Len Ragozin, thoroughbred handicapper extraordinaire, hates to be interrupted when he is working. This puts him on a collision course with the horseplayers who trudge up to his cramped office on the fourth floor of an elevatorless building in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. While his visitors shoot the breeze in one of the office's two rooms, Ragozin sometimes retreats to the other. A lean, bookish figure in wire-rimmed glasses, he usually has barely settled in at his drafting table, an eye-shade on his head and a calculator at his fingertips, when somebody intrudes.
"Say, Len, I was wondering...."
"Knock!" screams Ragozin. "Don't sneak up on me like that!"
Ragozin's diligence is a fearsome thing, and it has helped lift him, at last, out of obscurity. For two lonely decades Ragozin, a Harvard graduate who estimates his IQ at somewhat more than 170, toiled in the certain, but largely unshared, knowledge that he was the king of the speed handicappers, a breed that tries to beat the horses without knowing a fetlock from a bag of oats. Ignoring conformation and backstretch gossip as well as such factors as breeding and the reputation of jockeys and trainers, speed handicappers rely instead on elaborate mathematical calculations known as "numbers." "figures" or, more formally, "speed ratings." They believe that their numbers, which are based on horses' past performances, accurately indicate what those horses will do when they race again. But while Ragozin knew his numbers were the best, he had trouble proving it.
As he tells it, he would make cool and brilliant calculations at sundown only to lose his shirt at daybreak. "Jitters at the ticket window," sighs Ragozin. More recently, he enjoyed some lucrative results by using his numbers as guidance in operating his own claiming stable, but the pressures of being a horse owner apparently got to him, too. At any rate, it is with ill-concealed relief that he has lately been phasing out the stable. "The figures can be perfect but they still have to be interpreted," Ragozin explains. "My style is to sweat out decisions. I just don't handle myself well at the track."
Maybe Ragozin doesn't do well at the track, but a couple of years ago he started supplying numbers to people who do. It was a masterstroke, and at 49 he now finds himself doing a thriving business advising horse owners and bettors. The nice part is that he doesn't have to bet or claim horses himself, or even go to the accursed track. He simply waits in his office as the customers climb the three flights to beg, borrow and buy his numbers.
The uses that Ragozin's followers find for his numbers vary. Dennis Heard, a bearded Brooklyn businessman, has taken Ragozin's cue and is using the numbers as the guiding factor in the operation of a stable he started in 1976. In his second year Heard finished 17th in the nation with $448,029 in purses, and he raves, "Len's figures are terrific. I wouldn't dream of buying horses without them." Another satisfied customer is Constantine Merjos, a onetime symphony bassoonist who uses Ragozin's figures in preparing a tout sheet he peddles at New York tracks under the name "The Beard." "Len's numbers are the best," Merjos gushes. "They're tremendous." And finally, the numbers have become golden to some two dozen horseplayers, who complain of being brazenly set upon at the track by other wagerers anxious to learn how Ragozin's customers are beting, and worse, of being robbed of their winnings on the way home. This makes them reluctant to be identified, but it also demonstrates, they say, how nicely they're doing. And one of them, a chain-smoking fellow named Lou, rhapsodizes, "There can't be any better numbers than Len's. He's the only person who could put out such numbers."
Ragozin readily concurs. Delighted that his speed ratings have won such enthusiastic, if belated, acceptance, he estimates that bettors using them wagered upward of $10 million last year. And he shows visitors tax receipts attesting to some huge scores, notably a $59,710 trifecta payoff on the now-infamous race last Sept. 23 at Belmont won by Leb�n, the 57-to-1 shot who apparently was not Leb�n at all. Ragozin's customers also have suffered some spectacular tap-outs, but Ragozin counters that Lockheed and Penn Central have lost more. "We do all right. What can I say?" he says. "In fact, we do better than all right."
That Ragozin manages to run any kind of a business out of his office is a wonder. The place is not only inconvenient but also hopelessly cluttered. It is piled high with Daily Racing Forms, overburdened with filing cabinets and littered with unwashed dishes. Over here is somebody's bundle of dirty laundry, over there is a lone sneaker pining for its mate. The place also bears the marks of Ragozin's penchant for puttering and tinkering. "I like to fix things," he says, which may or may not explain the lamp held together by a huge wad of Scotch tape. When Ragozin turns 50 in September, some well-wishers might be tempted to buy him a new lamp. Those who know him better will buy him more tape.
Then there are the bettors who congregate in the place. Drawn in large part from Manhattan haunts like the Chess & Checker Club, the Mayfair Bridge & Backgammon Club and other gaming parlors, Ragozin's customers sometimes seem more interested in swapping palindromes, puns and puzzles than in winning at the races. One insider insists that each of them secretly yearns to claim a horse named Vengeance that runs on the New York circuit. Then the new owner would have the satisfaction of climbing the steps to Ragozin's office, flinging open the door and announcing triumphantly, "Vengeance is mine!"