Ask a horseplayer to rate himself as a handicapper and he'll probably give you one of three answers: (1) "I'm very good, but if I didn't have to work for a living, I'd be terrific"; (2) "better than most"; (3) "outasight." All locomotives, no cabooses. Aside from boxing promoters and baseball owners, handicappers have the biggest egos in sport, and, in truth, those who have proved themselves have every right to feel as they do. Let a top handicapper study a race long enough, get the proper set of conditions and have a horse that's in shape, and his selection will usually scoot home like a leaf blown along by the wind. As the saying goes, "Good handicappers can pick winners in fire or flood, mire or blood," or words to that effect.
Movies and TV have stereotyped handicappers as either people with no soles on their shoes or guys with patent-leather hair who constantly shoot their cuffs to exhibit diamonds and gold. Proof positive that both characterizations are way off came two weeks ago when 65 of the best handicappers in the U.S. showed up at Penn National Race Course in Grantville, Pa. to determine which was the best in 1980. Who were they? Well, they certainly weren't the type of people who hang out in body and fender shops making calls to bookies.
Sudershan Singh, for instance, wore a blue turban and had played horses in New Delhi, India as well as Crete, Ill., where this year he won a handicapping contest at Balmoral by picking seven straight winners. Besides Singh, 54, who works as a computer supervisor in Chicago, present at Penn National were an electrician, a chemist, a plumber, a chauffeur, a restaurant owner, an antiques dealer, an assistant golf pro, an art director and an advertising writer, not to mention professional handicappers from some of the nation's most notable newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun, New York Daily News, Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer, and selectors for papers published in central Pennsylvania, where Penn National is located. In addition, there were representatives from just about every radio and TV station except WKRP in Cincinnati.
The event that brought them together labors under the title The World Series of Handicapping, but it's far from being another of those trash sports that TV serves up with the regularity of designer jeans commercials. The World Series was inaugurated at Penn National five years ago with a winner-take-all prize of $7,000. Since then the jackpot has grown to $50,000, with first place worth $30,000. And over the years the Series' field has grown from 50 handicappers to the 407 applicants who were willing to pay $300 in entry fees this year. That number was cut to 240 by drawing lots, and that group was reduced to 40 finalists in four elimination rounds of 30 races each. The finalists were joined in the Series by the pro handicappers, who paid no entrance fees but gave the event publicity and credibility.
Penn National, a mile track with a fast turf course, is the perfect spot for such an event. Calling itself a "track for all seasons" because it runs year-around, Penn National is most beautiful in fall, when the late-afternoon sun bathes Blue Mountain and highlights the varied autumn foliage. The track's payoffs are pretty varied, too. In 1975, for instance, Cayuga Lake (50-1) and Josie's Star (45-1) ran through the twilight to a world-record $2 daily double payoff of $27,985.80 that still stands. For low payoffs, consider the $4.50 that a $3 quinella of Sensitive Prince and Island Sultan yielded last year.
The handicappers who were at Penn National for the Series had only 30 hours to dope out 30 races, ranging from a five-furlong event on the turf to 1¼ miles on dirt. Each of the 65 contestants started on Friday evening with a mythical $1,000 bankroll and had to bet a minimum of $2 on every race to win, place or show, no exotic wagering allowed. By the end of the 25th event, on Sunday, each player had to establish a high-limit bet in each of those three categories. A player's limit, of course, depended on either how high his handicapping skills had boosted his original bankroll or how well he had husbanded his stake. As any horseplayer knows, picking winners is only part of the game; money management—mainly determining how much to bet on a race and whether to bet to win, place or show—is the critical factor.
The 'cappers arrived at Grantville armed with notebooks, charts and past performances. Some carried their data in handsome leather briefcases, others had car trunks stuffed with old Racing Forms; some had clipboards bearing sheets of paper covered with so many scribblings and asterisks they looked like alphabet soup infested with water bugs. One man kept his documents in two plastic laundry baskets.
