On the third floor of the Arlington Park grandstand M. Scott McMannis, the dean of Chicago handicappers, is teaching Warren Weaver, former hunch bettor, how to play the races like a pro.
McMannis, who's known around the track as "the Professor," ditched his job as associate dean of lifelong learning at Harper College in 1979 so he could gamble full-time. It's worked out.
McMannis approached horse racing as an academic discipline. He read the current literature--Picking Winners, Winning at the Races: Computer Dis-coveries in Thoroughbred Handicapping--then began computing speed figures, which allowed him to compare horses running different races. In his first season at Sportsman's Park he started out betting $20 a race. By the end of the season he could afford to bet $200.
Two years into his new career McMannis hit Arlington's twin trifecta, an almost impossible bet that requires gamblers to pick the top three finishers in two separate races. It paid $81,000. He handed his wife a paper bag containing some of his winnings and told her, "Pay off the mortgage."
But McMannis, who'd also taught business administration, still considered himself a teacher, and handicapping seemed like a natural adult-education subject, since you have to be 17 to make a bet. He organized seminars at a Howard Johnson's across the street from Arlington, charging ten bucks a head. Then the track invited him inside, building him a "Handicapping Center" with 190 seats and overhead projectors. But Arlington burned down in 1987 and was rebuilt without a classroom. These days at the track, McMannis is teaching a class of one.
"I used to rely on tips," says Weaver, a 69-year-old retired City Hall employee. "Once I met a guy at bingo who said he won $500 or $600 at the track all the time. Then we went to the track together, and he told me, this horse in the second race. The horse broke down in the stretch. There went my money. There went my hopes. Last summer I hung around the paddock at Arlington and relied on trainers for tips. But the best guy I knew was the shoe-shine guy, Big Red. He knew everybody. I was winning some money, but it was costing me too much, 'cause I'd have to pay for his bets. I figured there had to be a better way."
A friend told him about "M. Scott McMannis's Speed and Trip Service," a weekly newsletter in which the Professor publishes his speed figures. Weaver subscribed, and this past spring he attended a handicapping class McMannis taught at Hawthorne Race Course. There he learned to apply the numbers.
"The first night I did it," he says, "it took me eight hours and I got two headaches. But sonofabitch, I had a field day. I won three or four hundred dollars! It really paid off, but I couldn't do that every day. It's too hard on my physical being."
McMannis won't let him off that easy. One Saturday afternoon earlier this month Weaver trundled onto the third floor just before the first race, carrying a folder full of papers and a bag of trail mix. McMannis was already there, seated in a chair under the television screens so he could take notes on the races. He stared at Weaver over the top of his reading glasses. "Warren, did you do your homework?"
"I've done three horses in the first race."
"Three horses!" McMannis cried, feigning shock. "What are you even doing here?"
Weaver bent over his program, frantically handicapping the race before the bugler heralded the horses' arrival on the track. "I don't have time to do this at home," he grumbled. "I got eight kids. Two are still at home, and the rest are a phone call away. I'd rather take a beating than do this stuff. I hate it. It's not for me."
But he finished. Then he ran off to bet on Golden Prophecy, who looked like a good thing at three to one. The horse finished third.
McMannis had refrained from betting the race. "It was too close," he told Weaver afterward. "All the horses' speed figures were about the same."
McMannis refrains from betting most races. He has what's called a bubble gum ass: he can remain stuck to his seat through a nine-race card. A successful stock-market player, he applies risk-reward ratios when investing in the fortunes of a horse: the payoff for a win has to justify a possible loss. He won't bet a horse unless its odds are at least two to one. One spring at Sportsman's he went 15 days without a wager. "And then on the 16th day I bet a horse," he says, "and he won."
Emulating his mentor's self-discipline was giving Weaver another headache, since he's the impulsive type. "When I was younger I wanted to marry every woman I went out with," he says. (He eventually married three of them.) At the supermarket one day the snack shelves caught his eye, so he bought just about everything on them. For the next two weeks McMannis, his wife, and anyone else who came to the third floor were plied with Nutter Butters and Cocoa Puffs cereal bars.
