By Bill Finley
The word may get thrown around too easily, but in Russ Harris’s case, it is deserving. He was a legend. I can’t prove this, but I know it to be true: No single person has ever picked more winners than Russ Harris did. A product of a different time, when newspapers still mattered and their handicappers could move the toteboard like nothing else, Harris passed away peacefully from complications of old age early Tuesday morning at the age of 93.
Harris’s career as a racing journalist began in 1957 with the Akron Beacon Journal, which needed someone to cover and handicap the races at a long forgotten track called Ascot Park. He wrote under the nom de plume Phil Dancer. “Phil” is the Greek word for lover of horses and “Dancer” came from the horse Native Dancer, a favorite of Harris’s.
He went from there to the Miami Herald and then the Philadelphia Inquirer. He also had stints in Chicago as a steward at Hawthorne, Arlington and Washington Park.
But it was at the New York Daily News where he became arguably the most well-known, well-respected public handicapper of all time. The rival New York Post had beefed up its racing coverage and the News was intent on hiring a big name to compete, so they lured Harris from Philadelphia. His hiring was seen as such a coup for the News that it was touted in their advertising campaigns and Harris’s picture appeared on the street corner newspaper boxes that dispensed the paper.
This was in 1977, when the Daily News had the largest circulation of any daily metropolitan newspaper in the country, the stands were still filled at the New York tracks and New York OTB was booming. A lot of people bet on the horses back then and a lot of people, especially those who wagered at OTB, didn’t want to think too hard. Thanks to Harris, they didn’t have to.
He was a chalk player, but what always mattered most to him was how many winners he would pick. He pumped them out, day after day, with the consistency of a fine-tuned machine.
“I tried to figure that out one day,” Harris told me in a 2005 interview when I asked him how many winners he had picked during his career. “I think I’ve picked 30,000 winners. It looks like I’ve handicapped 90,000 races and I usually average three winners out of nine.”
Harris was the OTB players’ best friend. These weren’t sophisticated gamblers and they weren’t betting hundreds of dollars a race. Most were just looking to pass some time and enjoy the thrill of cashing a few tickets. If you were to walk into any New York City OTB parlor in the late seventies or early eighties, you’d see very few if any Racing Forms or New York Posts. No one there read the Times, which was too high-brow to employ a handicapper. But almost everyone had a Daily News in their clutches because they wanted to know who Harris was picking. So many people bet at OTB and Harris had such a following that, if he liked a horse, you could be sure the selection would affect the odds.
His shining moment as a handicapper came on May 8, 1981 when he swept the card at Belmont.
“My theory is, I pick every card like it’s May 8, 1981 at Belmont,” he told me in that 2005 interview. “I picked nine straight at Belmont that day and no one had ever done that before. That really meant something to me. I look at every race like I’ve had eight winners on the day and this is the ninth race. I don’t pick any duds, if I can avoid it.”
He was also very proud of his selection in the 1979 GI Belmont S. Not only was Harris one of very few handicappers to pick against Spectacular Bid, he nailed the winner in Coastal.
In 1988, Harris gave up his duties as the racing writer for the Daily News and became a handicapper only. I happened to be the one who was hired to replace him, but, thankfully, only as writer and not the primary handicapper. His were shoes I never could have filled.
Harris was a bright, worldly man and he wanted to reach beyond the racing business, the reason why he gave up the writing duties at the News. He went back to school and in 1999 at the age of 75 received a Ph. D in history from Lehigh University. He write a 378-page thesis on the relationship between Charles DeGaulle and six U.S. presidents.
He continued on as the handicapper at the News until 2008, when he fully retired.
He never came to the track anymore, but I would hear from Harris often. Every other month or so he would call and take the time to tell me how much he enjoyed a story I had written or tell me how highly he thought of my work in general. His praise meant the world to me.
So much has changed since Russ Harris arrived on the scene in 1977 at the Daily News. The paper, like most, no longer covers racing and does not have any handicappers. Not that it really matters. The News is a shell of its old self, and is hanging on for dear life, now selling just 200,000 papers a day. At its peak, it sold 4.7 million papers on Sundays. There’s no longer a New York City OTB, and the people who used to follow Harris religiously have all either died off or found something else to occupy their days.
Harris is a product of simpler times, when people still went to the track and read newspapers, when a good public handicapper had so much clout he could make an 8-5 shot a 6-5 shot and no one had ever heard of the Internet. Harris was the last living remnant of that era. He will be missed but never forgotten as he was the best there was.