Fiction

Computer Handicapping: Three Men and a Tourney
by Joe Mainardi

This is not a true story! This piece of fiction explores what could happen at a handicapping tournament.

I'd like to tell you about three men I met at the recently concluded Universal Thoroughbred Handicapping Tournament in Las Vegas.

Manuel Anicapar is a pleasant older man from the L.A. suburbs. If you've ever been to Santa Anita, you'd know him. He's always wearing his bright yellow Santa Anita windbreaker, and his neon pink Hollywood Park baseball cap. He seems to know everything there is to know about every horse on the Southern California circuit, and will tell you whatever you want to know. He's proud of the fact that he's never used a computer -- "it's all under this cap, you know" -- and is isn't shy about saying so! This is his tenth try at the tournament scene, which is bankrolled as a result of being DQ'd into a $11,000 pick-six winner some years back.

Chip Haker is a stock broker from Rhode Island, who spends whatever spare time he has writing his own handicapping program. If the money wasn't so good in stocks -- he's only 27, but he's got some big money accounts -- he'd probably give it a go as a programmer or a full-time handicapper. Chip has been to a few tournaments before, but this is first try with his program.

Dan Lodor is just a good ol' boy from Dallas, who makes a living as a high school janitor. . . a job he started the day after he graduated from the same high school. He's been at it for nearly 30 years, and his 5 AM to 1:30 PM work schedule gives him plenty of time to get to Lone Star for live or simulcast wagering. He bought a program that can download race data from a service, and he doesn't mind paying the money. . . he's too busy having fun to spend time typing in numbers.

I picked them up at the airport, as I was serving as the promotions director and hospitality crew for the tourney. I asked them about doing a story on each of them. The offer of free rooms during the tourney clinched the deal. Here's how things unfolded.

On Tuesday night, we all sat down to dinner. . . but not before Manuel and Chip went to the tournament booth to get copies of the forms they would need -- Del Mar, Saratoga, Monmouth, Arlington, Louisiana Downs and Emerald Downs -- to get a head start on handicapping. Dan just sat there and ordered a shot and a beer. He turned to me and said "Those boys are nutty, ya know. They should just sit 'round a relax a bit. Ya know, take in some sights, drink a few brews, and use their tahm wisely."

Since I didn't know what he meant, I asked him what his plan was. He leaned forward in his seat -- as if he were going to divulge top secret information -- and said "Boy, ya got ta take full 'vantage of whut's 'vailable. I use this here com-puter program that. . ."

Before I could get more info from him, Chip and Manuel came back. The waitress took our order, and Manuel went into full flight! He had a Hollywood Park tote bag full of pens, highlighters, papers, notes. . . even scissors and a stapler. He immediately cut out the pages of each of the six tracks, and stapled them neatly. He looked ready to roll!

His philosophy was that he would play six races from Del Mar, and four races from the other five tracks. He said that he had tried to play at least one race from every track in past tournaments, but was uncomfortable away from Southern California racing. He immediately went to work on the Saratoga form, which virtually eliminated him from dinner conversation. He was so intense, he missed his mouth with a fork full of salad. Luckily his windbreaker was food-proof.

Meanwhile, Chip was scanning the East Coast forms. He was simultaneously crossing out the races he felt were unplayable, and tapping the keys on his notebook computer when a race didn't fit nicely into his "playable versus unplayable" categories.

During the entire meal, Dan simply ate, drank and was merry. He picked up Manuel's form "left-overs" and read the articles. At one point he spouted these words of wisdom: "Ah cain't b'lieve whut I read about live racin' dryin' up all over th' place, and we got us tha-ree great tracks down in Texas! We'll have the best racin' in the world in five years, an' y'all hafta come down tuh see me for the really good racin'!!!"

(Chip and Manuel were so immersed in their handicapping, that they didn't even defend their circuits -- New York and SoCal, respectively -- against this brash Texan's talk. Maybe they were busy. . . or maybe they though he was right.)

After dinner, Dan said he was going to a bar, and wanted to know who wanted to tag along. I couldn't pass up this chance, and Chip said he could go for a little while, but Manuel just muttered something about "those damn breezing workouts in New York" and sort of excused himself.

Two hours in the lounge, listening to bad music from groups masquerading as musicians, was too much for Chip. He excused himself, so he could get started on the East Coast form. It was 10 o'clock.

Dan was in no mood to turn in, so I bravely asked what was next. He blurted out three simple words. Bimbos On Ice, and we were off to a less than attractive club on the edge of town. After almost two hours of bumps and grinds, the show mercifully came to an end. Dan was "a hootin' an' a hollerin'" throughout the show, but was otherwise no menace to society. As a matter of fact, a few of the "skaters" actually took somewhat of a "hankerin'" to him. Really! After getting to bed around half past midnight, I figured I could easily survive on six hours sleep, and still be able to greet the rest of the players at 9 AM. That's what coffee is for, you know.

