Updated on 09/17/2011 11:11AM

Sister act that's hard to beat


WASHINGTON - "I have never been one to endorse frivolous amusements," Sister Mary Catherine Antczak told one of her companions at Santa Anita Park last Sunday. Neither she nor any of the five nuns with her had ever been to a racetrack before, but they were about to learn that there is nothing frivolous about winning a pick six worth $194,047.80.

The occasion of the racetrack outing was a fundraiser for St. Michael's Elementary School, of which Antczak is the principal. Located in a rundown area of south-central Los Angeles, the century-old school is perpetually in need of money and repairs. When a member of its board, Don McCammack, suggested a day-at-the-races fundraiser, the nuns and the school's supporters all loved the idea.

McCammack got the inspiration after attending a 60th birthday party for his friend Stephen Campbell at Santa Anita. He told Campbell afterward: "I'd like to re-create this as a charity event."

So they arranged the day at the races through Santa Anita's group-sales department and asked invitees to pay $75 to attend. But Campbell, a senior vice president at UBS Paine Webber and an enthusiastic horseplayer, had an idea for adding some spice to the day: They would sell $25 shares in a communal pick six ticket, with half of any proceeds going to the school.

The outing fell on an auspicious date: nobody had hit Santa's pick six on Friday or Saturday, and more than $576,000 was in the carryover jackpot.

On Sunday morning, Campbell and two friends pored over the six races so that they could formulate an intelligent betting strategy. At the same time, Antczak and the other nuns were praying for a successful venture to Santa Anita.

About 100 people attending the fund-raiser signed up for a $25 pick six investment, giving them $2,560 for their play. Campbell and his friends decided to use all eight horses in the first leg of the pick six, partly because the race looked almost inscrutable, partly because they wanted the group to have at least a brief thrill of being alive. In the next five races, they used two, two, two, four, and five horses.

The strategy paid off immediately when a 15-1 shot named Krismas won the first of the pick six races. After hitting the next three races with short-priced horses, Campbell got onto a microphone, telling the sister and other party-goers, "This is starting to look interesting."

It got even more interesting when they hit the 2-1 winner of the fifth leg. And when one of their five horses, 4-1 shot Apple Juice Tea, won the finale, Campbell said, "The sisters were jumping up and down. The sophisticated players were trying to figure out what the pick six was going to be worth, and the consensus was between $30,000 and $40,000."

When the actual number appeared on the tote board, he said, "We just about fell out of our chairs."

The nuns - all wearing white habits - jumped up and down again, when they realized that they had shared in a $194,047.80 bonanza. After the Internal Revenue Service takes its share, St. Michael's will get some $80,000, which the principal said will be used to replace the school's ancient desks. "Some would call it luck," Antczak told The Los Angeles Times, "but I call it a blessing."

Campbell felt blessed, too. "I've always thought racing is a joy to be shared," he said; he owns a few horses, and when they run he likes to have friends with him so that they can share the excitement of victory or commiserate over a defeat. Campbell had long dreamed of hitting a big pick six, but this one surpassed even his dreams. Who could imagine winning the big one as six white-habited nuns are cheering with you?