Chance of a Lifetime

A cancer-stricken theologian realizes that beating the odds has nothing to do with mortality

| March-April 2009

  • A Chance of a lifetime

    image by Guilherme Marconi

  • A Chance of a lifetime

I am not, nor have I ever been, a betting man. Gambling claims no purchase on my soul. I say this not to boast. There is no virtue in abstaining from something that holds no fascination for you.

I demonstrated my lack of appetite for high-stakes gambling early. I was 9 years old when I went to my one and only horse race: the Kentucky Derby. My father gave me $10—a goodly sum back then—to bet until I lost it. At $2 a race, I would be in for at least five of the nine races. He carefully pointed out to me that if I squandered my stake on long shots that performed as expected, I would have nothing left with which to place a bet on the Kentucky Derby itself.

I learned the lesson a little too well, perhaps. To limit my exposure, I would place a show bet on the horse that was favored to win. This far-from-daring strategy taught me one lesson that I have never forgotten: Even the most cautious gambler can lose. Even when the favorites did perform as advertised, each show bet earned me a slim dime or two. No matter. By the time the Kentucky Derby rolled around, I still had $5 in my pocket. Ready to do something daring, I put it all on Silky Sullivan.

Silky Sullivan was a Western phenom. He stopped hearts in every race he entered. Halfway around the track, with the bunched contenders throwing up a great cloud of dust two city blocks ahead of him, Silky Sullivan loped along in solitary splendor, quixotic, romantic, and by every dint of racing logic, doomed. Then, to the amazement of all and the delight of anyone who dared to dream, with a burst of awe-inspiring speed he would close in on the pack, catch it at the final turn, pull up beside the leader, and win by a nose.



My young heart told me, win or lose, this was a horse worth every cent of my precious grubstake.

True to form, Silky ambled out of the gate and spotted a quarter furlong to the competition, prancing along nonchalantly until, like magic and flying like the wind, he closed the gap, dancing through the pack toward the flag. He’s going to win, I screamed. This prophecy proved premature. Three horses crossed the finish line together. Valiant Silky closed in on the leaders, but just enough to eat their dust.