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.