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BARTENDER'S SKILL LEAVES OTHER PLAYERS ON THE ROCKS

Sometimes, it's not easy to be the Happy Handicapper.

Take last Saturday afternoon at Batavia Downs, for instance.

The H.H. joined 91 other horseplayers competing for a free trip to Las Vegas, and other fabulous prizes, in the Western Region OTB annual handicapping contest.

He suffered one of the worst days of his handicapping life. He went 0 for 10 and lost all but $30 of his $1,000 contest bankroll.

This was bad enough. But then his journalistic duties required him to interview the winner, a 36-year-old bartender named Dennis Duffy.

Not only did Duffy turn his contest bankroll into $6,118, he also won about $5,000 in real money by wagering on his selections and hitting both of the day's Pick 4s.

Never has the H.H. been so jealous.

But his envy didn't last for long. Duffy, a nice guy and a serious horseplayer with several other tournament titles under his belt, had a lot to teach the H.H. about playing contests and playing horses.

First lesson: It's never over until it's over.

The fourth race of the day (the contest involved only the Aqueduct card) was won by a first-time starter (Shorty Knudtson), a long-shot bomber who paid $55 for $2.

Only three contestants had maximum bets on the winner and they shot to the top of the standings, leaving the rest of the field, including Duffy, choking in the dust.

When this happened, the H.H. and many other contestants thought to themselves, "That's it, now I'll have to catch a big long shot to catch up." And they spent the rest of the contest unsuccessfully trying to snare another huge payoff.

Not Duffy, a resident of Bloomfield, near Canandaigua, who has been playing horses for about 15 years. The eventual winner just buckled down and kept grinding.

Going for relatively logical horses, he picked the winners of four of the next six races and won the contest with horses paying modest prices of $13, $12.80, $5.30 and $9.90. Duffy clinched his victory when jockey Jerry Bailey came from far behind to win by a half-length on Personal Legend, a 4-1 shot who was the public's second choice in the Turnback the Alarm Handicap.

"So," the H.H. asked Duffy, "what's your secret?"

"I look for big jockey and trainer changes," Duffy said. "And I look for trainers who are good off of layoffs."

Later, the H.H. checked the past performances to see what he meant.

In the eight races won that day by non-first-timers, six winners were ridden by new jockeys who had not ridden the horse in its previous race.

Trainers who switched to "big jockeys" named Javier Castellano (the meet leader, fresh from his Breeders' Cup Classic victory aboard Ghostzapper), Norberto Arroyo Jr., Jorge Chavez (who had previously won twice aboard the horse), Jose Santos (of Funny Cide fame), Bailey (a Hall of Famer) and Stewart Elliott (of Smarty Jones fame) proved to be very smart guys, on this particular afternoon anyway.

As for trainers who are good at winning off layoffs, the day produced winners for the following conditioners with horses starting for the first time in at least a month: Bobby Frankel, James Jerkens, Bruce Levine, Gregory Martin, and Jean-Claude Roget.

Roget saddled Eleusis, a 3-year-old filly who won the Long Island Handicap (paying $5.30) in her first U.S. start after a near-perfect season in France. Duffy won $600 in contest money on her and moved into second place with the race.

"She had five wins and a second in six starts. So I thought she was a good horse," Duffy observed.

Duffy also credited his powers of observation. He watched the televised races and replays closely and "I thought I found an angle," he said. "You needed to be a little off the pace today. So I looked for horses that finished strong."

In other words, he paid enough attention to find that the track surface and the weather (a strong wind that was behind horses in the backstretch and in their faces in the final furlongs) worked against front runners. Then he checked the past performances to find horses with strong stretch-gaining records (as did the winners of the last four races).

The H.H. has seen enough contests to know that it always looks easy after you win. But still, he must give Duffy a lot of respect.

Besides winning the OTB contest -- which includes a berth in January's $1 million World Series of Handicapping in Las Vegas -- Duffy has won other contests at Hawthorne Park in Chicago, Calder Race Course in Miami and the Reno Hilton in Nevada.

"I go all over," said Duffy, who said he started taking his horseplaying seriously a few years ago after he got laid off from his full-time job at Xerox in Rochester.

Duffy said that for the rest of the year he plans on traveling around playing contests where the prizes include berths in next January's other $1 million Las Vegas contest -- the Daily Racing Form's World Series of Handicapping.

"I had a good day today," Duffy said.

He did, and good luck to him.

Still, it's enough to make anybody jealous.

e-mail: rsummers@buffnews.com

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