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For the Happy Handicapper, the most important horses at Churchill Downs during Breeders' Cup week were not Awesome Again, Skip Away, Silver Charm or any of the other big-time racers.

No, the success of his week of horse-playing vacation in Louisville hinged on a pair of cheapies: two claiming fillies who between them had won three races in 30 starts this year.

Their names were Garish Girl and Demand a Recount. And because of them, the H.H. will be spending another 10 hours or so in the betmobile next Tuesday hoping that history will repeat itself.

His adventure started that Wednesday afternoon as the H.H. prepared to do battle with the mutuel machines at the place that calls itself "the world's most legendary race track."

As he scanned the program, his eye was caught by an advertisement for Churchill's weekly Wednesday "Fall Meet Handicapping Contest."

Put down the $20 entry fee, the ad explained, and take a shot at $2,000 in prize money with payoffs ranging from $700 for first place down to $75 for eighth. Each contestant gets $500 in imaginary money to bet on the third through seventh races.

It sounded like fun, so the Buffalo Guy signed up for what turned out to be an afternoon of pleasant surprises.

Surprise No. 1 came when he read the fine print in the contest rules. Like in many of the handicapping contests he's entered over the years, wagers could be made to win, place or show. But in this contest, bets also could be made on exactas.

"Oh, no!" was his first reaction upon reading that part. He'd just gone through two embarrassing Thursday nights at Buffalo Raceway where he'd been blanked (0 for 12) in the preliminary rounds of the all-exacta "Exactafest 98" contest.

As lousy as his performance had been at the Hamburg harness track, he remembered one important thing about the exacta contests. The winners had both been people who pinpointed just one or two races and then bet a bundle on them.

That's just what the H.H. decided to do after he noticed that in doing his study of the Daily Racing Form in his motel room the night before, he had found that only three of the day's nine races seemed solvable. On this day, his "good races" were the first, third and seventh. And the latter two were the start and finish events in the handicapping contest.

Garish Girl was his top selection in the first contest race, a 6 1/2 -furlong dash for $17,500 claiming fillies. There was nothing mysterious about it. After a little math with the K-2 Calculator (readers may recall the H.H.'s rediscovery of this "Wheel of Fortune" back in February), he figured the horse had the top rating. Garish Girl, who went off at 4-1, also was the top selection of Daily Racing Form selector Marc Daley.

The H.H.'s wheel could not come up with a clear-cut second choice, since Demand a Recount (20-1) and Bearly Smiling (the 8-5 favorite under jockey Pat Day, the king of Churchill), had the same rating.

But keeping in mind the aggressive wagering of the winners in the Buffalo contest, he decided to risk half his imaginary bankroll on this race. For a total of $250, he played a $50 part-wheel with Garish Girl over the other two and he also played a $25 box, linking all three. He also played a three-horse box for $12 in real money.

Then the fun began.

Four speedsters -- one of which was Bearly Smiling -- shot to the top and raced heads apart into the turn. The suicide speed duel on the front end soon took its toll and all four began to tire as Garish Girl, who had been fifth down the backstretch, turned on the jets for jockey Tracey Hebert, who angled her off the rail and flew past the leaders. Demand a Recount, piloted by Randy Romero, ran a similar pattern and closed quickly to finish second, more than a length ahead of Bearly Smiling.

Garish Girl paid $10 to win and Demand a Recount paid $15 to place. But the important number was the exacta price of $154.40 for $2, which shocked the Handicapper when it flashed on the board as he sat in the stands. He had one ticket in real money and 37.5 tickets in imaginary. For the contest, his $500 bankroll now stood at $6,040.

The total was good enough to put him into first place, at least for the next three races. Another contestant caught him with one race to go and, even though the H.H. hit another K-2 Calculator exacta (it paid $39) in the final contest race, he finished second. This wasn't bad, considering that it was worth $400 in real money and a berth in the finals, which will take place next Wednesday afternoon for a first prize of about $3,000.

At first the H.H. wasn't sure he would be able to get back for the finals, but with the assistance of his wife (who will hold the Thanksgiving bird back a few hours), his daughter (who's going along to help with the driving) and his boss (who allowed him to juggle his schedule at work), the H.H. is taking his calculator back to the Bluegrass for a shot at the big bucks.

After all, it is hunting season.

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