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Swimming With Sharks

A contest at Hawthorne brings in some stiff competition for Bob the Brain.

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Bob the Brain was looking for one more winner. The final race of the Hawthorne handicapping contest was five minutes away. The horses were already on the track, and the scoreboard told him he was $3 behind the leader. The winner would take home five grand.

Bob had been a professional gambler for 25 years, but he'd never needed a score this badly. He was nearing the end of what he called a "horrible" year at the track: he'd lost money over the summer at Arlington, so he was driving a cab to pay his rent and save up enough for a new stake.

He stared at the sheaf of papers in the crook of his arm. Then he craned at a TV screen displaying the odds. The best horse in the race was Ft. Mann. But Ft. Mann was the 2-1 favorite. If he liked Ft. Mann, and all the other gamblers liked Ft. Mann, he assumed the leader, Steven Walker, would also like Ft. Mann.

Walker, an environmental engineer from Lincoln, Nebraska, had won the first National Handicapping Championship, held in Las Vegas in 1999. This year he'd been flying all over the country, entering local tournaments to qualify for another trip to Vegas. Now he was at Hawthorne.

"Of all the people to be in this tournament, Steven Walker has to come qualify!" Bob had shouted from his table in the track's handicapping center when he heard. "My luck that Steven Walker has to come qualify!"

"Do you know who Steven Walker is?" a woman asked him.

"Who?"

She pointed at the man sitting next to Bob. So Bob the Brain and Steven Walker shook hands and shared a table for the rest of the day. But they never discussed the last race. This was poker.

The handicapping contest lasted three days in late November. Each day Bob and 150 other players bet an imaginary $4 in each of six races--$2 to win and $2 to place. At the end of the third day the player whose horses paid the most money would be the champ.

"For me to win the tournament," said Bob, describing how he picked his last horse of the contest, "I would have to come up with a horse other than the horse the person ahead of me picked. Since he's a good handicapper, I assume he took the best horse, Ft. Mann. I couldn't take Ft. Mann. That would be a terrible situation if we both took the same horse--the positions wouldn't change."

So Bob took the second-best horse and hoped that on this Sunday afternoon she would run the race of her life. "I put Glittering Racket on my ticket," he said, "and I prayed."

In his career as a gambler Bob Gardiner, who's 57, has accumulated enough nicknames to fill the chorus of Guys and Dolls. He's Bob the Brain because he carries notebooks full of statistics on horses. He's Bob the Plumber for his untucked shirts and sagging pants. He's Art Garfunkel for his wild, kinky russet hair. He's Crazy Bob because he stands on chairs to get a better view of race replays and talks about horses as passionately as Dick Vitale talks about basketball: "OK, that horse was late getting out of the gate--I figure it cost him a length and a half. That horse had to go wide around the turn--it cost him a length."

Bob grew up in Skokie, where he started betting on baseball games in high school. "I had a little bit of success in that," he says, "because even then I had a statistical bent." In the mid-60s he tried studying journalism at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. "I dropped out to join the revolution," he says. By the late 70s he was a regular at the tracks. "I suppose I went to the racetrack as a rejection of mainstream society."

In the 70s the only people who had speed figures--numerical ratings of a horse's races--were devoted gamblers who'd worked them out on paper. Bob worked out his own and says they were good enough to secure him a middle-class income at the track. Gambling suited him. He was mild tempered, so he didn't go into a self-pitying rage over losing a photo finish. And he wasn't terribly social, so he didn't allow chitchat to distract him from reading the racing form and studying the tote board.

"In a decent year I was able to make 30 to 60 thousand," he says. "I've never had a steady job. Back in the 90s I had a good streak of three or four years without having to do any outside work. But playing the horses is harder work than any work I know. It's a 70-hour-a-week job."

Bob's winning streak ended when "the information flow hit." In 1992 the Daily Racing Form began publishing speed figures with every horse's record, giving the masses information once monopolized by the studious elite. Around the same time riverboat casinos started opening, luring away gamblers who'd bet on cute names and lucky numbers. That meant less "dumb money" to drive up the odds on the real contenders. In addition, "full-card simulcasting," or broadcasting races around the country, was allowing well-capitalized, well-informed gamblers from New York and Las Vegas--smart money--to bet on Chicago races.

The competition became "sharks against sharks," says Bob. His edge began to disappear, and winning became "more difficult than it's ever been in the history of horse racing. I had OK years in '96 and '98. Since the new millennium I've been struggling to make money every year."

