I will never forget the best bet I ever made. It was placed on Kentucky Derby Day in 1999. I didn’t make it on the race’s eventual winner, Charismatic. Nope. On that glorious spring afternoon in New York City, I placed a bet on the woman who’d become my lifelong partner. Soon, we’ll be celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. Now, unlike the serendipity of meeting the woman of my dreams, had I actually bet on that Derby and scored big, it wouldn’t have been due to sheer luck. It would’ve been thanks to a man named Jerry Brown, who’s the most knowledgeable horse bettor I’ve ever known.
For those of you unfamiliar with Brown, he’s the founder of Thoro-Graph, a series of detailed analyses, known as “sheets,” that include all types of horse racing data and that he sells to prospective bettors on his website. What exactly is on a Thoro-Graph sheet? There’s an amalgam of simple and complex data points gleaned from the historical past performances of both horses and jockeys, along with factors such as track anomalies, wind speed and direction and dozens of other important variables laid out in numerical form. Simply put, it’s a much more involved version of what you might find in the daily program at Saratoga Race Course. Each data point is then plotted on a graph, which provides the user with a visual and chronological history of a Thoroughbred’s performance over its career. Once a horseplayer cracks Brown’s code, his or her odds of placing a winning bet should increase exponentially.
Brown learned from the best of the best. When he was 19 and still living in New York City, he landed his first job working for the legendary horseplayer Len Ragozin. A Harvard graduate, Ragozin had quit his editing job at Newsweek to focus on the fine art of horse betting. Ragozin had noticed Brown studying a Daily Racing Form at a Blimpie on Seventh Avenue in Midtown Manhattan and hired him on the spot. “I needed a job,” says Brown. “My father was literally ready to throw me out of the house if I didn’t get one by the end of the week.” The job would eventually bring Brown to Saratoga Springs—and his first trip was a memorable one. “One morning, Ragozin calls me into his office and tells me, ‘We gotta claim a horse in Saratoga,’ and he hands me a brown paper bag. Inside the bag was an orange, a container of milk, a sandwich and $20,000 in cash. It was like he was sending me off to school.” (If you’re wondering, “claiming” a horse means actually buying it right before it races.) It would be the first of many journeys to the Spa City.
In the days before Brown launched his Thoro-Graph sheet, Ragozin had a lock on the horseplayer analysis market. “Unless Ragozin knew you personally, you didn’t get to use his data,” says Brown. “It wasn’t published, it wasn’t sold publicly, and the only copy of the data was handwritten on a single file card. We’d all sit around a dining room table and pass that file card back and forth, and each make our own decisions on who to bet on.” When Brown eventually broke ranks with Ragozin and ventured out on his own to found Thoro-Graph, the two friends quickly became competitors—that is, until the Internet came along. It didn’t take Brown long to realize the Web could give Thoro-Graph a competitive advantage, and in 1994, he took his product digital.
Nowadays, Brown’s doing a steady business and stays in Saratoga for the entire racing meet. And while it’s great talking about all of his successes in the horseplaying world, I wanted to know if he’d ever had any particularly putrid days at the races. “I mean, you have bad days and good days betting,” he says. But for his money, there’s really no such thing as a losing day at Saratoga. “During the summer, Saratoga’s a different place than any other racetrack in this country. The entire town is up on racing. The conversations everywhere are, ‘What happened at the track today? What’s gonna happen at the track tomorrow?’ If you go out to the bars around town during the season, you’re going to see everybody in the racing world. Horseplayers are mingling with the trainers, the jockeys—hanging out and talking with them. That doesn’t happen in too many places. Unless you’re involved with some real tragedy, it’s hard to have a bad day at Saratoga.”
To that end, I can’t help but think of a classic horseplaying joke: What’s the difference between praying in church and at the racetrack? When you’re praying at the racetrack, you really mean it. For those of us who visit Saratoga Race Course religiously, the information that Jerry Brown offers can go a long way in answering our prayers.