09/13/2007 11:00PM

Ainslie paved the way for others

EmailTom Ainslie, who died Sept. 1 at the age of 89, was much more than an "Author of Racing Guides," as the headline of his otherwise excellent obituary in The New York Times described him. It is no exaggeration to say that he may have been the most important handicapping author ever, not only for his own excellent work but also for almost singlehandedly legitimizing the pursuit of picking winners and clearing the publishing trail for much of the handicapping innovations and literature of the last 40 years.

Ainslie was born Richard Carter in 1918, and under that byline was an award-winning journalist whose investigative reporting of waterfront racketeering in New York was the basis for the movie "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." Racing was a hobby that grew into a passion and after studying the game for 30 years, he began knocking on the doors of publishers with a novel idea for a book: A logical, comprehensive approach to picking winners, laying out all the factors that horseplayers considered but which had rarely been assembled between hard covers, much less those of a respectable publishing house. The mission came to fruition in 1968 with the publication of "Ainslie's Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing," first published by Trident Press and a best-seller in subsequent editions for Simon & Schuster.

It is difficult to imagine its seminal impact today, when dozens of handicapping books can be located at the click of a mouse. Serious horseplayers have gained a small measure of grudging respect from the civilian world, and handicapping-based evaluations of horseflesh drive billions of dollars in bloodstock purchases. For thousands of horseplayers at the time, Ainslie's book was validation for what they did every day, and for a generation of newcomers it was the entry point into the game.

It wasn't that Ainslie cracked a code or developed a radical approach to the game, but that he laid out the basics so cleanly and clearly. His persona as a studious, hat-wearing, mild-mannered gentleman who might otherwise be working for IBM or the IRS, in itself conferred respectability on a pursuit previously considered the province of lowlifes with Runyonesque nicknames. He never advocated a single system or method, never sold his selections, and was always looking for new approaches and additional information. After publishing a half-dozen books in the 1960s and 1970s on fundamentals of the game, he continued to explore new vantage points, writing a book about jockeys and another on body language.

When The Racing Times was on the verge of launching a new racing newspaper with numerous statistical innovations in 1991, the editors reached out to Ainslie, who by then was in semi-retirement, for what we hoped would be a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. We feared he might crankily reject the newfangled data and unfamiliar format, but instead he not only blessed it, but also offered to write the full-page explanation of it that would appear in the paper every day, and a weekly column as well. The first day he came into the office, dozens of employees whose interest in the game had first been stoked by his books, lingered around corners hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Typically, he acted like the one who felt honored to be there.

Ainslie's column in the first edition of that paper was as well-written as it was smart, and bears rereading now more than ever, in a handicapping world where the debates may be more sophisticated but are also often harsher, more ego-driven, and dogmatic. Ainslie wrote:

"I favor a comprehensive kind of handicapping in which success depends more on understanding the realities of the game than on memorizing rules. I absolutely deny that there is such a thing as the marvel that players so often wonder about, 'The Most Important Factor in Handicapping.' I insist that no handicapping factor is more important than the others. That assertion disappoints a good many people, which is understandable. But the perfectly logical truth is that all handicapping factors are interdependent. You cannot get the most from one of them without considering it in relation to the rest. To take a factor out of context and make a stand-alone big deal out of it is to plunge into the abyss . . . of suckers who buy miracle systems that promise vast riches to anyone following three simple rules.

"There are no miracles in the endlessly fascinating game of handicapping. But it is a game in which a little sense goes a long way and a little patience and self-control carry you a lot further. Stick around. We'll have some fun here."

Thanks to Tom Ainslie, a lot of us still are.