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In Registry's lottery, numbers are the prize

Ann Dufresne of the Registry of Motor Vehicles set up a board displaying some of the highly coveted low-digit license plates offered to members of the public at yesterday's lottery. Ann Dufresne of the Registry of Motor Vehicles set up a board displaying some of the highly coveted low-digit license plates offered to members of the public at yesterday's lottery. (MARK WILSON/GLOBE STAFF)

One has to envy Thomas Schott's luck. The retired school guidance director hit the lottery yesterday for the third time in 10 years.

His take: Massachusetts license plate number 8989.

The Lynnfield man keeps applying for reserve license plates in the hopes of landing an even more desirable two-digit or three-digit plate.

"The lower the number, the better," Schott said in a telephone interview. "It's silly. When I drive down the road and see a low number, I usually give a thumbs-up, because I know that probably the reason they have it is that they won the lottery."

The drawing Schott won was the 10th annual lottery by the Registry of Motor Vehicles for its so-called reserve license plates: tags with four or fewer digits that some motorists find unbearably enticing. The 205 plates awarded this year included 6107 - which probably means something to someone somewhere - and the more recognizably historic 1776, to say nothing of the downright snazzy 1Z.

To some, the plates carry an air of exclusivity. Plate number 1 was issued to Frederick Tudor in 1903 and remains in the family. The reserve plates are passed down like heirlooms and become available only when no relatives leap to inherit them.

In 1999 a Boston developer paid $10,000 for plate number 94 from a Falmouth widow he had met in a parking lot. After inquiries by the Globe, the Registry revoked that registration number.

For years, legislators directed available tags to constituents who clamored for them. To combat the perception that preferred plates were reserved for the privileged, the Registry launched its lottery. This year was the first time the lottery was opened as a public event, though only a few applicants showed up. Registrar Anne L. Collins jauntily announced the winners, whose names were pulled from a rotating drum.

Another 14,412 reserve plates are already in circulation, in addition to vanity plates and a wide array of specialty, charity, and government plates. The reserve plates cost motorists an extra $40 every two years, in addition to $20 to swap the plate.

While the plates are no longer reserved for those with friends in the Legislature, many of them now seem destined for those with ties to the insurance industry.

"Those are the people who know," said Peter R. Beatrice IV, a 28-year-old Swampscott man who works at his family's insurance agency and yesterday won plate 4437. "I guess a lot of people don't spend a lot of time on the Registry's website."

Yesterday's big prize, plate number 1776, went to Richard Uvanitte, who didn't even remember entering the lottery. His brother, Donald, an insurance executive, had handled the paperwork.

Nonetheless, Richard Uvanitte will happily attach plate 1776 to his red Chevrolet Colorado pickup, to the envy of historians and plate buffs on the road.

Beatrice, too, is pleased to have his first status symbol. "I just think the low-digit plate numbers are different, unique, hard to get," Beatrice said.

Nearly 4,000 people applied for the lottery this year, but demand isn't quite as high as in the past. In 2003, the Registry fielded 10,781 entrants. Back then, applicants could apply for each car owned. These days, applicants get only one shot and have no control over which number they get.

Why not just spend $50 on a vanity plate, which contains a message selected by the owner?

"To me, that's a little bit vain," Schott said, laughing.

Conversely, he said, the lottery-awarded reserve plate seems like a burst of good luck. "You've won something, and it didn't cost you anything," Schott said.

Now that they have a new plate, Schott and his wife, Cindy, a curriculum specialist, have to decide which number to give up: the 8170 on his Mercedes or the 9025 on her BMW.

"I keep looking for Megabucks, Mega Millions, or Powerball, but never have been able to hit well," Schott said. "I wish I had more luck playing the money lotteries."

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com.

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