Showdown in the Derby Press Box
The horse racing world lost three of its favorite turf-writing sons last year, Vic Ziegel of the New York Daily News, Bob Summers of the Buffalo News, and Bill Handleman of the Asbury Park Press. All three were wonderful characters, writers and reporters with an almost cockeyed passion for the game. Handleman, who died at 62 of kidney cancer, was an indispensable companion at the Kentucky Derby and other big races for those in the press box who never distinguished the difference between the business of their paying jobs and the pleasure of gambling during work hours.
Kentucky Confidential asked Tom Luicci, long-time sportswriter for the Newark Star-Ledger, to write a story about his great friend, Bill Handleman.
This is what you need to know about the late Bill Handleman to start: He was as good a handicapper as he was an accomplished newspaper columnist.
Handleman won the World Series of Handicapping in 1995 and the $100,000 first prize that went with it. The money was enough to get him through the rest of the summer at Monmouth Park.
The year before he passed away, the Asbury Park Press, the newspaper he worked at for nearly 30 years, nominated him for a Pulitzer Prize.
So you can understand this was a man with strong opinions.
Bettors tend to get a bit animated about horses they like, or don’t. Throw in a dash of passionate newspaper columnist, and it ratcheted up the obstinacy about 10 levels.
So it was that Kentucky Derby day late in the 1990s at the famed Row H in the old press box at Churchill Downs. This was years before the bells and whistles of the palatial new press box.
The old setup had a series of lettered rows with eight reporters on each side facing each other, separated by only a six-inch high divider. Row H’s reputation grew because of the eclectic collection of media types that tended to populate it every year: Wally Hall of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun (before he requested to be moved because he couldn’t get any work done), Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger, the late “Buffalo” Bob Summers of the Buffalo News, some guy from a paper in Oklahoma who worked the copy desk the other 51 weeks of the year (and once asked Izenberg for his autograph), Handleman and myself.
Bill and I were close friends, but that didn’t get in the way of a spirited debate about a particular race and which horse might win it.
Both of us were digging out of a hole, as usual, on this Derby day. I’m a big believer in the visual aspect of handicapping. Bill never put much stock in it.
On this day, during the post parade for the first race, I saw a first-time starter that stood out visually. The horse was 10-1, and when I returned to Row H to tell Bill what I’d seen he told me to forget about the horse.
“But he looks great, Bill,” I said.
The horse was owned by the late Roger King, the television and media mogul, who was also a big bettor at Monmouth Park. Bill knew Roger and his entourage, and they had told him that the horse was dead lame.
“He has a bad leg and a bunch of problems,” Handleman reported to me. “He’s not even going to make it around the racetrack. That comes straight from the owner.”
“I’m telling you, Bill, he really looks good,” I said.
Bill didn’t often lose his cool in public, but I clearly hit a raw nerve. Four straight days of getting pummeled at the windows probably had something to do with it.
“Am I not speaking English!? The horse is lame!” Handleman roared at me from five feet away, sending pages of the Daily Racing Form flying and drawing the attention of the entire press box.
I bet the horse anyway. He won.
Bill didn’t talk to me the rest of the day, and I said nothing to him, and the silence continued in the airport the next day when we flew home after the Derby to New Jersey together. Monday morning, Handleman called me.
“Remember that horse you bet?” Bill said. Of course I remembered, but I pretended not to.
“Which one?” I said.
“The one that won on Derby day; the one I told you was lame,” Handleman said.
“Yeah, I remember. What about it?” I said.
“Remember I told you there was something wrong with him?” Handleman said.
How could I forget? “So?” I said.
“The horse died today,” Handleman said in the strange tone of a man who saw a horse live just long enough to screw him.
It wasn’t until the Preakness that I finally stopped laughing.