11/24/2016 12:39PM

Cook, Knepper unfamiliar friends, rivals

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This year’s top two finishers from the Public Handicapper Challenge, Greg Knepper and Bill Cook, have a lot to be thankful for, including their recent qualifications for the National Handicapping Championship. Knepper finished just $3 ahead of Cook at the end of the six-month contest. The two men otherwise have a lot of similarities and a few marked differences.

They have both been playing on the PublicHandicapper for a long time. In fact, Cook has been on PH since the beginning, all the way back in 1999. “I heard about it from a buddy,” explained the 74-year-old retired letter carrier who resides in Parma, Ohio. “I had a few friends on there and we’d bet amongst ourselves.”

Even though he enjoyed contest play he didn’t get more involved until recently. This is his first year on the NHC Tour. “I didn’t know much about it then and I don’t know much more now,” he said, “but I read about [joining the Tour] and saw there were some benefits. Since I sit on the computer gambling every day I figured I should probably join.”

Knepper, 54, a salesman in West Lawn, Pa., has been a contest player for many years, dating back to the old Penn National World Series of Handicapping days. It was also at Penn National where he went with his future wife (and fellow contest player), Cheryl, on just their second date. “If you’re going to stick with me, you better get used to this place,” he informed her. “I knew it was a good sign for the relationship when she had a good time.”

Appropriately enough, that night Cheryl made a hunch selection on a runner named Shesnoordinarylady.

“I didn’t like the horse at all in the Form but I had to play it,” Knepper said.

Shesnoordinarylady won and paid $11.

Like so many horseplayer origin stories, Knepper and Cook both had an early success that led to their lifelong passions. For Knepper, once again Penn National played a role. “We went on a family trip when I was 13,” Knepper said. “I don’t know it was the best thing that ever happened to me or the worst, but I picked a couple of winners.

Cook has been “a half-assed handicapper since the '60s,” when he went to a local bookie shop with a group of colleagues. “We played a six-horse parlay where we each picked one race and we won,” he said.

He attended the Derby every year for two decades, the most memorable being Sunday Silence’s clash with Easy Goer, which he watched from the second floor of the Churchill grandstand, a mint julep in hand.

This will be Knepper’s sixth trip to Las Vegas for the NHC; of course for rookie Cook it will be his maiden voyage. Knepper has a lot of friends in the contest world, including veteran players Mark Maguire, Brent Sumja, and his riding buddy Joe Koury, “but don’t hold that against me,” he quipped.

He sits at an accomplished table every year in Vegas that includes Chris Skotz, Don Allen, Trey Stiles, Matt Ransdell, and Todd Stark, a group who stay in touch throughout the year. “There is a lot of ball-busting that goes on, but when a couple of those guys like the same price horse, I’ll make sure that I play it,” he said.

On the NHC’s first day two years ago he broke well, finishing in third on day one, but then the wheels came off. “When you’re going well you can get a 90-dollar horse,” he said. “Then other times you can’t get a 5-2 shot even when that’s all you need.”

Cook, by contrast, knows only one other player at the NHC – and they’ve never even met. “Greg Knepper is the only name I know,” Cook said, “the guy who beat me out of first by $3.”

The two men look forward to meeting in person at the 2017 NHC. “I want to congratulate him,” said Knepper of his PH rival, “for the sake of that $3 it could have gone each way.”

CORRECTION: An article earlier this week incorrectly indicated that Paul Matties Jr. had won his second NHC seat online last weekend. It was his father, Paul Sr., aka Chick, who won the seat.