01/02/2014 4:30PM

The Lady in Red: A story of a woman and bridge jumpers

Rockingham Park, located about 30 miles from Boston, was a popular track in its golden days after wagering was legalized in New Hampshire in 1933.

It was the war-weary summer of 1944 when a mysterious dark-haired pixie, barely 4-foot-10 in heels, asserted herself as a towering presence at the Rockingham Park wagering windows.

The petite stranger, perhaps in her 30s, fancied large show bets on heavy favorites in short fields. She arrived inconspicuously and placed her wagers discreetly – or as unobtrusively as possible considering that she tied up high-denomination windows by sliding fat stacks of hundreds across the counter until the race went off.

“Just keep punching that damn thing until the bell rings,” she would calmly instruct a favorite teller, always polite despite businesslike urgency. “And believe me, mister, I hope they start late.”

Almost always, the commanding favorites won. Almost always, the go-for-broke show bettor collected 10 cents on the dollar and slipped away quietly, leaving in her wake thousands of dollars of minus pools – an occurrence when the track pays out more money than it takes in to comply with minimum-payout laws.

At first, the only clues to her cryptic comings and goings were the five-digit flashes that flickered to life on the tote board. But by the end of the season, the demure heavy hitter had gained a fervent national following – and unwanted scrutiny from track officials, who were powerless to stop her pari-mutuel pillaging.

“Her acts are legal and perfectly within all natural and horse-track laws,” is how one columnist defended the lady plunger, framing her bold betting as an us-versus-them endeavor. “We wouldn’t know why, but we always get a chuckle out of seeing racetrack operators in a dither of this kind.”

Horseplayers couldn’t resist rooting for her, either, and were quick to swoon over the mystery woman who came to be known as the Lady in Red.

Had she been operating in the 21st century, this woman would no doubt have acquired a different nickname: Today, we would call her a “bridge jumper,” racetrack slang for a bettor who risks a lot to win a little on a perceived “sure thing,” most often in the form of a show bet. To lose such a wager is said to be so devastating that the bettor feels like jumping off the nearest bridge.

In fact, had the Lady in Red been strafing show pools in 2014, the betting public would be following her for reasons unrelated to human interest: Handicappers today use social media and the Internet to keep tabs on show-pool plungers for the purpose of wagering against them, banking on upsets that trigger outsized windfalls for everyone but the bridge jumpers.

But that’s getting ahead of the story by 70 years.

In the 1940s, the term “bridge jumper” wasn’t even in vogue yet. This was the World War II decade, when racing was only allowed to continue because it functioned as a public diversion. Portions of the handle were donated to the war effort, and making a bet was billed as patriotic.

Racetracks were full of vibrant characters, and press boxes were overflowing with turf writers who crafted tales to buoy the collective spirit of Americans.

The woman’s nickname stemmed from her reportedly wearing a scarlet dress or a crimson coat, but fans from this era also would have recognized “Lady in Red” as the moniker attributed to the dame who had turned in gangster John Dillinger.

According to the aura of mysticism, the Lady in Red at Rock was a “lone wolfess” who operated strictly by herself. Or she was part of a massive betting syndicate. Or she worked with a partner who helped cash winning tickets and make a fast getaway. In short, the Lady in Red was whoever or whatever the public wanted her to be.

Word had it that the Lady started the summer of ’44 with a $500 bankroll and by August had hit an implausible 110 show bets in a row. The Rock was rampant with gossip that she was a “Robin Hood” horseplayer, taking money from the track’s rich coffers to give to the poor, which emboldened her image. But columnist John Lardner, the son of master storyteller Ring, set this rumor straight, tongue firmly in cheek: “This, as I say, is a wishful point of view, for there is nothing in the reports ... to indicate that the poor of [the] community have got anything more out of the Lady in Red than the U.S. government has. And the government, as we went to press, was pursuing ladies in red coats, hats, shoes, or earmuffs up every alleyway in New England.”

There was even some question over whether the Lady wore red at all.

“She’s only worn red twice,” snapped an exasperated William Jubb, director of pari-mutuels at the Rock, who was mum when asked to disclose what his detectives had learned by tailing the woman. “All I can say is, she is very small.”

And then there was this: The St. Petersburg Evening Independent reported that the Lady in Red had a most unusual way of taking care of the clerks who processed her big bets.

“Although [she] has yet to tip a pari-mutuel teller or cashier, she has been known to reward a clerk at the $100 window with a tasty fruit cake after one of her spectacular wagering splurges.”

