Criminal logo

Land Of The Blind

From a Jack to a King

Henry entered the main building at Churchill Downs. His presence at the track felt odd. He couldn't remember placing a bet in his entire life. Certainly not on something as unknowable as which thoroughbred might outrun others of its kind on any given day. He appreciated the magnificent beasts with their long, terribly slender legs and muscular bodies, but the only reason Henry was at Churchill Downs on the day the most famous horse race in America was being run, was because his uncle had come to this very place to attend this event for the last seven years of his life.

Henry had met his uncle only once, as a boy of eleven. The two brothers, Hugh and Colm lived quite far apart, one in the East and one in the west and so saw little of each other despite the strong affection they each had for the other and both held for Henry. When Henry's father died six years ago his uncle came East for the funeral. Afterward, Colm returned home but Henry kept in touch, Skyping with him once a week, so when a telegram arrived from a hospital in Arizona notifying him his uncle had only days to live, it rocked Henry to his core. Now Henry was seated at Colm's bedside watching a squiggly line in a square box to reassure himself his uncle was still alive. Henry's gaze returned to his uncle. With a start, he realized Colm's eyes were now wide open. Before he could manage to speak, Colm sat bold upright and in a highly agitated state, began shouting at his nephew.

"I caught me one of the little green bastards once," he announced emphatically. "Fought me something fierce!" Henry's mind struggled to make sense of what he was hearing."Tricked me, he did!" Colm continued his shouting. "Owes me gold for letin' em go! But all I got was clues! Him sayin' if I were smart enough to catch a leprechaun, I should be smart enough to solve the riddle and find his gold on me own!"

Colm spoke the sentence with his last breath and to Henry's deep sorrow, fell back onto his pillows, dead. Colm had been a bachelor all of his life. Henry, having no brothers or sisters was his only surviving relative. The next day Henry arranged for his uncle's funeral with a heavy heart, thinking to himself he should have visited his uncle more often as his father had wanted.

Colm and Hugh had immigrated to America from Ireland when they were just lads. Hugh told Henry stories about Colm who, he said, was the sort of man that believed in hidden treasures: chests of gold buried by pirates and pots of gold hoarded by Irish tricksters known as leprechauns. Henry had looked up the word in his father's dictionary where he learned a leprechaun was a fictional character found in Irish folklore: a dwarf size man with a faint green complexion who supposedly knew the whereabouts of gold. After his uncle's funeral, Henry went to the boarding house where his uncle had lived to pick up his personal effects. Colm had few possessions but Henry's F.B.I. training demanded he make a thorough search of the premises just the same. Checking an old bureau he found one drawer stuck tight. After managing to pry it loose, Henry turned the drawer upside down to find a slender black book taped to its underside. The book was old and worn but made from very fine leather. On its first page, scribbled in pencil in his uncle's hand, was "map to gold." Page after page then held nothing but long lines of numbers and letters. He also found short, cryptic notes in his uncle's writing. Some of them appeared to be people's names. Later in the book, it seemed there were also a few animal names. Henry placed his uncle's few things in an old suitcase he had found in the closet and left the key with the landlord.

On the way to the hotel, he stopped at a local diner for a bite to eat. While he waited for his food he continued his examination of the book. Henry was good at solving puzzles. In fact, he was exceptional at it and this ability had led him to a career with the Bureau. Now he studied each entry on every page. By the time his food arrived, he was confident the first numbers in each row of figures represented dates. Occasionally there would be a page with nothing but a single date. These pages seemed to divide the book's entries by year. The dates and numbers in each line were similar but not identical year to year. The exceptions being the numbers Henry believed indicated months. Most of the letters did repeat each year, but not all. Henry finished his meal and drove to his hotel. Once in bed, he tossed and turned. Giving up on sleeping, Henry reached for the black book. After the first few numbers in every line came letters. These repeated, but not 100% of the time. Henry's eyes grew heavy and closing them, he slept.

The following morning Henry was on a flight back to Washington. More than once in his career, Henry had wondered if luck played any part in his assignments. He could certainly use a little right now he thought to himself, as he was getting nowhere fast trying to decipher the significance of Colm's letters: SA, RD, CD, and others. Henry put on the headphones he wore when he flew. As he plugged them in the arm of his seat, a news broadcast was in progress. He was about to change the channel when a commercial for the Kentucky Derby, held the first weekend in May, began. As Henry watched, something clicked in his brain. He hurriedly pulled the book from his pocket. Sure enough, as he thumbed through it, the letters CD appeared once each year. Always after a date that seemed to be May. Was it possible, he wondered. Could the initials CD in his uncle's book stand for a Churchill Downs? If so, did all the initials represent race tracks? Opening his cell phone he did a quick search to check the dates of the first weekends in May over the past seven years. The book and research data matched! His mind was beginning to race. Crazy as it might sound, Henry wondered if his uncle decided the gold he expected to receive was somehow connected to horse racing.

