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Racing memory: The long shot that came in

This story first appeared on Sunday, Feb 25, 1996 in the Inquirer Sunday Magazine

This story first appeared on Sunday, Feb 25, 1996 in the Inquirer Sunday Magazine

CHILI BEAN PARK, A 5-year-old brown gelding with soulful eyes, is a race horse. Not a very good one, if truth be told, and even Chili's most worshipful fans-of which there are exactly two-will admit this.

Back in October, Chili Bean crossed the finish line first at Penn National Race Course near Harrisburg and helped make Bill Handleman and Louie Filoso, a pair of New Jersey racetrack buddies, the Greatest and Smartest Living Handicappers in the World, at least for a short time.

"He won by a head, but he was trying to quit. He wanted to quit in the worst way," Filoso says tenderly of Chili Bean. "And we had everything on him. "

Everything was $492 in play money, the remains of their $1,000 stake in the annual three-day World Series of Handicapping contest at Penn National. But when Chili Bean Park, who hadn't won a race for eight months, dragged himself and his long odds around the track and mistakenly quit after the finish line, Handleman and Filoso were flush as well as flushed. They would finish the contest with the most mythical earnings over the three days of racing at Penn National and, for their trouble, were presented a lovely crystal bowl and a check for $100,000, neither of which were mythical.

"Do you realize what we've done? " Filoso said.

"Yeah, I think so," Handleman said.

Filoso, a Villanova grad who owns an auto wholesaling business in central New Jersey, was struck by the accomplishment of the thing. Handleman, a writer in Bruce Springsteen's hometown of Asbury Park, was partial to the money, but also agreed they had been brilliant.

"We both have racetrack egos," says Handleman, "and there's this whole thing about seeing the outcome in advance and being right. That's the difference between horse players and ordinary gamblers. Somebody who doesn't go to the track came up and congratulated me and said, 'This is just like hitting the lottery.' And I had to say, 'No, it's pretty much the exact opposite.' There's nothing random about this stuff when it works. Chili Bean Park was your basic piece of garbage, but we came up with him. "

Having conquered the known universe east of the Mississippi River, it was natural that Handleman and Filoso would notice the advertisement for the World Cup of Thoroughbred Handicapping, a Las Vegas event that attracts sharp players and offers big prizes.

"We figured, What the hey?" says Handleman.

Probably what Lewis said to Clark when they stuck a paddle in the water.

So, Filoso and Handleman went west. They took their meticulously kept race charts. They took several weeks' worth of back issues of the Racing Form. Handleman took his lucky shirt. Chili Bean Park, however, would not fit in the overhead bin.

THE GRAND BALLROOM OF THE Sands Casino in Las Vegas is certainly large, although "grand" might be a stretch. Outside its doors, ladies with Dixie Cups where their left hands should be pick quarters from the cups and drop them relentlessly into slot machines. There is a constant ringing of bells and a mind-numbing beeping, broken occasionally by the clink of quarters into the payout tray, signaling another lucky winner. The machines are rigged to give back nine coins for every 10 dropped inside, and this matter of the missing coin is why casinos are in business.

Inside the ballroom, on the day the handicapping tournament began, there were workers putting up the last rows of tables arranged before banks of large-screen televisions. In the middle of the room was a long buffet from which contestants could grab a quick breakfast or lunch. To one side was the tournament counter, where the handicappers turn in their selections before each race. And near the back of the room was a set of live betting windows, which the Sands thoughtfully opened in the event these 130 lifelong gamblers might want to wager a few real dollars on the races.

"Our gig is just what we make off those windows over there," said Bob Gregorka, a nice Catholic boy from Hoboken who runs the racetrack and sports bookmaking at the Sands.

The tournament itself is operated by Mike Levine, who stopped in Las Vegas two decades ago on his way to L.A. and hasn't quite made it out yet. He's been running the World Cup twice annually for 15 years, which makes it one of the oldest of its kind and, with $75,000 in prizes during a slow winter month, the one that brings out all the sharpies, system players, gambling pros, computer wonks, hard-luckers and dreamers. And, of course, the reigning kings of New Jersey.