Show plunging to the extreme

Before the Lady in Red name stuck, they called her Chicago Nellie. This nickname alluded to her wagering style rather than her city of origin: In the 1920s, “Chicago” Tom O’Brien had been a high-profile gambler who allegedly earned millions by limiting his action to 30 selective show bets a year.

By the 1940s, any horseplayer with a strategy based on show wagering was said to be a practitioner of the “Chicago system.”

Regardless of the name, the margin has always been slim for bridge jumpers: If the minimum payoff is a dime on the dollar, you need to be right more than nine times out of 10 to strike a profit. If the minimum is a nickel, the break-even point rises to 95 percent.

On Aug. 11, 1944, the Lady in Red backed Star Boarder at 1-2. The favorite roared into the Rock stretch leading by five lengths, took a bad step, and failed to finish. “On that occasion she destroyed tickets valued at $4,600,” The New York Times reported.

After a brief break, the Lady was back in action.

“Another highlight ... proved to be the reappearance of the mysterious woman bettor who has been playing havoc with the Rock show pools,” The Boston Globe reported Oct. 14. “In the five-horse feature race she nonchalantly tossed $15,000 through the $100 window on Smart Bet to show.”

The favorite prevailed, and “this huge wager threw the show pool into the minus column.”

Two days later, she had a $10,000 fright when 3-10 Side Arm “threatened to fall to pieces,” the Globe explained. “Only the smashing whip ride of Georgie McMullen saved the day for the plunging lady.”

The crimson-clad miss was spotted cashing tickets on War Jeep at Jamaica and Texas Sandman at Narragansett Park. The Times reported that she “has caught the fancy of the nation,” noting “hundreds of letters from various parts of the country seeking her identity.”

On Oct. 26, an enterprising United Press writer finally sleuthed out who she was.

“The ‘Lady in Red,’ who has reportedly bet some $250,000 at Rockingham Park in Salem, N.H., this season, was identified tonight as Mrs. Donata Mercuri of Brighton [Mass.],” began the wire-service report that ran nationwide. “[She] said she never picked a horse in her life but depended on her husband’s selections.”

The husband, Genesio, owned a bakery in Boston. “My wife bought the tickets,” he explained, “because I didn’t have the nerve to go and buy so much on one horse at the $100 window and I figured she was my lucky charm.”

United Press did not identify its reporters with a byline, so her discoverer is unknown.

The Mercuris appeared uncomfortable with the attention. They downplayed the amount they were reputed to have wagered – the equivalent of roughly $6 million in 2014 dollars – and vanished for the rest of the season.

“Now I’ve stopped playing, and haven’t sent in a bet in two weeks,” Genesio Mercuri told the Times.

The Lady in Red didn’t make headlines again until June 18, 1945, when the Globe attributed a minus pool at Suffolk Downs to her, although “a hurried visit to the big windows failed to locate the lady.”

Yet Donata Mercuri was all smiles July 17 after cashing a $5,000 show bet on 3-10 Air Rate. “We ran out of sugar and flour, the two essential ingredients of a baking shop, so I might as well come up to Rock and pick up a few easy dollars,” the Lady told the Globe. “It was like money in the bank.”

Considering that that would be the final time the Lady in Red would be quoted in a major newspaper, those were amusingly fitting final words.

The Mercuris, from then on out, seemingly fell off the pari-mutuel grid.

“Lady in Red Missing as Minus Pools Occur,” blared the Globe in 1947. There were unconfirmed sightings at Atlantic City and Hialeah. One theory postulated that the Mercuris suffered a mortifying defeat when backing a champion greyhound who failed in his 60th consecutive attempt to finish in the money. Another suggested the couple went broke in New York, where minimum payoffs were a nickel, not a dime.

“That’s not a happy ending for a story about an infallible system,” wrote a Delaware racing columnist in 1948, revisiting the Lady in Red’s escapades, “even if that’s the fate of system players.”

Rebates and show betting don’t mix

In the 1950s and ’60s, bridge-jump betting evolved into an accepted oddity. But with the expansion of exotic wagering in the ’70s and ’80s, the impracticality of lugging bundles of money to the track to grind out 5 percent or 10 percent at a whack caused the system to fall out of favor.

The explosion of full-card simulcasting in the 1990s would change this, luring jumpers back to bridges in droves.

Instead of being limited to a local track, big show bettors now had a nationwide betting menu at their fingertips. The most colossal example of bridge jumping occurred at Belmont Park on Sept. 16, 1995, when indomitable favorites Inside Information (Ruffian Handicap) and Cigar (Woodward Stakes) combined to create $628,403 in minus pools, shattering what was believed to be the pre-simulcasting record of $112,073 (Easy Goer’s 1989 Gotham at Aqueduct).