He canceled his health insurance, a big risk for a middle-aged man. He'd been living in Portage Park with his elderly father and taking care of him. But his father died in 1999, and Bob moved into a friend's apartment in Barrington. "He's good about the rent," Bob says. "He knows sometimes he has to wait until I make a score."

And a score was what he desperately wanted in the last-race showdown with Walker.

On the first day of the contest, a Friday, everyone had been searching for a long shot to lift himself out of the pack, but favorites won the first five races. The highest payoff was 9-5. The next race was looking equally worthless: Luga, a 4-5 shot, fought for the lead in the stretch. But then Quick to Fight, a 25-1 shot, ran past him.

"There's the bomber!" someone shouted, as Quick to Fight's payoffs flashed on the tote board. "Who had that one?"

"I got it!" said Bob, scurrying across the room, his papers cradled in his arm. He was headed for the scoreboard to see if anyone else had caught the long shot.

"How'd you get that horse?" someone asked.

"Two races ago he had trouble on the turn, dropping back from 7 lengths to 13 lengths behind," said Bob, who watches races as critically as Roger Ebert watches movies. "Then he made a very sharp move, gaining nine lengths into the wind. I actually thought Luga was the best horse in the race. But he was only 4-5, so I went with Quick to Fight. He was the best price in the race."

Quick to Fight was worth more than the first five winners combined. Cautious players who'd picked favorites all day had $33. Players who'd chased after long shots and caught Quick to Fight had $55. Quick to Fight paid $53.00 to win and $13.40 to place on the tote board, but the rules of the contest limited the winnings per race to $42 to prevent anyone from triumphing with a single lucky long shot.

Bob rushed home and handicapped until 4:30 in the morning. Saturday was just as good. In the sixth race he liked Glint Eastward, but so did a lot of other people at the track. Glint Eastward was a chintzy 4-1, which was OK if you were betting real money, but not OK if you were trying to win a handicapping contest. Bob went with his second choice, Stolen Honor. He won, at 20-1.

Unfortunately Walker had also picked Stolen Honor. Walker had been trailing badly on day one, but on day two he piled up a series of long shots and caught, then passed Bob.

On Sunday, Bob traded the lead with Walker all afternoon, never more than a few dollars ahead or behind. Finally his fate depended on a filly running well.

"Glittering Racket battled hard to get the lead," Bob recalled later. "She took a slight lead. Then who should come up the rail but Ft. Mann"--the horse he was sure Walker had picked. "Then Glittering Racket's jockey, Liz Morris--as if I was talking to her, the horse drifted in and cut off Ft. Mann. Ft. Mann went around and wore down Glittering Racket."

Glittering Racket finished second. Her $5.40 to place would be added to Bob's total, but it wasn't as much as Ft. Mann paid to win and place. Looking dejected, Bob went to the washroom. Then, as he walked back toward the scoreboard to wait for the judges to ink in the final scores, he spotted Walker standing in the doorway of the handicapping center.

"Who'd you have?" Bob asked.

"I took the entry," Walker said.

"The entry"--Rathleen and Di's Delight, running together as a single bet--had finished third and fifth. Walker had been shut out.

Bob took a victory lap around the handicapping center, repeatedly intercepted by applause and handshakes. The room was full of his kind of people--guys in baseball caps and slouchy jeans, single guys, guys who scribble notes on racing forms with stubby pencils, guys who stretch their unemployment checks to cover food, rent, and betting money. They knew Bob had given his life to the racetrack, and they were grateful to see one of their own win.

"If Bob ever gets a big bankroll again he'll be one of the best players out here," said a friend, adding that he admired Bob for his devotion to the science of handicapping and cherished him for his generosity in sharing good horses he'd uncovered.

Bob ended the weekend up eight grand--$5,000 for winning the contest and $3,000 for betting his own money on his choices. "It's not near the kind of money I need to do what I want to do," he said. "I'm not going to increase my bets a lot, but it's a nice way to give myself a boost after a horrible year."

This month Bob will fly to Las Vegas for the National Handicapping Championship at Bally's. The first prize is $100,000, but Bob thinks he's a "40-1 shot." Chicago has no winter racing, so he'll be betting on unfamiliar tracks. And he'll be competing against 250 or so of the best handicappers in North America. The top four finishers from every local tournament qualified. That means he'll be facing Steven Walker again.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.

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