ELMONT, NY, June 2, 2009--With so many handicappers and Triple Crown fans intent on riding the Charitable Man bandwagon into the Belmont Stakes winners‘ circle on Saturday, I offer this embellishment-free memory.

I do this because I can never look at another impressive Peter Pan Stakes winner and not think of Coastal, and I can’t think of Coastal without thinking about a recently retired colleague and competitor, Russ Harris.

For better or worse, much of what I have evolved into as a public handicapper I owe to Harris, who recently retired as lead handicapper, reporter and columnist for the New York Daily News. A dedicated journalist, Harris also served in the stewards stand in what has been a distinguished career in thoroughbred racing spanning a half century. And you'd have to go back that far, to Dave "King" Wilson in New England, one of the original speed handicappers, to find anyone who might have picked more winners than Russ Harris.

My understanding of the game over the years has matured, but one never knows what might have been had I not made the decision to change my approach to picking winners, going from the visual school of trip handicapping to the world of speed figures and trends analysis.

My first meaningful professional experience began here, in the long shadows of Belmont Park, at Newsday in 1976, whose offices were in nearby Garden City then. And before long, the dog-eat-dog world of New York tabloid journalism had spread to the press boxes of New York's racetracks.

Working in close proximity and reading the competition daily, it was impossible not to know who you had to beat for bragging rights at the end of any race meet. And it seemed as if John Piesen of the New York Post and myself were always chasing “the reverend,” as Harris was called, the nickname a paean to his button-down manner.

Matching myself against Harris every meeting, I went through a streak where Harris kicked butt over a sustained period. Using my trip notes, I had the edge when it came to ferreting out longshots but could never match him in number of winners picked. In those days newspapers didn’t keep bankroll stats as most do today.

So I reasoned that if I had a good set of figures I would know where Harris was coming from. Then, if I had no firm opinion about the most likely winner of a particular race, I probably could match his speed-figure selection and scoop him with the bias play or tough tripper.

I wanted it all which, in retrospect, is not the best approach. Most good handicappers specialize, and at the beginning I found myself all over the handicapping map not knowing what to trust; the figures or my own lyin’ eyes. I thought it was possible to have the best of both worlds.

Very often it worked, more often it didn’t. It was so frustrating. I watched replays intently--and they were not as readily available as they are today--transcribing trip notes into charts scissored from the Racing Form, adding the figures later. I wanted the whole package. I never missed a day of live racing--six days a week back then.

Meanwhile, Harris did the handicapping from his study on the Main Line in Philadelphia, graced the press box with his presence on Saturdays and walked and talked with such superior bearing that you couldn’t wait for him to return home until the following week.

But I’ve never met a handicapper worth his salt who wasn’t egocentric. You needed to guard against adopting a messiah complex, but more often the game is so humbling that you need a defense mechanism or the bad picks and constant bad beats will erode your confidence completely.

And lack of confidence leads to indecision. Indecision leads to mistakes. Mistakes lead to the poor house.

To my knowledge, Harris never suffered a crisis of confidence. If he did, it never showed. When Coastal upset the 1979 Belmont over Triple Crown aspirant Spectacular Bid off a big-figure, 13-length romp in the Peter Pan, Harris wouldn’t let anyone forget.

He beat the 1-5 Spectacular Bid with the 4-1 Coastal.

Having a flare for the dramatic, Harris rose from his seat in the Santa Anita press box in 1986, cheering the European longshot Mile winner Last Tycoon home with the seldom heard horseplayer’s exhortation: “VIVA LA FRANCE!… VIVA LA FRANCE!… VIVA LA FRANCE!

He might have been called the reverend but that never kept him from visiting the betting windows more than occasionally.

One day, Piesen related a story of how he was recounting some recent good fortune to Harris, picking two handfuls of winners on one particular Aqueduct afternoon: “If I worked for your outfit,” Harris told Piesen flat out, “they would build a statue for me on South Street.”

Harris was no less guarded but he did mellow some on the road. One night after the races with our wives, we went for a bite after the first night of the “World Series of Handicapping” at Penn National Race Course in tiny Grantville, Pa., the granddaddy of all handicapping tournaments.

That night Harris and I swapped family stories and I learned of his love for history and his intention to return to school for his doctorate. Eventually he got it, too, from Lehigh University, after submitting a 378-page thesis on Charles de Gaulle’s relationship with six American presidents. At 75, he became Doctor Harris.

Strange what the mind conjures up. When I think of him now, I remember a photograph of Harris and other reporters interviewing a trainer after the Flamingo Stakes, the black-and-white photo hanging on the fourth-floor wall just around the corner from the rickety elevator at Hialeah Park.

I remember, too, sharing a cab ride in Louisville with Newsday colleague Paul Moran on our way to cover the Kentucky Derby. I was lamenting about one thing or another, as press guys will, how the paper just didn’t appreciate their handicapper enough, ya-da, ya-da.

“What are you worried about,” said Moran, “one day Harris will retire and you’ll get his job at the Daily News.”

Harris finally walked away, in the same year I became eligible for Medicare. That figures. Numbers don’t lie.