05/05/2015 1:03PM

Fornatale: Kenny Daniels, the legend and the man

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Kenny Daniels was many things – a great husband, a loving father and grandfather, an All-American tennis player, a well-known radio host, and a sharp gambler. He was also an accomplished contest player. Daniels passed away last week at the age of 62. I spoke with his longtime playing partner and great friend Bobby Brendler about him.

The two first met at Rosecroft Raceway in 1974 and became fast friends. Later Daniels moved to Las Vegas to become a professional gambler but Brendler stayed back east. “I played in my first contest in Vegas 20 years ago,” said Brendler. “I didn’t know a thing about what I was doing, I just wanted the chance to hang out with Kenny.”

In that first contest they didn’t do much, but they made money betting cash and had a great time hanging out so they decided to keep playing together. Their biggest win came at a contest at the MGM Grand in the late 90s.

The Daniels-Brendler team were doing very well but they didn’t know how well – there were no published leaderboards in contests back then. “With two races to go, nobody knew where anybody was,” Brendler explained, “so Kenny slips the cocktail waitress a hundred dollars for her to sneak a look at the scores. She came through and we fired our last bullet in the second-to-last race.”

The pair looked certain to hold on to third place with one race to go – still a significant money spot. But when the final scores were posted, it turned out that future NHC champion Rich Goodall had passed them for third place and the $14,000 payday that went with it. Daniels and Brendler realized that Goodall had played a heavy Chris McCarron-ridden chalk in the last race to just pip them – a horse he never would have played in a million years unless he knew the exact scores. “We saw him laughing and we realized he’d paid off the cocktail waitress and beaten us by 10 cents for $7,000,” Brendler said. “He thought it was hilarious, and as soon as we stopped being mad we thought it was hilarious too.”

The three men became friends after that, and the Daniels-Brendler team continued playing together, usually in person, up to six times a year at tournaments all around Las Vegas. They had a series of top 10 finishes but their high-point as a team came in a contest at Suncoast that Brendler had to miss. “We talked on the phone about six hours each day trying to decide what to do,” he said.

After a good day one and a frigid day two, the pair caught fire on the last day and hit two big-priced winners in a row. Daniels, a big cash player even while playing tournaments, usually backed all of his contest picks at the windows. But, because he was stuck on the phone with Brendler, he got his bet on 43-1 Scotty Scotty in late and wasn’t able to get down the $100 he was planning to bet. Still, Scotty Scotty’s was enough to get him over $77,000 for the third-day money and for winning the contest.

Afterward, Daniels was still steamed about missing his cash bet until a friend pointed out a crucial detail – had the cash bet gone in, Scotty Scotty’s price for the tournament would have dropped. As Dave Tuley pointed out in his DRF article about the incident, “If Scotty Scotty had paid $87 [instead of $88], Daniels's parimutuel winnings would have been $4,350 on a $100 bet, but he would have finished the tournament with 7,648 points, 2 points behind [second-place finisher Steve] Meyer. The difference between first- and second-place prize money was more than $37,000.”

That win earned Daniels and Brendler a shot at the National Handicapping Championship, and after the first day, they were in contention. “ESPN was covering the tournament and they decided we were the favorites,” Brendler said, “So on day two they were following us around everywhere with cameras, even into the bathroom!”

In the end, NHC glory was not meant to be. “We gagged and finished ninth,” said Brendler. “We had a horse at Laurel and didn’t play it. You’ve heard the story.”

Years later, Daniels’ wife, Angela, ended up getting second in the NHC. The Daniels-Brendler playing partnership wound down shortly after that first NHC appearance but the two remained good friends. “We talked 365 days a year,” Brendler said, “about horses, about our families, about everything. Kenny was the greatest guy you could ever meet.”

Whenever Brendler shows up at Laurel – an increasingly rare thing these days – people come up and ask him the same question, “They always ask me, ‘How’s Kenny?” Brendler said, “Even when I go to Vegas people ask me, ‘How’s Kenny?’ I tell them, ‘He lives out here now, how should I know?”

But such was the charisma of Daniels. Even people who barely knew him felt a connection to him. “He lived life the way he wanted to,” Brendler said, “and he did what he wanted to do despite what anybody else thought.”

Those interested in honoring Daniels’s memory can make a donation to the charity he started with his son Kenny Jr., Pursue Positivity .