08/06/2003 11:00PM

'Knuckleheads' fill fists with bucks


DEL MAR, Calif. - They met for lunch and drinks in a private upstairs dining room of The Italian Affair restaurant, on the main street of quiet Santa Rosa, looking for nothing more than a good time. They were a bunch of guys from northern California, fueling up for day at the races at nearby Sonoma County Fair.

John Dado, a retired CPA and horseplayer, joined the group of 14 friends, and lunchtime conversation shifted from wine and pasta, to handicapping. "One of the fellows said, John there's a carryover in the pick six [at Del Mar], do you have any picks? I said, Yeah, I have some picks. He said, Why don't we build a ticket?"

Good idea. A two-day pick six carryover had grown to more than $500,000 with another $1.8 million on the way into the Aug. 1 pool. After a brief strategy session, Dado and four others purchased a pick six ticket that would make history. The only winning ticket, it paid a California record $1,562,818.60 plus six consolation payoffs worth $12,719 each. Total haul - more than $1.63 million.

Not bad for a day at the races. An insurance broker and horseplayer, Jim Archbold mapped out the ticket with Dado - a $128 play with two horses in each race. "It took 10 minutes, max, over a glass of wine," Archbold said. Their silent partners included Jim Arntz, a general contractor; Scott Tucker, owner of a technology company; and Craig Miller, president and co-owner of a sign company.

"The only thing I had to contribute to the ticket was saying, 'I'm in' . . . the two sweetest words I've ever said," Miller recalled.

"He [Dado] tapped me on the shoulder and said give me $26, and I did. It's the best $26 I ever spent," Arntz said.

"It was Dado and 'Arch' who actually did the homework," Tucker said. "While they were [figuring the ticket], we were ordering beer and wine."

Whatever works. Their winning pick six was the highest in the state since 1985, when Frank Judson of Santa Rosa won a $1,132,466.60 pick six at Bay Meadows. Judson, 83, no longer bets the races. But when reached this week in northern California, Judson revealed the most important factor in winning the pick six. "First and foremost - get lucky," Judson said.

Archbold bought the ticket as soon they arrived at the Fair, put it in his wallet, forgot about it, and started betting live races at Santa Rosa. First post for Del Mar was not until 4 p.m. "I was just smoking cigars and having a good time," he said. "I didn't even win a bet until the 11th race."

He had company. Tucker had forgotten about the Del Mar pick six, too. "We were too busy losing money at [Santa Rosa]," he said. Their luck changed when the first race of the Del Mar pick six went off at 5:05 p.m.

Gandendyl ($13.40) won by two lengths. In the next leg, the only race in which the group's ticket did not include the favorite, Gods Ear ($23) wore down favorite Oneexcessivenite by a half-length. Then Queenofluv ($12.60) won by three, followed by Potrisunrise ($26.20). Four races down, two to go.

"We didn't really begin to take it seriously until after the fourth race had won," Tucker said. "Then when the fifth horse hit, we were really excited." That was Roberta's Mango ($10.60), who rallied up the rail to win by a half-length.

"In the sixth race, all we needed was the favorite [Fruition's Jasmine] to win," Tucker said. "But halfway through, he looked like he coughed up a lung, or dropped anchor. He was the one that was supposed to win it for us, then in the last 100 yards, this other horse just showed up."

This other horse was another longshot - Mistical Jazz at $23.20 - and won by a neck.

"I just went numb," Archbold said. "Oh my God! We just hit six out of six! I've never kissed more men in my life. Then I started to get a little scared, and said we've got to get out of here because I'm holding the ticket."

Archbold hid the ticket in his underwear drawer that night, and the next day returned to Santa Rosa where track officials held the ticket in their vault. Wednesday, the lucky bettors returned to sign papers and pick up checks. Each received $245,000, plus several hundred they took in cash. Good money for a day at the races.

"You can't plan on this stuff," Arntz said. "And you don't sneer at $245,000 by any means, but the bottom line is it's not going to change anyone's life. You're still going to have the same worries and concerns."

Archbold agrees. "The money is going to come and go, but we'll always have that bond. I told my wife, we climbed the mountain, we planted the flag, and it's all downhill from here."

No doubt the money will smooth the ride for Dado, Miller, Arntz, Tucker, and Archbold. "When I think of the odds, of all the people who play . . . and here we are," Archbold said, "five knuckleheads from Petaluma."