As at any World Series, there had to be a favorite, in this case Andrew Beyer, 36, of the Washington Post. A few hours before the contest started, Beyer was jogging through Grantville in an outfit that included a T shirt from the 1978 Kentucky Derby (Affirmed's year). Many horseplayers consider him the best handicapper in the world. Beyer agrees with them. He is tall and thin, wears granny glasses and a scruffy mustache that might be described as one part Fu, no parts Manchu. When Beyer wins a large bet, his face takes on an almost beatific aura; let him lose a few and his countenance resembles an ill-tended grave.
Beyer is the guru of the "speed handicappers" and has written two excellent books on the subject: Picking Winners: A Horseplayer's Guide and My $50,000 Year at the Races. That year was 1977, when Beyer won $50,664 after starting out with a bankroll of $8,000. As racing columnist for the Post, Beyer doesn't pick every race every day, but leads his readers to the promised land with information on only a few horses. At the track, however, he bets with both hands. He grew up in Erie, Pa. and went to Harvard, but failed to graduate when his final examination on Chaucer conflicted with Amberoid's Belmont Stakes.
Beyer entered the World Series in 1978, but admits he didn't prepare well enough for it. This year he bought stacks of charts and past performances from a news dealer in Harrisburg and studied them assiduously. "My figs should be all right," he said, "but I might just make one big move and try to win the $30,000 that way. It depends on how things go early on for me. It's going to be 30 hours of hell. I know several of the people in the contest and they are tough—really tough. The fellow who won last year, Hirsimaki, could be strong again. He's strictly a show bettor but good at it."
Paul Hirsimaki, 32, is a pleasant, thoughtful and tidy man who lives in Vienna, Va., and works as a naval architect for the Coast Guard in Washington, D.C. In 1979 Hirsimaki cashed enough show bets to win the Series with an imaginary total of $4,782. That earned him $26,730 in real money.
"Seven years ago I was driving around Jefferson County, W. Va. just looking at scenery when I came upon Shenandoah Downs," Hirsimaki says. "I'd never been to a racetrack before and had heard most of the bad stories about such places. But I drove in anyway and asked a parking lot attendant if anyone really ever won money inside. He said, 'Yes.' Well, I drove around a little bit longer and decided to go in. Made six bets and lost them all, but I enjoyed the atmosphere. For a long time I went back and never won more than $18 in any one day.
"Then I was sent to San Diego to work, and on a day off I tried Del Mar. I felt it would be my lucky day." Hirsimaki pauses briefly, recalling his bets the way a good baseball manager can recollect the pitches and plays in a vital game months afterward. "I won $20 on the first race and lost it all on Royal Fols in the second. I felt like leaving, but bet $4 on a horse and got back $64. I ended up $120 ahead for the day. After that I became a real fan, read everything I could. I entered the contest in 1979 and won with my last bet in the final race. Good Morning America did a segment on my win, and some Navy friends saw it and called. They had no idea I was a handicapper."
For this year's contest, a large part of the ground floor of Penn National was roped off and filled with tables covered with blue cloths. Each player sat under a sign bearing his name, hometown and occupation. On one wall was a huge leader board, similar to the ones seen at golf tournaments. The players had to make their selections seven minutes before post time, at which point each handicapper's choice was hung beneath his name card so the track's patrons, looking in from outside the ropes, could see how the experts figured the race. Then the patrons would scurry off to the windows.
On the first day, Hirsimaki took an early lead, but in the 15th race he bet his roll of $1,625 to show on a horse named The Ryles in a mile race for $2,500 claimers. The Ryles finished fourth, beaten out of third by half a length. Hirsimaki had tapped out.
At the end of Saturday, the second day of competition, the leader was David Bell, 36, of Manchester, Mo., who attained his lead by hitting on eight of his 10 bets that day, boosting his bankroll to $3,009.60. "The 'roll isn't imaginary at all," he said. "It's more than cash money. I'm a good handicapper, but I've never been through any pressure like this thing puts you through."
Even Bell's wife, Laura, was puzzled by her husband's reaction to playing in the Series. "Don't ask me why he has that big cigar in his mouth," she said. "He smokes a pipe. Yes, he wears the cowboy hat all the time and looks good in it, but I don't know where that cigar came from. He's an excellent handicapper but hasn't slept a wink since he's been in Grantville. He stays up all night pacing and going over his figures."
