By Eddie Donnally
On the morning of October 1, 1987, Jay Richards shook off the remnants of a constant hangover and left his Las Vegas apartment with a singular purpose: making bets on a fixed horse race.
Those in recovery have a time when they hit bottom. Jay never knew it, but his was on the way.
The well known horse racing writer, successful radio show host and experienced track publicity director was addicted to alcohol. The previous day Gary Tropp, a now deceased former roommate and harness horse driver at New Jersey’s now defunct Garden State Park, called. Tropp said he had bribed four other drivers in a race and he would restrain his horse. He asked Jay to box Quinella wagers, which require picking the top two finishers in any order, on the remaining live horses at the city’s many race books. In those days, Vegas race books didn’t mingle their bets with tracks and each had a separate pool that often provided higher payoffs than tracks.
Richards was about to become a “beard,” a word devised by criminal race fixers who use known gamblers to place bets on fixed races. He wrote and handicapped races for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and was a frequent bettor. “I’d probably unknowingly been betting on fixed horse races all the time.” he said. “I gave in to greed.”
The race went as planned. One race book’s Quinellas paid a whopping $192 for a $2 bet. Yet he immediately noticed that at Garden State Park, which did not have Quinella wagering, their Exacta, a harder wager to win, paid far less than expected. “This was not good,” he said. “I knew they (the track’s drivers who knew about the fixed race) had gotten greedy and bet big at the track. This would bring heat on the race.”
Still, all but a few race books cashed their winning tickets and eventually all did. Richard’s life of writing, handicapping, betting and drinking heavily continued. “I figured we got the money and I didn’t think anyone would find out.”
But the following summer, he learned the New Jersey State Police had arrested Tropp for the fixed race. Tropp called, saying he had admitted to the felony and in turn would avoid prison. “He told me to also cooperate, and that I would get the same deal. He said the New Jersey State Police would soon be paying me a visit. I knew I was in serious trouble.”
As soon as the state police interviewed Richards and he admitted to placing the bets, they notified the Nevada Gaming Control Board who contacted the newspaper. He job was gone. “The bottom fell out,” he said. “I had a clear prior record, but there I was. I learned what it is like to be sitting at home and watching the evening news and they are talking about you being suspended from your job because of race fixing. I went from being a well-know and accepted individual to a pariah (social outcast) overnight.”
“I literally wanted to die,” he later wrote for the Las Vegas Christian Chronicle. “Recurring thoughts of suicide were alternately pondered and rejected. I dealt with my agonizing pain and misery the only way I knew how. I drank.” His losing 10-year-old battle with alcohol morphed into drinking a quart of Canadian bourbon each day. Trying to quite his shaking hands, he smoked three packs a day. In May 1989, a New Jersey grand jury indicted him for one count of “Conspiracy to rig a publicly exhibited event,” a New Jersey felony.
He feared going to jail and knew his alcoholism was potentially fatal. Yet he didn’t consider God an option. A self-admitted skeptic, he had all the intellectual reason why, “All this God stuff was just something man had invented, ‘the opiate of the masses’ as Karl Marx had penned.’”
God had other plans. Broke and out of work, he moved to Southern California for a fresh start. There, he renewed his friendship with Andre Martel, a former C & W singer, then an associate pastor at an Orange County Calvary Chapel Church. Persistent in his witness, Martel finally told Richards that “in Christ you can have a brand new life.”
On February 1, 1990 Richards finally understood his tenuous life was out of control, yet he couldn’t stop living a lifestyle he hated. That night in his tiny apartment, he realized that, “To accept or reject Christ was one of the few real choices I had left. I gave up.” He fell to his knees and called out to God. “I let go of everything I’d been holding on to for so many years,” he wrote. “Most notably my foolish pride.”
He confessed his faults, asked Christ to forgive him and become Lord of his life. He challenged Christ, telling him if he were real, he’d help him stop drinking and find a job. The next morning he awoke with no desire to drink. He immersed himself into the Bible and was soon teaching it twice a week to a group of 30 mentally handicapped adults, something he described as “greatly blessing me.”
The next year he got a call out of nowhere from Rodd Stowell, then the program director for the Las Vegas based Sports Entertainment Network (later purchased by ESPN). Stowell offered him a four-hour sports talk show on coast to coast satellite radio. He returned to Las Vegas and the following year got a call from Jim Fossum, the Review-Journal sports editor, asking if he’d like his old job back.
“God’s fingerprints were all over that,’ he said. “It was impossible. A friend told me that God’s greatest miracle for me was not taking away my desire for alcohol, but the newspaper hiring me back. God showed me the extent of his power in turning lives around. “
In his first column, Richards sited one of his key verses, one he noted is often used by Christian Hall of Fame former jockey, Pat Day “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose,” (Romans 8:28 NKJ).
He retired from the paper in 1998 as a nationally recognized handicapper, cementing his reputation by selecting for the paper, Sea Hero, 30-1 long shot 1993 Kentucky Derby winner. Richards wanted to concentrate on his demanding work as a comprehensive video race analyst for a computerized betting team in Hong Kong, all legal and above board.
Yet, he no longer wagers and will soon celebrate 24 years sober. A member of a local church, he gives generously to Christian causes, counsels others in Christian principles and writes seminary graduate level articles defending the faith for Christian periodicals
Richards remains passionate about intelligently defending his beliefs and telling others about his love for God and His miracles. “Eternity will not be long enough for me to tell God how much I thank Him. I tell the Lord every day that all I want to be is a blessing to other and a delight to You. Until you’ve been healed from a disease yourself, it’s hard to understand that with God nothing is impossible. I went from picking winners, to telling others about a sure thing.”