Horse sense

From his perch in the seventh-floor press box at Lone Star Park, Chuck Badone watches through binoculars as the fifth race unfolds with disastrous results. The number-eight horse, with the frighteningly prophetic name Bush Won, crosses the finish line well ahead of the rest of the pack, and Badone, for a moment, loses his cool as the 30-1 longshot heads toward the winner's circle, leaving the favorites so far back in the pack, they might as well have stayed in the gate.

"That horse wasn't supposed to win," sneers the Lone Star Park handicapper, the man who is supposed to know such things. "It's only raced on turf once before, and then it finished last. That just wasn't supposed to happen. It wasn't 30-1 for no reason."

But it did happen, and someone in the stands below--someone feeling lucky or frisky, someone betting two bucks on a longshot for the get-rich-quick hell of it--came away with a little more scratch than before the race started. And Badone, a man who has made a living telling other people how to bet for more than two decades, lost his few dollars by betting his instincts, his knowledge, by placing his years of experience on the line.

And when he loses, which he does more often than he wins, he will always evoke an old saying around the track: Turn the page. Which means: Move on to the next race and don't look back.

There is no sure thing at the track, no guaranteed winner, despite what the morning line says. Betting on Badone--whose well-considered information fills the pages of Lone Star Today, the track's daily tip-sheet tabloid--will not make you rich. He may well be the most informed man at the track, but he will not put money in your wallet every time you step to the window.

Badone tells you up front, in his friendly Yankee twang, that he is right less than half the time, that his is a profession based more on failure than on success. The 58-year-old former high school baseball coach explains that he's like a major-leaguer who hits .300 at the end of a season and celebrates the fact that he got a hit once every three times at the plate instead of getting out the other two times. Being a good handicapper means you just fail less often than the other guys, that's all.

For the better part of 24 years, Badone has spent every single morning trying to figure out just who in the hell might win every single race being run at his track that day. He pores over the Daily Racing Form and analyzes every last symbol and stat, rendering the vague minutiae--from the jockey riding the horse to the conditions of the track to the distance of the race to fractional times, past performances, class, and so on--into the stuff of easy-to-understand prose.

He has two hours every day to come up with the odds, to provide capsule histories of past successes and failures, and to write a few sentences explaining why he chose one horse over another in any given race. In a matter of minutes, he must evaluate more than 100 horses and put his own ass on the morning line, hoping his self-proclaimed "generalizations" offer more hope than despair.

"It's not easy," he says, laughing at the understatement. "But I can take a quick look and know what I want to say. The first thing you try to do when you make your comment is try to pick out the one most important thing about that horse. He might not have run in six months, so that's the first thing you're going to say; everything else is irrelevant. He may have dropped down in class. Or whatever."

In reading his picks for April 30, one discovers that Badone is opinionated: Of Thats My Lady, which ran in the first race, Badone wrote, "Has no credentials at all for this," and he placed the morning line at 20 to 1. (The horse finished eighth.) He is cautious: "Guessing game," he wrote of Maidenofthedesert, "but will probably pass." (Good thing: It finished eighth in the second race.) He is right: "She deserves consideration," he wrote of Coffee Ridge, which finished first in the fifth. He is also wrong: "It's hard to get excited" about Goshen Connection, which won the ninth.

No matter the results, Badone is the most informed man at the track, and more likely to win than you are.

There is no exact science to handicapping a horse race, no hit-or-miss formula for success. After all, you are betting on a myriad of variables--as in, how well did a horse do in its last race, and why?--but there is one thing that's certain: A horse is a big, dumb animal. It does not care how much money's at stake each time the bell rings and the gate opens; it does not know the odds; it does not know the mathematical formula that predicts which animal is supposed to win or lose. You can lead a horse to the track, but you can't make him win, and Badone may well have his job down to a science, but in the end, luck cashes a ticket more often than skill.  

"I wish it would be more exact so I could cash more tickets," Badone says with a slight smile. "But the challenge is trying to be as accurate as you can be as often as you can be. You obviously know you're not going to be right all the time--I'm not even right half the time--but if you're more right than anybody else most of the time, that kinda gives you satisfaction. I'm probably more right than the average person most of the time, but this is my job. This is my profession."

The way Badone tells it, he has been around gamblers all his life, ever since he was a child in small-town western Massachusetts. He had two uncles who were heavy horse players and Vegas men; they were "high-rollers," Badone says, men willing to bet the long green on anything that moved. To a 6-year-old kid, there was nothing more romantic than the thrill of the high-stakes risk.

He placed his first bet when he was 17 years old and attended the Northampton Fair in Massachusetts, which ran horses only during Labor Day week. He doesn't remember now whether he won or lost his mother's five bucks--it doesn't matter anyway. It wasn't about the money...well, not really. For Badone, the turn-on of the track was not in collecting the bet but in placing it. It was about figuring out how to read the racing form, how to turn a mountain of statistics into a pile of cash.