Henry arrived home by early afternoon. After briefly freshening up He sat down at his computer and started researching the world of horse racing. He'd been given two weeks to take care of his personal affairs, which left him ten days to work on solving the puzzle of Colm's gold. Henry found race tracks matching each group of initials in the book: Santa Anita, Del Mar, Ruidoso Downs, Turf Paradise. All but Churchill Downs were located in the southwest, not terribly far from his uncle's residence. But what did the numbers after the initials represent? Might they be the numbers of winning horses or represent specific races? An exhaustive search of archived sports pages from local newspapers and the records of the American Jockey Club confirmed some of the numbers were horses who raced on a date his uncle had entered, but not all, plus there were the numbers for horses who had not won. What was he missing? What else could be used when basing a code on horse racing?

Before he realized it a week had disappeared. He was due back at work on Monday next and his research had produced few answers and no real leads. He'd been through the book fifty times comparing the records of horses, jockeys, trainers, owners, and breeders until the names swam before his eyes. He had worked out his uncle listed horses who won races, but only when more than one horse belonging to the same owner or farm or trained by the same trainer, or ridden by the same jockey won! Colm, just like Henry, had been looking for patterns. Just when he thought he might be getting somewhere, the numbers entered seemed to go back to being horses who won a race regardless of who owned or trained them. Even the few names Henry found like "Irish Sweetheart," and "Irish Promise, " written on a page offered no new insight. Henry had solved critical, cryptic codes invented by sophisticated hackers and enemy spies, but he was getting nowhere fast with his uncle's black book.

The next morning, working on his fourth cup of coffee, a thought struck. What if the missing connection wasn't one particular owner, trainer, jockey, or breeder? What if it was one particular stud? Hugh had talked about Colm being a rabid poker player but never once mentioned him being a horse racing fan. Yet something had driven his uncle to visit track after track for most of every year for seven straight years in search of the gold he felt he was due! Yet there was not a single indication of his uncle ever placing one single bet in all that time! Henry was about to take a walk to clear his mind when his eye caught the date in the corner of his computer screen. It was Friday and it was the first week of May! Henry sprang to his feet so quickly his chair tumbled over backward. He hurried to his bedroom, grabbed his overnight bag, and left to catch a plane.

Maneuvering through the crowds at the Kentucky Derby the next afternoon, Henry was still not sure exactly why he had come to Churchill Downs. He picked up a Daily Racing Form and paid a tout for a tip sheet, then stood in a betting line. Scanning the list of horses he noticed a horse named "One-Eyed Jack," whose odds were 100 to 1! At the window, Henry withdrew two one hundred dollar bills from his wallet and handed them across the counter.

"Two hundred dollars to win on One-Eyed Jack, he said, then picking up his tickets he made his way to the rail just in time for the start of the race.

"Down the stretch they come." The race caller's voice came through the loudspeakers. Halfway through the race, the voice became elevated with excitement as the caller shouted

"One-Eyed Jack is going to the front! One-Eyed Jack is in the lead! One-Eyed Jack wins it by a length! Unbelievable! A 100 to 1 long shot just won the Kentucky Derby!" The crowd exploded in a roar in which Henry could hear the echo of his uncle's laugh.

Waiting in line to collect his twenty-thousand dollars in winnings, what Henry thought of as "Colm's gold," he flashed back to his father and uncle in a poker game. With the memory came the recollection of a statement his uncle had uttered.

"A One-Eyed Jack is King in a land of the blind." Well, Henry had certainly been blind these past few weeks. But it no longer mattered. In the end, he succeeded in solving the riddle and getting the gold no matter how obtuse Colm's leprechaun had made the clues! As he left the building, Henry laughed to himself thinking the most conservative agent in the office now believed in leprechauns and Lady Luck!

Donna Snyder-Smith
Donna Snyder-Smith
Read next: Chad Alan Lee
Donna Snyder-Smith

"Aged." 35 year journalist + 3 books published by Wiley. Live on the NW coast. Love horses, some cats and a few people. Married, once, one daughter. The term average seldom fits me or any of my life. Love writing or reading a good story.

See all posts by Donna Snyder-Smith

Find us on socal media

Miscellaneous links