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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."