02/10/2017 12:27PM

Avila had great handicapping mentor: his grandfather

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Like many horseplayers, Jason Avila learned the game from an older relative: his grandfather.

“He was retired and would go to the track almost every day,” said Avila, a 36-year-old resident of Long Beach, Calif. “I was about 5 or 6 when I first went to Santa Anita with him. From the first time I can remember being at the track, I loved it: the horses, the racing, the competition.”

Avila eventually started betting under grandpa’s tutelage. These were no mere hunch plays. Even in grade school, he was learning to read the Form. “I got caught up in it,” he said. “I would take the Form to school in my backpack. I played baseball, but if there was no game, then I’d go to the track.”

His grandfather would ask questions: Was a certain horse moving up or down in class? What were the fractions in the last race? Did a runner look fit off the layoff?

“It helped him, and it helped me,” Avila said. “He had a little trouble reading the small print, and I was learning to pick winners.”

Avila’s grandfather died when he was in sixth grade, and Avila spent a lot of time at the place where he had felt closest to him: Santa Anita. “I was more of a loner because I was underage and fearful of getting caught, so I didn’t talk to anybody,” he said.

One friend whom Avila knows he must have crossed paths with many times back then is Skip Pearring, a well-known character at Santa Anita. The two officially met much later, playing hockey with various racetrack types.

“We watch the races on the fifth floor during the live racing, and after Santa Anita and Golden Gate are finished, we’ll go to the Dungeon to bet simulcast,” he said.

“The Dungeon,” officially known as the Paddock Club, is the after-hours spot at Santa Anita where one can still bet simulcasting long after the last horse in the last race is bedded down in his stall.

Avila knows racing from inside and out. After a year of college at Long Beach State, he transferred to the Racetrack Industry Program at Arizona, befriending Phil D’Amato, with whom he still keeps in touch, among many others.

“I wanted to be a jockey, but my mom and grandfather told me I was going to be too big, so then I wanted to be a trainer,” he said. “After Arizona, I ended up going to Kentucky, where I worked on a farm with mares and foals and for Taylor Made for the September sale.”

From there, he moved to Florida, where he worked for J.J. Crupi, pinhooking yearlings. “My condo was attached to a barn,” he said, his voice softening with nostalgia. “I had horses for neighbors. I got up and went to sleep around them. I miss it right now more than I ever have.”

He made his way back to California and worked at Santa Anita for a few months before leaving to help his father with his business. He ended up working for an insurance company and later started his own upholstery company.

“Horses turned into a hobby,” he said. “I enjoy the contests – the people and the competition are awesome – but the betting isn’t the only thing that drew me to the sport.”

Unlike Gary Johnson [http://www.drf.com/news/johnson-goes-windows-stalls], Avila has no immediate plans to return to the backside. He stays involved through gambling and horse ownership. He has shares in two runners via Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, including stakes winner Lady Valeur. “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said, “and it’s been great to get the family involved in a different way.”

These days, Avila’s family visits to the track include his mom, sister, and nephew, Josh Montes, who made a splash in his debut at the National Handicapping Championship back in 2016, finishing in the top 20 and cashing a nice check for more than $19,000. His mentor? You guessed it: his uncle.

“I started with him the same way my grandfather started with me,” Avila said. “I taught him the basics so he could get a good foundation. Handicapping is a lot different now than it was 20 years ago; there is so much more information, and before he got lost, I wanted him to understand about pace, class, surfaces, and running styles. From there, I’ll let him search out his own methods.”

It’s been a good few weeks in contest play for Avila, who made the semifinals at this year’s NHC and just last weekend won a seat to the Wynn Challenge on DRF Tournaments [tournaments.drf.com].

For now, you won’t see him raking any shed rows, but you will see his name on the leaderboard. And if you stop by the Dungeon on a Saturday night, you might see him and Pearring perusing the Form, trying to dope out the late pick four at Los Alamitos.