"I was intrigued by the handicapping of the race and then watching it unfold," he says. "Someone showed me how to look at the Racing Form, and that's what fascinated me immediately, to look at the form and decide who I wanted to play. I picked the horse and played him, and I think he won. I don't even remember, but all I wanted to do was play the next race."

He didn't become a hardcore race fan till after college. He landed a job at a private school in Massachusetts, where he became a hockey and baseball coach, having graduated with his bachelor's degree and master's in physical education. He was turned on to the sport by the athletic director, his roommate at the time and a fanatic who kept old scratch sheets piled up around his room. Badone's hobby quickly became his obsession. "To me, it was the greatest escape in the world," he recalls.

Badone's first job in horse racing came when he was hired in 1974 to do public relations for Turf Paradise in Phoenix, where horses raced during the winter. The job was a logical step for Badone, who had minored in broadcasting and had done some radio play-by-play. Not long after that, he convinced some community colleges in the Phoenix area to let him teach adult-education courses in handicapping. One of his students back then was a kid from Arizona State University named Corey Johnson, who went on to become general manager at Lone Star Park.

Badone also convinced Turf Paradise management that first-time race-goers needed help to compete against the experts. And everyone's an expert at the track--the old-timers scratching out the odds as their two-inch-long cigarette ash drops to the floor, and newcomers who fumble with the lingo as they bet their two bucks. He was the first handicapper in the country to offer fan-education classes, which he still teaches today at Lone Star Park, every Thursday and Friday at 5:40 p.m. and every Saturday and Sunday at 12:40 p.m. during the season.

When he first began offering his handicapping classes at Turf Paradise (and at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, where he worked during the summer), Badone was adored by the freshman fans and despised by the owners and trainers, who complained that his free information was screwing up the odds. After all, what the hell did he know about their horses? Even some hardcore race fans and bettors were skeptical and derisive.

"Some of the trainers took exception to the fact the track was sponsoring someone to come out there and give handicapping selections," Badone says. "It was unheard of. But the biggest problem with trainers was, anything you say about their horse, to them they construe it as a negative comment about them. This is a slap in their face, which isn't the case. Their horse may just not be in good form." Of course, that didn't stop the jockeys from listening in on his seminars and often planning their racing strategies based on his evaluations and information.  

In the late 1970s, Badone wrote two books on handicapping for small publishers (Secrets of a Successful Race Handicapper and Class in Thoroughbred Racing and How to Find It), both of which are going to be revised and reissued by Lone Star Park and sold at the track. He alternated between Turf Paradise in the winter and Monmouth Park in the summer until 1989, when he quit the racing life for about seven months and did PR for a minor-league hockey team in Phoenix. He still offered his picks for the Arizona Republic and a start-up paper trying to compete with the Daily Racing Form. He then relocated to Vegas to write a column for another small tabloid before moving to Remington Park in Oklahoma City, where Corey Johnson was general manager.

He landed back in Phoenix in 1993, when the Daily Racing Form moved from California to Arizona, taking a job there as a handicapper and columnist. But Badone didn't like the gig--never got to the track and wasn't teaching--and he was thrilled to make the move to Lone Star Park when Johnson offered him the "perfect opportunity," the chance to educate a virgin horse-racing market.

Still, after all these years, Badone has discovered you can't teach someone how to bet--you either understand the logic of the racing form, or you get destroyed by its mathematical details. The racing form itself contains more than 30 different variables about each horse running in each race, from the horse's trainer to its lineage to its results in recent races to its times in workouts. Each horse's line contains a series of symbols and numbers and abbreviations almost unchanged since the Daily Racing Form first began publication in 1894.

To a novice (and Badone has taught thousands here alone), the form is confusing, convoluted, intimidating. But to a veteran handicapper, it reveals the world. The only way to understand the line is to live and die at the track every single day, to win and lose so often, you can spot a winner as he enters the gate and leave the losers to the chumps who think there is such a thing as a sure thing.

It's perhaps most appropriate that Badone begins each class by telling his students that betting is about discipline first and foremost, about betting your brain instead of your gut. Badone does bet every single night, but he has to--it's how he stays interested, sharp. He bets on his own picks "almost always"--to do otherwise would be like asking others to eat a steak you made but wouldn't dare touch.

And the fact is, Badone would prefer that next time you go to the track, you don't spend all your money betting alongside him at the window. Study your own form, pick your own horses, become your own handicapper. "Otherwise, it's all about gambling, and then it's no longer a sport," he says.

Sometimes, he wins what he hoped to win. Other times, he loses more than he expected to. Even now, Badone still wrestles with betting carefully, with discretion and discipline instead of blind passion.

"I've never economically hurt myself or my family," he says. "I've never lost money meant to pay a bill, but I'm still wrestling with discipline. I've always done this as a hobby. It's never been a money-making situation. I enjoy it. I like the action. But I never told the kids they couldn't have shoes this week because the eight horse ran fourth."

And that, ultimately, is the sign of a good handicapper.

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