01/05/2016 2:39PM

First-time starter lands NHC seat


Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Howard Meyers, a 68-year old retired bookmaker, broke his contest maiden at first asking this weekend on NHCQualify.com.

Meyers’s story begins in a familiar way to many racetrack lifers – an older relative took him to the track for the first time and he had early success.

“I was born in Brooklyn and I started going to the races with my Dad when I was a kid,” he explained, “and I cashed the first bet I ever made, on a trotter named Here’s How. He paid $14.40. I bet it with a local bookmaker around the corner. And I went out and bought a pinky ring like my father had, diamond-sapphire.”

Every year, Meyers and his wife host a Christmas party in their hometown of Rockville, Md. This year, one of the guests was an old racing and golf buddy, Robert Brendler, aka, the Roundman. “I found out he was in the tournament [the National Handicapping Championship] and I asked him ‘How’d you get in?’ I found out that he qualified online.”

The National Handicapping Championship takes place on January 28-30 at the Treasure Island in Las Vegas. Meyers was once a Vegas regular but hasn’t been in a couple of years – plus the NHC would be a chance to hang out with Brendler. “I thought that could be fun. I wanted to get involved with this thing.”

Meyers signed up for his $50 Tour membership last week, put up his $165 to play Saturday, and by the end of the day he was up to bat for his share of $2.5 million.

Meyers is a devoted Ragozin sheet player who plays horses every day. He has had plenty of major hits – he was part of a $166,000 twin trifecta haul at Laurel back in the day and about five years ago he collected $85,000 at Santa Anita. But he was still struck by the idea of being up to bat for the $750,000 winner’s purse at the NHC.

“I’ve always been a multi-race player,” he said. “Those bets keep me within a budget and give me discipline, but there’s also always a big picture – a chance to make a score.”

The exact same thing is true of contest play, so it’s no wonder Meyers took to them like a Labrador to water. Organization was a big part of his gameplan.

“I pulled all the races out and put them in one pile, so everything was in the right order,” he said.

Meyers likes to have his ducks in a row, but also to be spontaneous.

“My mind is better at rest,” he said. “I’m not one of these guys that studies and studies the night before. Because sometimes you’ll like a horse you think is going to be a longshot and he ends up 4-5. I like to see what the odds are, can handicap in short order with the sheets.”

He also still uses the Daily Racing Form, or “the Telly” as he calls it, in a bit of archaic slang, “especially for 2-year-old races with a lot of first-time starters, where the sheets are useless.”

Meyers had two winners and two place collections going into the last race. He was far back on the leaderboard but was within range with the right pick.

“I realized that the only way I could get in is if I hit what you guys call a cap horse,” he said, “so I looked at the sheets and I couldn’t believe that Flamboyant was 20-1. He’s got basically the same numbers as the favorite, Obviously. Plus, I told the Roundman years ago, ‘I love Brice Blanc on the turf.’ ”

Blanc gave Flamboyant a rail-skimming ride and started to make his move. Meyers isn’t usually a rooter – he’s a yell-when-its-over type – but he started in cheering, “This horse has got a shot!”

Afterward, he told his wife, “Jen, I think I’m going to Vegas, but I’m not sure.” Meyers wasn’t clear on how many seats were being awarded. But he soon saw the asterisk next to his name and knew he was indeed Vegas bound.

Meyers has had a fascinating life from his childhood in Brooklyn, to a stint in Vietnam (where he won a Bronze Star among other honors), to starting a successful business, to various run-ins with the law during his bookie days.

Meyers is a people person and he likes to talk a lot. He’s concerned about how this might play out at the NHC, when he’s sitting with other players.

“I understand horseplayers,” he said, “and I don’t mind other people talking to me while I’m handicapping and betting. But some people aren’t like that and they might mind, so don’t feel bad about it if you tell me to shut the heck up.”

Until recently, he had a very specific life goal. “I always wanted to play golf at every course where they held a PGA tour event,” he said, “but it’s basically impossible because you need to know someone at the private clubs.”

Instead, he’s switched out that item on his bucket list. “Now, I want to go to every Thoroughbred track in the country,” he said, “Just to say I was there.”