By the early 2000s, the practice of “rebating” began to play a role in bridge jumping. Account-wagering customers, incentivized by cash rewards based on their personal handle, suddenly saw added value in making large show bets. But advance-deposit wagering companies soon began restricting or eliminating rewards on these types of plays. Farther up the chain, host tracks were writing language into simulcast contracts that shifted minus-pool liability onto the entity accepting the bet.

Now fast-forward to the 2010s. Player rebates are no longer a significant driver of bridge-jump betting. States have pared back minimum-payoff requirements (West Virginia is the only state with year-round racing still paying 10-cent minimums). Yet amazingly, bridge jumping appears to be thriving.

The racing industry does not keep statistics on big show bets. But a glance at Internet message boards and Twitter feeds that attempt to keep tabs on bridge jumpers reveals no shortage of action: Five-figure plunges are an everyday occurrence. Ordinary midweek claiming races at Charles Town and Mountaineer attract show pools in the vicinity of six figures. And two of the largest bridge-jump bets of 2013 were losers: On July 27, Doinghardtimeagain ($440,895 bet to show) finished fourth in the Fleet Treat Stakes at Del Mar, and on Sept. 29, Departing ($273,377) ran fourth in the Oklahoma Derby at Remington Park.

Given such a perilous path to profits, why so many bridge jumpers?

“Ever heard the phrase ‘A fool and his money are soon parted?’ ” said Jeff Platt, president of the Horseplayers Association of North America.

Platt said he has calculated that bridge jumpers betting into nickel-minimum pools must hit at a 97 percent strike rate to make money. Estimating that even the best of handicappers can pick a “lead-pipe cinch” to run third only about 90 percent of the time, Platt doesn’t see how bridge jumpers stay solvent if all that’s involved are straight show bets.

“Most rebate houses don’t pay out rebates on minus pools,” Platt said. “If you’re the one creating the minus pool, you might get a handful of those bets in before they look at your action and cut you off.”

But he did offer an alternate scenario as to how bridge jumpers might be tilting pools to their advantage.

“Some of the players who bridge jump are winning,” Platt said. “Not because they hit 97 percent of their bridge-jump situations but because they’ve created such an advantage of the pools that they have to be able to get adequate money down offshore on the other horses in the race – betting against their own bridge-jump horse, collecting full track odds on those payoffs, and getting a rebate.”

In essence, bridge jumpers can hedge against themselves because the “all other horses” bet-taker doesn’t care that a minus pool has been created elsewhere in the system. It’s not that bet-taker’s liability, so it doesn’t trigger restrictions on rebates.

“There are some players rigging the show pools like this,” Platt said. “I’m convinced they are. I’ve done the math, and I see where it could work. You can make 2 or 3 percent on your total outlay on that race no matter how the order of finish shakes out.”

Platt said the risk is that offshore ADWs reserve the right not to pay out on what they call a “rigged” show pool. If caught, you won’t get paid, you might lose your stake, and your account will be closed.

J. Curtis Linnell, director of wagering analysis for the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, said that while his organization does not have any open investigations involving bridge jumpers, he is working with several member associations concerned with the pool movements of big show bettors.

“We don’t treat bridge jumping as an illegitimate activity in and of itself,” Linnell said. “More so, it’s a function right now of the pari-mutuel pricing model at current minimums being structurally unsound.”

Linnell described bridge jumping as “unhealthy” for the industry and is an advocate for calculating minimum payoffs to the penny to eradicate it.

“Right now, it’s to the point where it’s time for the industry to re-examine the viability of still paying five cents on the dollar as a minimum payout,” Linnell said. “We don’t see anything else [worldwide] in terms of currency conversion or stock markets or anything else being calculated at those kinds of levels.”

Linnell pointed to a more progressive pricing model in Australia, where massive favorite Black Caviar recently returned a 1.04 win unit and 1.01 to place.

“If we went to one cent on the dollar, I don’t think we’d see very much bridge jumping,” Linnell said. “You’d have to cash 99 times out of 100. The math just doesn’t work.”

Platt countered that bridge jumping isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“We need more bridge jumpers,” Platt said, “because, basically, if you have a contrary opinion, there’s your chance as a bettor to let the track act as a stakeholder, take out their cut, and pay you a premium price when the opinion of the person making that large bet is wrong. In my mind, that’s not harmful at all – that’s very much a needed thing.”

