05/24/2017 1:57PM

Living the high life in the Dungeon

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On Saturday night, after winning seats to both the World Championship of Handicapping and the Wynn Challenge on DRF Tournaments, Leo Vukmanovich made his way from the Eddie Logan Suite, Santa Anita’s VIP area, down to the Paddock Club.

The Paddock Club, or the Dungeon as it’s more commonly known, is the year-round site of simulcasting at the Great Race Place and its doors remain open deep into the night. It’s located in the grandstand across from the paddock (thus the name) but you’re in no danger of seeing a horse from its confines. It might technically be at ground level, but many patrons descend from the grandstand or clubhouse down into it, and the room has a decidedly subterranean feel. It more than earns its unofficial moniker.

The Dungeon might as well be any OTB in America, complete with tickets strewn across the floor, fluorescent lights, 1970s-style multi-colored floors, and tables last seen in your high school lunchroom. It’s a place not just out of time but also space, given the majesty of the San Gabriel mountains just outside the door, and the art deco palace which houses it.

Despite the aforementioned tickets all over the place, there are no stoopers in the Dungeon, at least not at night. These patrons aren’t likely to throw away a 20-cent voucher let alone a winner.

These days Vukmanovich runs a successful computer-consulting business but decades ago he was a bet-taker, making book in the bars of the San Gabriel Valley.

On Saturday night, he returned to the Dungeon as a conquering hero, greeted warmly by four or five people as he walked in. They hadn’t yet heard about his tournament success. He is simply a beloved figure, known for treating everyone with respect, from his fellow high-rollers in the Logan Suite to the denizens of the Dungeon, some of whom he’s known for decades, back in his previous existence.

There was a rumor going around the Dungeon that Vukmanovich had a different kind of former life. Skip Pearring, a Dungeon regular who like Vukmanovich is just as comfortable in an owners’ box, erroneously reported that Vukmanovich was once an actor. According to Pearring, he had appeared in "Porky’s," the 1981 comedy featuring a young Kim Cattrall. It wasn’t the worst the tip of the night overheard in the Dungeon, but that didn’t make it any more accurate.

Pearring redeemed himself with a great story, one that captured both the camaraderie and pure degeneracy found in the Paddock Room. It was Christmastime. In an effort to spread a little Christmas cheer, Pearring stopped by the Dungeon and bought several friends $12 pick four tickets and passed them around before heading to pick up some In-And-Out burgers. Skip had hit the all button in the second leg and caught a bomb. He hit the other two legs as well and the pick four paid $181 for each $1 he had bet.

“I was so excited,” he said. “It was nice to hit it myself but really I was happy for everybody else. I felt like Skippy Santa Claus.”

The elation was short-lived. The next morning, he discovered that two of the guys went up to the window to cancel the tickets and pocketed the $12.

Vukmanovich stayed in the Dungeon for a few more hours, chatting amongst the locals, guys like the Banker, Toothless Ray, Ernie the Black Cloud, and a promising young handicapper named Sebastian. Along the way he made introductions, offered constructive critiques of others’ tickets, and held court with his fellow tournament player of Montenegrin descent, Damian Roncevich.

He has mixed feelings about the Dungeon. “It’s not just dime super guys down there in the Paddock, there are some guys who know what they’re doing and who really fire, but there’s also plenty of negativity, which always leads to losing. It’s got charm but every mush at the track is down there. You’ll hear five guys cheering for your horse and you might as well rip up the ticket and walk away.”

Why does Vukmanovich continue to spend time in a room many serious players might have outgrown?

“I hung out there all the time until a couple of years ago when I found out about the Logan Suite,” he said. “There’s half a dozen guys I know who are always down there and there’s always action and great stories from that crew.”

Add Vukmanovich’s tale to the list of great stories. Even if he never met Kim Cattrall.