"Look at this place," said Handleman as he found a spot at a no-smoking table and looked at the wall of TV monitors that would bring in racing from New York, Maryland, Florida, Louisiana, Illinois and California. "It's like having the whole country right in front of you. "

In this three-day tournament, which cost $800 to enter, handicappers made nine selections a day, all of them for a mythical $200 across the board (win, place and show). The horses were picked from any of the 65 races run at the seven major thoroughbred tracks in operation. At the end, whoever got the highest payoff from their 27 bets took first place, which for this tournament was $25,000. Smaller prizes were also awarded to the top 20 finishers.

Play began when Laurel, Calder and Aqueduct tracks threw open the first gates at 9:30 a.m., Vegas time, and continued until Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows, the two California tracks, were covered in late-afternoon shadows. On the middle day of the tournament, the California cards ran in the evening, giving the handicappers a full 14 hours of horse racing during which they could judge the relative merits of more than 600 animals. It's like having the whole country right in front of you.

"THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS the best handicapper," says Chuck Berger, a wiry man with an El Paso address and a New York accent. "You have to be on for three days, but that also means you have to be lucky. I lost a tournament once because on the last day I lost four out of five photo finishes. I had one winner and five second-places that day. Another horse won, but was disqualified. I may sound philosophical now, but this is why I have grey hairs. It kills you. "

Berger is a professional horse player. It is his only means of support and, according to him, he makes a very nice living. In his best year, his income was augmented by $27,000 in prize money from tournaments like these. But he is one of a very small minority that plays the horses to live. For most, long-term financial success is a dream.

"They always say you make your first bet to get rich and all the others to get even," says Steve Schwartz, a New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority official who was observing the tournament.

Most serious horse players will say they play the game because they like the intellectual challenge. Doing it well requires careful study and a willingness to pore through mathematical problems that would stall a calculator. It isn't the same as picking the Cowboys because they've got Deion Sanders.

"You're telling the future, that's what handicapping is," says Handleman. "When you interpret all the data perfectly and tell which horse will set the pace, which will chase him, and which will win, and then it unfolds just like you tell it . . . you've seen into the future. "

"It's like doing the Times crossword puzzle," says Schwartz, "but all of a sudden you get paid at the end. And it's not that different from people who play the stock market. You do research, read all the tea leaves and then invest in a horse for a minute and a half. You learn to study everything. You go to the paddock and see which trainer who never wears a suit is wearing a suit for the winner's circle photo. "

There was a cold night at Monmouth Park last year, Handleman recalls, when a group of regulars was huddled around a couple of tables in the clubhouse doping out the simulcasted racing from Garden State. It wasn't the typical Damon Runyon casting. There were successful businessmen, a couple of lawyers, a government think-tank guy who had graduated second in his class at Notre Dame, and a dean at Seton Hall University.

"This is a wholly intellectual pursuit," Handleman said. "You looked around those tables, and there was nobody scratching himself and wondering where his next meal was coming from. "

Handicapping horse races is an ego thing, a matching of guile and brains not only against the four-legged equations that circle the track, but against the other players who weren't quite as smart on a given occasion.

"That's me! That's me!" a player will scream as his horse is romping down the stretch. But that's just another way of saying, "That's not you!" to his fellow handicappers. And what better place to be the smartest person in the room than in a room full of the best and the brightest?

"The money would be nice to win," said Big Ray Tanahill from Baltimore, "but more than that, you just want to say you're the best for three days. It's more ego than anything, to tell the truth. "

THE CONTESTANTS TOOK THEIR morning danish and coffee, found their seats and opened their textbooks. Across the ballroom floor was a cross section of handicapping theory.

"You get a mixture, but in the last few years you've been seeing the more studious guys in these things," says Ron Bauer, from Costa Mesa, Calif., who, along with a partner, won the very first World Cup nearly 15 years ago. "They keep an awful lot of records and use computers and everything. We just look at the Form and handicap the races. Whatever works. I remember taking my wife to the races for the first time and she bet the first race and hit the exacta. She had bet the numbers 1 and 2. And she said, 'This is easy. The best horse goes in the No. 1 spot, and the next best horse goes in the No. 2 spot.' Well, if you pick a winner that way, they still pay you. "

Across the room, Handleman stacked three Racing Forms in front of him, carefully arranged a sheaf of breeding information, and sighed. He had been up since 4:45 a.m., fueled by coffee and fear, trying to handicap all seven racetracks.