Bell puts out a tip sheet called STATS (Statistical Trends and Track Selections) and sells it at nearby Fairmount Park and Cahokia Downs as well as at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. "I got into this contest because I wanted to show people I'm a good handicapper," he said, "and also that guys who put out tip sheets aren't just touts and bums. Last year I made $100,000 with my sheet and I don't pick favorites. I had 28% winners on the year. When newspaper handicappers pick winners they have their winners pointed out in their papers. That never happens with guys like me.
"I worked for E.F. Hutton as a stockbroker in St. Louis," Bell continued, "but felt I could do this better and make more money. I finished fifth in my qualifying round, and got only $75 for it, but it put me in the finals. I've just got to make a couple of right moves and I might be able to win the whole thing."
Bell didn't make the right moves, perhaps because three of the races run on Sunday, the final day of the Series, were on grass. Fairmount, Cahokia and Oak-lawn have no grass racing.
For most of the first two days, Beyer kept his own counsel, but then, early on Sunday morning, he said, "I'll make my move in the fourth race today on a horse named See I.A. I've got a fig on him you wouldn't believe."
Although See I.A. had won only one of its last 20 starts, Beyer bet the $652 left in his bankroll to win. When his wager showed beneath his name card, fans began marching to the windows to bet See I.A. Then Beyer looked back at the card of Bo Runkle, a Series contestant who earns his living betting horses at Penn National. Runkle had a bigger bankroll than Beyer and was wagering $1,000 to win and $1,000 to place on See I.A. At one point the horse had been 11-1 on the odds board, but with Beyer and Runkle putting huge chunks of their contest money on See I.A., the odds plummeted to 4-1. See I.A. won by half a length, and Beyer, with $3,326, moved up to third place, but Runkle, the second-place finisher in 1979, boomed to $8,715.20, a lead of some $4,700 over second-place Sam Perillo. It was obvious to most observers that the World Series of Handicapping was over for 1980.
Perillo didn't think so. He had played well throughout and had put $200 on See I.A. Perillo, a 55-year-old employee of Mailers Union II in Cicero, Ill., has been betting horses for 35 years. One race after the Series seemed finished, Perillo made one of the biggest bets of his life, wagering $1,800 to win on a 4-1 shot, Bright Treasure, in a turf race. The 9-year-old gelding stayed off the early pace and then ran to the wire like a mouse to cheese. Perillo won $9,180, boosting his bankroll to $11,160.60. Now the Series was really over. There were five races left, but nobody could catch Perillo. Runkle finished second.
"If I had to give people advice about handicapping," Perillo said afterward, "I would say run away from trainers' tips and don't try to bet every race. If I don't like a certain jockey and feel he's a bad rider, I'll pass the race even though the jockey may get lucky, win and cost me money. But the most important thing about handicapping is managing your money.
"In the years I've been betting I've driven a lot of bad iron around Cicero because I lost money and couldn't afford good cars. I haven't had that problem in about five years, ever since I locked myself in my room at home for a week. I went over my figures and saw how I had bet on horses and had made a lot of stupid moves in the management of money on those bets. I had friends who would follow me over a mountain with my selections and would make money from them because they knew how to manage it. The way I handicap is to look through the past performances, watch the races and take notes on my program. Then I see the races played back on videotape and take more notes. When the day's over, I go home and translate those notes into a book. I keep about eight months of charts in my house so I can refer to them."
The races Perillo enjoys betting on most are those on turf, or "weeds," as many handicappers call them. "So many things happen in grass races," Perillo says, "that you can often pick up a horse that'll win its next start if you've noticed that the horse was blocked trying to get through a hole or went wide." Two races before winning for Perillo, Bright Treasure had run at Penn National and been severely impeded. And Sam had noted that before he picked the horse which made him, for this year, at least, America's best handicapper.
The "Post's" Beyer chose charts over Chaucer.
Close, but no cigar for the pipe-smoking Bell.
Singh was left singing the old tap-out blues.
Penn National's John Shumaker congratulates Perillo (right), who finds the grass is always greener.