Manuel was one of the first people I saw on Wednesday morning. We sat down to breakfast at 7 AM, and he was right back at work with a form. He looked tired, as the bags under his eyes looked bigger than the night before. He groaned about the fact that the Saratoga and Arlington races were tough to handicap, but he could tell more when the scratches came in. He immediately went to work on the Monmouth form. Chip found us around 7:30 and he looked pleased with himself. He was in bed before 1 AM -- early, by his standards -- and figured he had three or four good races picked out. To everyone's surprise, Dan came strolling in just before eight, with a Cheshire cat grin. He ordered a Bloody Mary and a breakfast ensemble that would explode most men.

The announcement that the Saratoga and Monmouth scratches were in was the unofficial start of the tourney. The experience of seeing a room full of people hanging on every word, groaning at every overweight, jockey change and late scratch is a sight that would have made Alfred Hitchcock or Rod Serling beam with demented joy.

Chip and Manuel had to leave the table, as Dan was a tad too boisterous for their taste. They weren't mad, mind you, but just two of Pavlov's dogs -- salivating when a late scratch was announced. Dan was totally unfazed by all of this commotion. My watch blinked 8:11. I could stand it no more! I asked what his big secret was. He laughed so hard I thought he was going to need medical attention. He said, "Son, this here program reads files full of past 'formances from wherever I want. An' it's fast, too! Just watch and learn."

Well, I learned something all right. Dan was not the most brilliant guy at the tournament, but he may have been the smartest. His notebook computer had ALL the races for ALL six tracks loaded on it. He downloaded from a service while he was getting ready in the morning.

While everybody else was scurrying around, re-handicapping races, Dan simply waited until the service loaded the scratches in the files, and had them sent directly to his computer. He said it was cheap at $10 a track -- I didn't agree, I thought he should have gotten a volume discount -- and he was ready to "kick some bee-hind" as he put it.

Dan and I walked out to his seat, and I left him to his work. I found Manuel right next to a bank of big screen TV's, his face buried in the Monmouth form. Once again, he was muttering to himself. It turned out that one late scratch changed his outlook on a race he liked last night. I saw his Saratoga form in a crumpled heap under his desk. When I asked him about it, he said something in his native tongue -- uncomplimentary, I'm sure -- and asked me politely to leave him alone for a while.

Finding Chip was a little tougher. His notebook required an electrical outlet, as his battery would not last for eight hours. Consequently, he was plugged in to an "extra" wall socket in the far corner of the tournament room. He escaped the wrath of the racing gods -- none of the changes on the East Coast affected his picks -- and he had put the finishing touches on Arlington and Louisiana Downs.

Then the room fell silent again! The dreaded Arlington and Louisiana Downs scratches and changes were being announced. The tone set during the East Coast scratches was replaced by profanities tossed about like condoms at a presidential convention. It was 9:30, and only 30 minutes to first post at Saratoga and Monmouth.

I looked for Dan, but his seat was empty. I found him in line making his first wager, or so I thought. He was busy trying to make a date with Brenda, a cute little ticket seller from New Mexico. . . it said so on her name badge. She politely refused, and Dan came back with a big smile on his face. "She's a cutie, ain't she. An' she says she cain't go out with customers, but she'll be at a place called 'The Palace' after 9 tonight." This guy's really having a great time. When does he plan on doing some handicapping?

So, I asked him. He said he was done handicapping all but Del Mar and Emerald Downs. When I realized he had done all this in less than two hours, I had to sit down and watch him work. By his own admission, he wasn't doing much. He was just running the races through his program, answering about a dozen questions per race, and getting printouts -- he had a portable printer, too. I told him that I thought he had done some work beforehand, so he set out to prove me wrong.

I put my stop watch on him. Even with his rambling on instead of paying attention to his program, he polished off the Del Mar card in less than 30 minutes and came up with two races to bet. He then turned around and knocked out the Emerald Downs card in just a tad over 30 minutes, with three races to bet on. All he had to do know was choose his ten best plays for the day and bet them. It was now 11 o'clock.

Poor Manuel! He was just about at wit's end when I found him. He was now using more of his foreign tongue -- English was rapidly becoming his second language -- and occasionally the name of a jockey or trainer popped up. He told me that it had started raining in Chicago, and he basically wasted two hours on that form. His selection in his only race at Saratoga came up on the short end of a photo, and he already looked done for the day.

As noon approached, I found Chip staring at his computer screen with a steely eyed look that would melt a diamond. His program had locked up, and he was furiously working to fix it. Just as I was about to walk away from this keyboard artist, he shouted a loud "YES!" and was ready for the West Coast tracks.

I went looking for Dan, but he was nowhere to be found. Where has this over-grown teen-ager gone now?

You couldn't always see Dan, but you had to be deaf not to hear him. He was on his way back from his room, where he had already downloaded all six cards for Thursday, without the scratches and changes. He told me he was bored, and wanted to get tomorrow's races out of the way early, so he could sleep in late. "Smarter than the average bear," I thought to myself.

The rest of the day played out like this. Manuel finally finished his West Coast handicapping around 3:30, which is dangerously close to the end of the day. He vowed to get serious, and be really ready for Thursday. Chip was done handicapping around 2:30, and had time to relax before the end of Del Mar. Dan finished handicapping Thursday's races around 5 o'clock, and he figured he could make changes in the morning.