Platt agreed with Linnell on lowering minimums but said racing should take it a step further and eliminate breakage.

“You wouldn’t have negative pools, and you would have increased interest and handle and stronger revenue because those pools would be more attractive,” Platt said. “I would guarantee that if they did away with breakage, they would see an increase in place and show betting.”

Platt and Linnell agreed that the switch to net pool pricing within the past decade has given an edge to players who bet against bridge jumpers.

Introduced to facilitate the various takeouts involved in international simulcasting, this method calculates winning prices based on net, rather than gross, pool totals and takes into account where the bets originate. In effect, favorites pay a little less, and long shots pay a little more. That’s why a bridge-jump horse can pay $2.10, but the other third-place horses in the race might pay $2.80 or $3.20.

“It’s like the bonanza payoff you did not expect,” Platt said. “That’s part of what makes it worth my while to bet against bridge jumpers.”

But even smaller players are starting to get squeezed out by ADWs refusing any bets into a minus pool. And a new wrinkle is that some ADWs will cancel show betting even if the host track allows it.

“This is the unfair part to the players,” Platt said. “If the host track is offering it, the ADWs should be offering it, too.”

Linnell said such restrictions are perfectly within the rights of ADWs, “But I don’t think the industry wants to be in a position in the long term structurally to start refusing bets or closing pools.”

Platt said his biggest fear is money laundering. “Somebody that has suitcases full of money that they need to make look ‘clean,’ and they’re using the pari-mutuel pools to do that,” he said.

Linnell disagreed. There’s too much of a paper trail if you’re laundering money electronically through an ADW, he said, and if you’re bringing conspicuous amounts of cash to a track, “Why wouldn’t you just buy vouchers and forego the risk of the bet?”

The mob moves in

The part about the Lady in Red saga that the 1940s turf writers truly botched was the ending. There was no going broke in New York, no lost fortune on a heavily favored greyhound, and no unraveling of the Mercuris’ lives because of the evils of system betting.

Oddly enough, their undoing as a high-stakes mystery couple was due to an unlikely combination: a brush with the Mafia paired with the emergence of suburban supermarkets.

When reached at his home on the outskirts of Boston, Anthony Mercuri, somewhere near age 70, at first was bewildered that a writer wanted to speak about his parents’ racetrack betting. It had been decades since anybody outside his family had brought up the subject of the Lady in Red.

“I was just a baby then,” he said. But Mercuri could rattle off names of horses and important races that were big scores for the family. He corroborated many of the details from the old news clippings (“Yes, she did like to wear a lot of red.”), then picked up the tale from when his parents got scared off by the press.

“They understood that during World War II, the success of a lady bettor would have been a big story because it showed an ordinary person could beat the system,” Mercuri recalled. “But they didn’t want the advertising, so to speak, so they kept to the shadows.”

Despite their efforts to be left alone, the Mercuris were approached by bookies from Boston’s North End neighborhood who insisted on handling their five-figure action.

“My father, he got kind of nervous. He had all this money and thought people were going to kill him,” Mercuri said. “I don’t want to get into it, but [the Mafia bookies] were fixing races. [My parents] didn’t want all that aggravation. That’s why my mother stopped; she wouldn’t go.”

The rumors about the Lady in Red being spotted at other racetracks were true, Mercuri said, but the couple did not operate in the same manner.

“I think they bet $62,000 [to win] on Citation in the Kentucky Derby, but my dad had his three brothers at the windows getting the money down,” he said. (Citation paid $2.80 to win, and there was no place or show betting since he was coupled with second-place finisher Coaltown as an entry.)

The 1950s and ’60s were “a bad time for my father at the bakery,” Mercuri said. Supermarkets were popping up all over suburban Boston, and demand for fresh bread dwindled. The money wasn’t there for bridge-jump bets, and the couple scaled back their racetrack outings to strictly for pleasure and small stakes.

“They would just get in the car and take rides,” Mercuri said. “Green Mountain, Charles Town, wherever. That was their life.”

Genesio died in 1972 at age 61. The Lady in Red lived to be 87, until 1996.

One final improbable aspect of the legend needed clarification before the tale could be properly retold: Did the Lady in Red really tip mutuel tellers with fruitcakes?

“Oh, yes,” Mercuri said. “My father’s bakery was famous for a special fruitcake.”

T.D. Thornton won the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award for his book about Suffolk Downs, “Not By a Long Shot: A Season at a Hard-Luck Horse Track.”