His first track experience was a trip to Monticello Raceway when he was about 17 years old, he won a $2 wager on a 3-1 shot, and “that hooked me for life.”
If there was any chance Bill Heller was ever going to wriggle off that hook, Secretariat got Bill in the boat in 1972, when he made his first trip to Saratoga Race Course.
He was a junior at UAlbany, “somebody had a car,” and they drove to Saratoga because they had heard there was a track there. To their surprise, they found two, and because the harness track was dark, they wound up at the Thoroughbred track halfway through a Saturday card.
Bill has retired from handicapping horse racing, which will come as sad news to his loyal followers, so we asked him to recount some of his exploits and experiences in that role, for which he served the Daily Gazette since 1995.
An Eclipse Award-winning journalist and author of 26 books, including 17 on racing, Bill didn’t have much choice but to pursue the sport, after he was wowed by the 2-year-old Secretariat winning the Hopeful Stakes that day with a stunning move around the turn despite a wide trip.
Bill lives in Hollywood, Florida, with his wife Marianne now and stays active in writing circles through his work with Trainer Magazine; Harness Racing Update, an online news magazine; and the New York Thoroughbred Breeders Fund website.
His biography subjects include the late Hall of Fame jockey Randy Romero, who always told Bill things happen for a reason.
Twenty years after that Hopeful, Bill got to write a biography on Ron Turcotte, who rode Secretariat to the 1973 Triple Crown.
“So maybe I was supposed to be there that day,” Bill said.
Space prevented all of Bill’s great stories from making the cut here, but — hopefully — here’s a Q&A that illustrates his passion for handicapping and racing:
Q: What kind of tools and resources did you rely on for handicapping?
A: I kind of look at handicapping like writing. As long as you don’t have a ridiculous ego about it, it’s something that you can get better at as you get older. Not everybody can do that. The horse racing game, in terms of handicapping, has changed so much in the last 01-15 years, that you have to change with it.
There’s just less Thoroughbreds, they race less often, almost all of them have layoffs, which you would never see before. I sued to have a rule, a horse hasn’t raced in a month, it would raise my concern. Now, a month is nothing. It’s normal.
I’ve come to the conclusion that last few years that workouts are extremely important, so I always pay attention to workouts.
Q: You just gave me a lot of the challenges of handicapping in general, but what specifically makes Saratoga a difficult challenge for a handicapper?
A: Saratoga is undoubtedly the hardest meet to handicap, because it’s also the best meet in the entire world. And it’s so popular that you have shippers coming in from everywhere. And there’s very few horses that are stabled at Saratoga or the Oklahoma. Most of them have been racing in New York, at Belmont or Aqueduct, so even they’re shipping up.
The trainers in the country — and it’s grown to a point where even in Europe — they point to the Saratoga meet, and they come from all over. Sometimes there’s races with horses from seven or eight different tracks, in the same race.
So there’s challenges, and everybody wants to win a race here. Wayne Lukas once said this to me, that this is what Saratoga is about: You have a 2-year-old that you like, he’s going to make his first start at Saratoga, and you think he could be a really good horse and you look at the toteboard, and he’s 15-1. Because everybody else has the exact same thing.
And when I came up in the mid-70’s, there were all these tremendous handicappers, specifically Russ Harris with the New York Daily News, my dear friend John Piesen, who passed away a couple years ago, and John Pricci from Newsday. Those three guys, they took it dead seriously.
Q: How intense was the press box competition 20 years ago, when there were 30 or so people in the standings, and how important was it to perform well against the other handicappers during this meet?
A: Oh, they pretty much hated each other [laughs]. Life and death. One thing that was interesting over the years was that even though you’re competing against the best handicappers from New York, but a lot of times the leading handicapper was from the local guys, specifically Mark Cusano, who is a wonderful friend and by far the best handicapper I’ve ever seen. He won the title eight times; I was lucky enough to win one. On the last day.
There was a tremendous carryover to the pick six, so all the handicappers in the press box were going to go after this, they made a huge ticket, and I was able to buy my way into a little bit of a share in it. All the best handicappers, theoretically, in the world, and we put together this massive ticket, and we lost the first race. We had seven out of 10 horses in the first race, and lost.
Every Saturday, there was a handicapping contest with roughly 30 handicappers and turf writers, and they allowed one outsider, and it was my son Benjamin, who at the time was 10 when he first did it. And he ended up winning the contest three times. Every time I had a good day in the paper, someone would say, ‘Well, Benjamin must’ve done the picks.’
The first time he won — and he won, like, $300 — Tom Durkin came down to the press box after the last race and said, ‘Who won the contest?’ I said, ‘Benjamin.’ So he goes up to my son, looks him in the eye and says, ‘Don’t go back to school.’
Q: Besides handicapping and besides your first moment with Secretariat, what’s your fondest memory of a race result here that had nothing to do with whether you picked the horse or not?
A: Absolutely, Rachel Alexandra.
When she won the Woodward, her whole 3-year-old year was unbelievable. After she won the Kentucky Oaks, two days later, they sold her, and Steve Asmussen became the new trainer. I was driving up to the harness track for a meeting, listening to the radio, and on the news, they said that she’s going to be running in the Preakness.
I thought, ‘Here’s horse racing getting into a mainstream news cycle. So, of course, she ended up winning the Preakness, and she beat the males again in the Haskell, and then in the Woodward, she’s a 3-year-old filly running against older males, and she won that, too.
It seemed like the building was going to come down. She only won by a neck, and apparently fans all the way down the stretch, they don’t know if she had won or not. So when they put her number up, there was another incredible roar.
But to see a 3-year-old filly win the Woodard Stakes, that was incredible.