"This is totally overwhelming," Handleman said. "I'm not sure this is as much a handicapping contest as it is a dart-throwing contest. But I've got a few ideas. "

Winning the tournament, according to those who have played before, depends on finding a few "bombs" along the way, horses that would pay $50 or $60 to win on a $2 bet, thus blasting the rest of the contestants.

As races began on the East Coast, and the room filled with disembodied track announcements, waitresses in scant uniforms trolled between the tables calling out, "Cocktails? " Most of their customers requested Diet Cokes and never bothered to look up.

At Aqueduct in New York and Calder in Florida, two tracks where Filoso had concentrated his handicapping, the favorites were holding up and there wasn't much money to be won. At Laurel in Maryland and Hawthorne in Illinois, Handleman took a few chances and came away empty.

In the rain and the slop at Hawthorne, a horse named Robert's Choice came from 10th place after three-quarters of a mile to take a slim lead down the stretch, and Chuck Berger ran up next to the television screen to pump his fist in time with the horse's stride.

"Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah," Berger said in sing-song cadence as his horse nipped the favorite at the wire and came across to pay $26.20 to win. Berger, along with having a winning selection in the tournament, had backed up his opinion with real money at the betting window.

"Ooh," he said, "that's a start. "

Handleman looked up briefly, but then returned to his work, preparing to jump on a horse at Calder named Honest Colors. Handleman had called a friend who lives near the Miami track, looking for something hot. Honest Colors was the answer.

"This better come through," Handleman said, aware that the yelping of nearby winners meant nothing good for the undisputed kings of New Jersey.

On a sunny day in Florida, on a fast racetrack, Honest Colors came out of the gate quickly and stayed on the rail near the lead. He was there after three-quarters and there at the top of the stretch. But at that point, a late-closing grey horse named Casperoo came from way back in the pack to take the lead as Honest Colors faded from view.

"Casper-roooo, Casper-roooo," someone wailed from the other side of the room. "Yeah, yeah, Casper-roooo. "

"Can you believe how that horse backed up on me? " Handleman said.

"Who'd you have? " Ray Tanahill asked from a nearby seat.

"Honest Colors. "

Tanahill glanced down at the Racing Form.

"That horse had no shot at all," he said. "I would have booked that bet. "

Handleman glared briefly, then went back to his papers.

"We've got to find a bomb," he said.

FORTY YEARS AGO, HORSE racing was the No. 1 spectator sport in the United States. That was back when professional football and basketball were still viewed as grimy industrial-league careers for former college players and ex-servicemen. There were only 16 major league baseball teams and six National Hockey League teams.

Somewhere along the way, though, everything changed for horse racing. It was overwhelmed by the shrewd marketing of other sports and it receded into a small, somewhat disreputable corner of the sports calendar, emerging from obscurity just three times a year for the Triple Crown races.

To offset falling attendance, tracks lengthened their meets and brought in simulcasted racing from other tracks, so betting could continue even when there were no animals within miles.

"We've got to get together and market the sport better. We've got to get people back at the track," says Schwartz, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority official. "People say, 'I can't believe there's only 5,000 people at Aqueduct.' With how things have been done, they should say, 'I can't believe 5,000 actually showed up at Aqueduct.' "

Lower attendance has generally meant smaller purses, cheaper horses, more bad racing, and a dwindling number of die-hard handicapping purists like those who hunkered down behind the tournament tables at the Sands.

"Look at Las Vegas. We've had to market to get people to come here," says Gregorka, the Sands race and sports book operator. "We do anything to get you in the place. Horse racing has to do the same thing. " The reason football, baseball, basketball and other sports wagering "has gotten so big is that half the people win every bet. You always have a 50-50 shot, whether you pick your nose or use a dart. Horse racing needs to have more winners. "

Even the last of the red-hot horse players admit the game is dying. They see a day when simulcasting will kill all but a handful of major tracks and when scores of owners and trainers will be leaving the business with their pockets turned out.