We all got together for dinner around 7 o'clock, and Manuel was glued to the Monmouth form. He didn't even look at the Saratoga form. Chip did some form scanning, and Dan did some drinking. After an uneventful meal, Chip and Manuel headed to their rooms for some intense handicapping, fully unaware that Dan was already done for the night (in more ways than one, I suppose). He played craps, dragged me to the "Sigfried and Roy" show, then sat me down at the $10 black jack table and told me to loosen up. Dan was about as loose and lubricated as you can get. He finally wore himself out around midnight, and I was one happy camper.

Before I go on, let me just say that Dan is not a bad guy, he just enjoys the free time his handicapping program gives him. I personally would spend the extra time getting in nine holes. But, what he's doing certainly beats falling asleep in your form!

Thursday's breakfast was a sharp contrast in styles. Manuel arrived first, around 7:15, and looked dead tired. He said he fell asleep in a chair sometime after 2 AM. He said he decided to skip Arlington, based on the heavy rains on Wednesday. I'm guessing that he passed out in the middle of the Arlington form, and decided to blow off the entire card. He was going over the Louisiana Downs form when Chip arrived.

Chip looked a little better. That's because he decided to go non-stop until he got four tracks done. He said he finished around midnight, but when he slipped up and said he tried to order room service after they were closed, I knew that he was up well past 1 AM. All he had left were the West Coast tracks. The 8 o'clock announcement for changes and scratches at Saratoga and Monmouth sent Manuel and Chip into full flight for their tournament seats.

Dan didn't show up for breakfast until almost 8:30 -- I was about to join the players -- and he apologized for being late. He said it took him more than half an hour to make changes in his selections, after he called each of the tracks for their changes. He said he liked downloading the races with the scratches already made, but got bored sitting around yesterday. "He's already done for the day!" I thought in disbelief.

As you might expect, Thursday went much like Wednesday. Manuel found the Del Mar card pretty weak, so he had to handicap some of the later races at Saratoga and Arlington. Even with a reduced work load, he was still laboring over the Emerald Downs form at 3 o'clock. Chip was done around noon, and barely had enough time to join me for lunch. Not much was said until Dan joined us around 12:30.

He had just come back from a quick nine holes with a friend that lived in town. My kind of guy. When I asked him how could leave in the middle of the tournament, he said "Ah just didn't lahk anythin' early, so's I figger'd I'd get in some cow pasture pool with a pit boss friend a mine." He wolfed down a sandwich, and sprinted to the window to get in his first wager of the day.

The last race at Del Mar was official at 6:26, and the tournament was officially over. Many a good handicapper wandered out of the casino, knowing they didn't need to stay for the awards ceremony. Chip was one of them. We stood at the bar and talked for a while. He admitted that he was totally unprepared for this much action. He had used up most of his nine races per day before the California tracks even got started. He liked the action too much to stay away from the windows, at it cost him dearly. He showed me some printouts of picks at Del Mar and Emerald Downs, and probably would have done well enough in those races to have cashed. As he walked slowly away, he turned and said, "I'll be back for the next one." I have my doubts.

The "low cashing" scores were posted, and the remaining players walked by in a way that reminded me of the "bread line" images I have of the old Soviet Union. Every so often, someone would jump out of line a dance a little jig. . . the sign of someone going to the awards banquet. One guy slugged one of the boards -- he was politely escorted from the building -- after finding out he barely missed cashing in just about every category.

I finally spotted Manuel in line and walked with him. He managed a weak smile, and said that he was walking through the line as a ritual. Like all the other tournaments, he knew he didn't cash, but he never gave up hope. When he looked at the "most improved" category, he fainted straight away! The paramedics revived him with smelling salts, and let him stay in my care. I looked at the board, and there he was. . . fourth on the "most improved" list! Later he told me that he had no winners on Wednesday, and totally forgotten about winning anything. It was only $250, but it sure beat going home broke. I drove him to the airport, and wished him well. When I suggested we get together next time, he told me that he was staying in L.A., and that all he ever wanted to do was win something at one of these tournaments. . . his Holy Grail, if you will.

In all this commotion, I completely forgot about Dan! What happened to this wild fourtysomething Texan? I arrived at the banquet facility just before it started, and found Dan at the table reserved for the highest cashers. I was not at all surprised. "Hey, hey, over he'yar!" was his loud response to my thumbs up sign. How could I not sit down with him? I sat through every story he told about his adventures: the "date" with ticket seller Brenda from New Mexico, the $52.40 winner at Monmouth via DQ, the rotten luck of betting on the wrong number and losing a race he should have won, and on and on and on.

Dan didn't come in first place in any category, but he was second in overall winnings. . . good enough to get his picture taken.

Some of you may be wondering who won the top prize in this tournament. Well. . . you see, there was this big roller in town for the week. . . and some guy from Reno had to cancel. . . so the big roller's wife, a collector of ceramic horses, wanted to play. . . and she liked the skin tone of a 78 to 1 shot at Saratoga, and. . . you get the idea, don't you? Meet Glenda "Babs" Babceivski-Jackson, the 2000 Universal Thoroughbred Handicapping Challenge Champion.

We gotta change the rules to this tournament!!!