SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 18, 2011--

”What we’re going to do together will make history”--Hyman Roth

Mark Cusano has been handicapping for the Daily Gazette of Schenectady for 18 years, six years before that at the Troy Record. During that tenure he has been a six-time handicapping champion at the annual Saratoga race meet.

This unofficial title is a very big deal, especially in the Capital District, and it will be once again when Saratoga Race Course opens its gates for the 143rd time on Friday. How big a deal is it?

Several years ago, when the race meet was shorter, Mike Smith, a handicapper for the Troy Record** “won” the Saratoga meet handicapping title by picking a total of 90 winners. An inquiry was lodged and a claim of foul made.

In second place that year was the prolific Matt Graves, now retired of the Albany Times Union, with 89 winners and Cusano was third with 88. The Times Union spent a princely sum, perhaps as much as $10,000, to hire CPAs and the like to check everyone’s handicapping totals that year.

The suspicions of the in-the-money finishers were well founded. Smith was “disqualified” and Graves wound up beating Cusano by one winner, 89 to 88. All that expense so that the Times Union would have the right to tout their man as the "Capital District’s Saratoga Handicapping Champion."

This phenomenon continues. At a time when most newspapers are struggling to remain alive and relevant, picking winners at “the flat track” still sells newspapers all points within a half-hour’s drive from the race course on Union Avenue. The competition, while friendly, is fierce.

This year, due to family issues that will require his attention, Cusano does not have the same amount of time to devote to this assignment, but he still wanted to keep a hand in. He needed to find a proposal that would work for him and, most significantly, the Gazette.

To this end, Cusano approached me about a month ago and asked whether I would be interested in doing “some handicapping for the Gazette this summer.”

Some handicapping? I explained that I really haven’t done handicapping full time since leaving Newsday but that I would listen to whatever he had to say.

Now Cusano is a huge fan of turf racing. On the television show he has hosted for 19 years on the Capital Off-Track Betting network, “Down the Stretch,” Cusano refers to grass events as racing “on the proper surface.” His license plate reads Turf 1.

Resultantly, Cusano can be found most days sitting in front of the replay monitor in the Saratoga press box visually pouring over the turf trips of the next day‘s entrants. Race watching, or trip handicapping, is his game. And he’s good at it.

Cusano still refers to running time in fifths of a second. He wants to know how fast a horse runs its final three-sixteenths of a mile, on either surface, but more significant on turf because of its slow-paced, covered-up, sprint-to-the-finish style. He's old school.

I mean the man still wears sans-a-belt slacks.

Cusano’s idea was for me to select the dirt races at the upcoming Spa meet while he would pick the grass events--steeplechase, too--which probably works out to a 60-40 workload split. I said OK and the Gazette gave us a green light.

The Cusano-Pricci Gazette team probably is the first and only “entry” in the history of public handicapping. “But don’t you think your upstate colleagues will claim foul on us?” I asked.

“Why should they?” he answered. “Each selection will count as one pick for the column and will be tabulated as such. Either we will pick more winners together than anyone or we won’t. I don’t see a problem.”

Well, now the pressure’s on. I met with both the managing editor and sports editor and explained my approach to handicapping is a little different; that the best way for me is to keep score is using Return On Investment.

To illustrate, I spoke about a high-end product that was developed with my handicapping partner, Cary Fotias, whose sheet style performance figures are the next generation in that genre and the basis for the product.

The Equiform Betting Guide debuted on April 3rd, making selections for the track we believe will interest most bettors that particular Saturday, or those tracks whose takeout rates are fan friendlier.

In addition to commentary, the EBG has four elements: WIN is the speed figure projection likely needed to win the race. The FAVE is our top projection. It can be one, two, or three horses--the “fastest” runners on the Equiform scale. EXOTIC TOTE BUSTERS are those double-digit price shots we believe have an excellent chance to complete high-priced trifecta and superfecta payoffs.

But the most important element are our VALUE plays, which we identify as those “almost always worth a bet” at or near early line odds, sometimes with specific parameters. Value plays to win and place are the heart and soul of the EBG.

Through last Saturday, we made 155 value plays at a cost of $310 to win and to place. Our bets have returned $409.60 to win and $372.20 to place on a total outlay of $620.

Our win ROI currently stands at 32.1%; the place ROI is 20.4%. These results are highly unusual, to be honest, something in which Cary and I take great pride. (If you wish to verify the results, simply click on http://www.equiform.com).

So I explained this handicapping philosophy to newly installed Sports Editor Tom Boggie and asked what should be the point of emphasis? What is the Gazette’s priority?

“Winners,” he said.

So picking winners--the horse most likely to finish first--is the goal. The analysis will, however, whenever possible, identify potential value plays. And I will continue to do the Feature Race Analysis for HRI each day of the Saratoga meet along with our Saratoga Diary feature, now in its 33rd year.

But the pressure is on. I can’t embarrass myself and make Cusano look bad. I'm too old to get into the habit of sleeping with one eye open.

**correction made 071911