"You've got to get all these racetrack owners in one room and kick their butts," said Levine. "Say, 'Look, you schmucks. If you don't start working together like the NFL and the NBA, you might as well just close it down and go home. Because you got nothing.' The player is the backbone of the whole industry, and they never do nothing for the player. "

And then he turned back to the Las Vegas room where television screens brought the flickering images of racing horses from seven tracks and three time zones, and to the roomful of men who happily bet their lungs on the beasts.

THE BOMBS STARTED DROPPING with regularity on the second day of the tournament, but they kept missing Handleman and Filoso.

On a wet but fast Hawthorne track, Chuck Berger, the pro from El Paso, picked out a horse in the sixth race called Try Magic, with odds of 68-1.

"The grandsire of this horse was Crimson Satan, and that horse loved to run in the slop," Berger said. "All these guys with their breeding books, they don't have Crimson Satan in there, because he's dead. "

Try Magic broke out of the 11th post position, took the lead and wired the field in the six-furlong race, beating the favorite by three lengths as Berger snapped his fingers and screamed, "That's me! 68-1! That's me! 68-1! "

A small round of applause broke out for Chuck's score, which paid $139 to win, but none from the table where Handleman and Filoso sat. They were concerned instead with an Aqueduct race and the chances that a 21-1 shot named Devon's Tune would beat a prohibitive 4-5 favorite named Then Some.

"I think we have to take the shot," Filoso said. "What do you have qualms about? "

"The 4-5 shot. I think he's the best horse. "

"I've seen him get beaten. "

"We've got to take the shot. We're not going to get eight better plays than that today. "

The selection was agreed on, but Then Some went to the front at the start and easily pulled away from the field.

"Why are they letting him get the lead like that? They're going to let him get away," Filoso said.

The race was never close, with Then Some winning by four lengths. Devon's Tune finished third. There was silence for a minute between Handleman and Filoso and then the page of the Racing Form was turned. Handleman jabbed a finger at the page.

"What do you think about that?" he said.

By the end of the day, which didn't arrive until Bay Meadows and Hollywood closed down at about 11 p.m., there were craters throughout the ballroom from the falling bombs.

Chuck Berger was near the top of the standings entering the final day, as was a former New Yorker named Richie Stiles who landed a couple of small bombs and was sitting within a big score of the lead.

"We're getting killed," Handleman said.

"We're looking at this as a learning experience, to see if we want to come back again," said Filoso. "If a guy picks two or three big longshots, he's going to get lucky and win the whole thing. An 80-year-old lady can do that playing names she likes. "

PERHAPS IT WAS NO SOLACE to them, but the kings of New Jersey didn't come within just one sad nag of being recrowned on the glittering desert of Nevada.

That happened to Berger, however, who had his money on a 30-1 horse named Good Friday Forbes at Hawthorne. Forbes moved from eighth to third at the top of the stretch and was driving toward the lead when something snapped in his left foreleg and he tumbled forward and flipped over on jockey David Gall. The difference between the bone breaking right then or holding up for another 200 yards might have been about $20,000 for Berger, who finished third in the contest.

"You know, if you let it, this stuff will drive you loony," Berger said.

Fortune instead smiled on Stiles, who used to hang around Roosevelt Raceway as a kid just to be near horses. Now he lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., and is in the mail-order business, but for at least one day in December, he was the Smartest Horse Race Guy in the World. Stiles picked out a 42-1 shot at the Fair Grounds named Blakearama, and that was his ticket to first place.

"It was one of those deals where the race starts and your horse drops out of the picture," Stiles said. "Two horses pulled away and they're opened up to like 10 lengths. I'm thinking, 'What am I doing here?' Then, it's like the Red Sea. The horses part and this thing comes flying through. I said, 'Thank you, God.' "

Later, the Sands tables were carried out of the ballroom and all the televisions and sound equipment went back into storage until the next tournament.

"We don't make as much money on these things as we used to," said Levine. "We used to get 400 or 500 entrants. But money is tighter now. And people don't come back because this is a tough game. It's hard to do well. It's hard to pick winners. Trust me. "

At the Las Vegas airport, Handleman slumped into a chair near his departure gate and waited to leave town. He and Louie finished in 108th place.

"I had no expectations coming in," Handleman said, "and even those weren't fulfilled."