Saturday, April 20, 2019

Steve Davidowitz Leaves Handicapping Legacy Behind

By John Pricci

It was a seminal moment in the life of a hopeful horseplayer. It was during my early days at Newsday when I excitedly made my first expenses paid trip to Saratoga for the 24-day August Place to Be.

I felt like I had something to prove—not to Newsday, they hired me after a successful handicapping audition that lasted a year’s worth of Saturdays. Rather, the person I had to impress was myself. Do I really belong here?

The late, great Bill Nack introduced me to Andy Beyer in the Aqueduct press box and not long after I wound up sharing a house with him on Lake Avenue in Saratoga, hard by St. Clemens Church, five minutes from the track.

One night, Andy asked if I’d like to read a manuscript. The working title of the book was “Picking Winners.” It was Beyer’s first, of course, and it succeeded in introducing science to a new generation of artful horseplayers.

One morning Andy said he wanted me to meet a good friend of his, a mentor that further increased his understanding of handicapping’s many nuanced disciplines.

At the foot of the press box steps before the races, Beyer made the introduction: “Steve Davidowitz, I’d like you to meet John Pricci, he’s got a good opinion.”

And there it was, the validation I sought: “Made it ma, top of the world.”

My friendship with Steve lasted a lifetime, right up to the moment he passed last weekend at 77. He beat cancer once but, as the horsemen say, he had lots of nagging little issues. One, or a combination of them, took his life.

The reaper is never kind but the timing of this passing was particularly cruel. Not many horseplayers, public handicappers, or turf writers for that matter, loved the Kentucky Derby more than Steve Davidowitz.

Today’s horseplayers have it easier because guys like Beyer and Davidowitz led the way in the modern era. There was the prolific Tom Ainslie, of course, and the legendary Robert Saunders Dowst, but it was creative types like Davidowitz that helped usher in the modern day approach to handicapping.

Now, speed figures are ubiquitous, one can purchase trip notes, comprehensive workout reports, multi-layered stats and video is plentiful, from race replays to morning workouts--not to mention a national broadcast network.

Steve and I discussed on many occasions how handicapping has evolved through the years; too bad the breed itself has been unable to keep pace with the technological advances available.

But back in the day dedicated horseplayers were rewarded for doing their homework. Handicappers hoarded trip notes as if they were gold, studied and logged trainer and workout patterns into notebooks; anything for an edge.

Class handicapping was, and remains, a handicapping staple. It’s about the levels and the matchups--who beat who and who came back to win.

And if two or more horses emerged from the same event to win a subsequent start, that became a “key race.” If all the winners came from the clouds to win with a sweeping wide move, that became an outside-closers “track bias.”

Those terms were credited to, and popularized by, Davidowitz in his first major contribution to handicapping literature, “Betting Thoroughbreds.” It became a handicapping, the first of several more titles to come.

However, race video was virtually non-existent. There were “Race of the Week” on local stations in places like New York and South Florida, but there weren’t any nightly replay shows to point the way to a Kentucky Derby score.

But Davidowitz was resourceful and thoughtful. The night of the post draw he would invite colleagues to his Louisville hotel room, put out a modest spread, and we would watch 8-track cartridges until our eyes began tearing.

Later on, in the early days of Breeders’ Cup, Steve would pester event officials to secure videos of major European races so that hometown handicappers wouldn’t be blindsided; we knew about the stranger dangers.

Davidowitz was a devoted workout watcher. He studied the horses, the way they moved, their body language about temperaments, noting their idiosyncrasies. Could the horse handle the pressurized Derby atmosphere?

Horseplayers, like the animals they follow, are creatures of habit. And so I would join Steve each year for his annual handicapping tradition, a late night snack at the old Jack n’ the Box on Broadway every Hopeful eve.

We won some and lost more but one winner that stands out. It was 1973, Secretariat’s Triple Crown year, and there was one of the strongest speed-rail bias in play unlike many of us had ever seen.

Steve was waiting when I arrived: “I’ve got the Hopeful winner, but you better sit down first.” “Who” I asked? “Well, it’s the West Virginia shipper.”


“He may be from a minor circuit and he’s trained by a guy you never heard of but he’s bringing his rider with him.” “C’mon, who is it?”

“He has a ton of early speed and he’s drawn inside. They’ll never catch him.” “Steve!

And no one would catch longshot Gusty O’Shay, Robert Kotenko in the boot for trainer Harrison E. Johnson, a 33-year-old Maryland-based African-American, who died tragically 12 years later when, on his return from Saratoga, the plane he was piloting crashed.

While we never lived in the same place at the same time, there were many dinners and handicapping sessions through the years, though not many of as successful as the one that night in Saratoga 46 years ago.

But, wait, there’s more. Steve attended Rutgers on a baseball scholarship and was scouted by MLB until he blew out his arm. And he could pitch! I remember it took a few days to recover from a bone bruise after catching his sinking curve ball in my backyard in Syosset.

And it took the better part of a morning to recover from a late night out after attending an intimate Richie Havens acoustic performance in a town-hall setting somewhere around 90 minutes north of Manhattan. .

Steve and the singer-songwriter who opened the Woodstock Festival on Max Yasgar’s Bethel, NY farm, were close. Steve wrote Havens’ biography, “They Can’t Hide Us Anymore,” In addition to other books, he worked at newspapers in five cities and for many industry publications.

To know Steve wasn’t necessary to love him. He had gone through some rough patches and ruffled some feathers along the way.

But in both a personal and professional sense, Steve and I grew up together, nary a cross word between us and I won’t be able to talk Derby workouts with him this year.

To paraphrase, the heart knows what it wants and it knows what it knows. I knew Steve. And I loved him.

©John Pricci, HorseRaceInsider, April 20,2019

Written by John Pricci

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