"One of the first things Scott noticed about me was I bet every race," Weaver says. "I'd get up, and he'd say, 'Where you going?' I'd say, 'To bet.' He'd say, 'You want the number to Gamblers Anonymous? You can't do that and win money at the racetrack.'"
But just before the third race that Saturday, Weaver popped out of his seat. He had to bet the trifecta. He'd gotten a tip from his friend Babe, proprietor of Babe's on Milwaukee, a Jefferson Park tavern. "When Babe comes to the track he comes to win," Weaver said. He spent $12 to "box" Babe's three horses--bet them to finish 1-2-3 in any order.
Babe's trifecta paid $21.80, one of the smallest trifecta prices anyone on the third floor could remember. In the very next race the winning horse paid $45.80 all by herself.
McMannis was disappointed in his student. "Warren, you better go cash that ticket before they run out of money," he said. "You know, the objective of this game is to make a little money do a lot of work, not the other way around."
The rest of the afternoon Weaver sweated over that day's racing form. McMannis was already handicapping Sunday's races.
"Let me copy your charts," Weaver said. "I gotta spend time with my family."
McMannis waved his sheaf of papers. "You know when I did this?" he said. "Today. You're not with your family when you're at the track."
"I just hope Scott will be friendly with me," Weaver muttered. "Just give me the number--sign language, anything. I'm 69 years old. It's all I can do to be out here every day. I have trouble walking. I got pains in my knees!"
On Sunday teacher and pupil met at the track an hour before post time. McMannis patiently went over the races and the horses' speed figures. In the fourth race Weaver was sold on a horse named Doughty. McMannis showed him that Sweet Baby Jane had much better numbers. Sweet Baby Jane won, but she'd left the gate at odds of four to five--not worth betting on. Weaver hadn't bet--he was making progress.
By the middle of the next week Weaver still hadn't hit a big winner. He was getting antsy. A horse named Double Audit was going to win the eighth, and everyone knew it. The odds were three to five. The only way to make money off the race was to play Double Audit in an exacta--picking the first and second finishers--but the rest of the field looked evenly matched. It was impossible to find a second-place horse.
"When you've got three horses who look like they can finish second," McMannis asked, "what do you do?"
"Bet a $10 exacta," Weaver blurted out.
"It's like he didn't hear the question," McMannis said to no one in particular.
McMannis rose to bet the daily double: Double Audit in the eighth with Mount Kilimanjaro, a good-looking long shot, in the ninth.
"Oh, you're gonna bet though!" Weaver roared. "Do as I say, not as I do."
Weaver hustled after McMannis. He bet $5 to win and $5 to place on Double Audit, and he bet a $2 exacta, wagering that Double Audit would finish first and a horse named Anyplace Anytime would finish second.
Double Audit won, paying $3.40 to win and $2.20 to place. But Anyplace Anytime finished third. The exacta bet was lost.
"I wanna see if you break even on this," McMannis said.
Weaver had wagered $12. He got back $14. "It wasn't a total loss," he said, shrugging.
Twenty-five minutes later he got to feel smarter than the teacher. In the ninth race Mount Kilimanjaro finished last, flushing McMannis's daily-double bet down the drain.
The next day they finally cashed in. Together. In the ninth race McMannis loved King of Chicago. Weaver had done his homework, and he too had seen that King of Chicago had the fastest speed figures. The horse's odds were five to two, so with three minutes to post time, they rose in tandem and stumped off to the betting machines, where they punched in the same number. On a closed-circuit monitor they watched King of Chicago sprint furiously down the stretch and win by two lengths. Satisfaction glittered in McMannis's eyes. Weaver stood openmouthed with exhilaration.
"There you go, Warren," McMannis said. "You got your winner. You didn't bet a lot of goofy exactas and trifectas, did you?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andre Jackson.