he groans, “I’d have copped another eight bills!”
On the way home, Matthau talks about terminal cancer and gradually cheers up. “Maybe it’s growing up poor in New York,” he says, “but I feel insecure when I’m ahead. Life isn’t real unless it hurts. I need that ogre in the nursery.” Stopping the car, he jumps out to a roadside phone. “Think I’ll call my bookie,” he explains with a grin. “Somewhere tonight there’s got to be a ball game.”