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Book Review

Tropical Downs:
A Novel of Peril and Misadventures in Search of the Elusive Automatic Bet
by Mark Cramer
DRF Press, December 2008, 267 pages paperback

With the popularity of such authors as Dick Francis and John Francome, horse racing and mystery novel writing have proven to work well in combination. The sport, with all its old-world charm and interesting characters, lends itself well to fictional work, making for interesting and entertaining reading for all readers, not just racing fans and participants. In his latest novel, Tropical Downs, DRF handicapper and Paris-based travel writer Mark Cramer brings back the character of Matt Bosch in a new adventure that includes New York, Maryland, California, and Bolivia.

Matt Bosch, a character first introduced by Cramer in his novel Scared Money, is a horseplayer and jazz pianist from Maryland with a mathematical mind, always looking for simple statistics-based answers to the handicapping question. He finds himself meeting up with the wrong crowd, shady characters who make him the proverbial "offer you can't refuse," which is to get involved in the development of a new racetrack in Bolivia, a country that lacks horse racing. It seems like a lifelong horseplayer's dream come true, just secure a signature to get approval, collect a $100,000 fee for his efforts, and possibly manage the new business using part of the money as betting bankroll. However, nothing comes easy, not in handicapping and definitely not in dealing with the underworld. Upon arrival in Bolivia, he finds himself on an obstacle course of seemingly insurmountable traps while in the middle of a violent land conflict between natives and powerful business interests. The trouble continues at home, as his wife is on the wrong side of the deal, in opposition to what he was sent there to do. An exotic call-girl supposedly comes to the rescue, but her motives are never clear. Who's side is she on? And although she may be on his side now, will she eventually turn on him?

To pass his time and stay sharp in his handicapping, he continues to play the horses through a friend in America who faxes him the Daily Racing Form every day and then places his bets for him. As well, he brought with him a stack of old Forms to study, looking for handicapping angles by calculating probabilities. As a treat for racing fans reading his book, Cramer includes some of his handicapping research among the text, as a break from all the action, just like how Matt would get back to handicapping to get away from the tension surrounding him. Matt, like Cramer himself, likes to look for the "automatic bet," simple methods that point at likely winners at decent odds that are worth a play without needing to invest hours of study on the past performances. It was as if Cramer was writing two books in one: a very entertaining mystery novel and a handicapping book on angles. His experience as a travel writer also showed through, with his detailed descriptions of the scenery and culture of Bolivia, a country he has been to and has written travel books about in the past.

This was a very enjoyable read, as Cramer drew on years of experience as a handicapper, travel writer, and fiction author, and the combination of the three worked beautifully. He included some real-life professional handicappers in his story, and researched the political climate in Bolivia to accurately portray what would have happened there had a racetrack been planned on lands claimed by the natives. Horse racing fans and mystery fiction lovers alike will enjoy this well-written story.

Tropical Downs has a list price of $14.95 and is available from Amazon.com for $10.17.

Rating:     4/5

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