08/24/2004 11:00PM

From horse tracks to Binion's Horseshoe


Even though he works in real estate, Frank Brabec is not a household name. Yet.

You might know of him if you followed horse racing in the Chicago area in the 1980's and 1990's. Brabec worked for a radio station in suburban Crystal Lake, Ill., and realized that reading the news was the only way to get on the air. He did the afternoon news and started playing the stretch run from the Arlington Park feature race every day.

That led to working for a few area newspapers, including The Northwest Herald, where he provided daily picks and wrote stories. He also did the "Thoroughbred Report" on local radio stations, had his picks in the selectors box of The Racing Times during its short run, and was Hawthorne's publicity director when the track celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1991.

"I wrote the history of Hawthorne Race Course for the anniversary," Brabec said. "It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. I did all my research that summer, going through all the old papers at the DRF office on Elston Avenue."

But as much fun as he was having, Brabec was weary of the low pay, as well as the long hours that kept him away from his wife, Sheri, and three kids. His wife's business started taking off, so he started help her. And while still an avid horseplayer and fan, he found another hobby: poker.

Actually, the 48-year-old Brabec says he's been playing poker since Easter Sunday 1964, when he was 8.

"We played for chocolate eggs and jelly beans," Brabec said. "It was a tough game. I had to beat some tough 14-year-olds, but I got all the candy."

Starting in 1998, long before the current poker explosion, Brabec played online and honed his game against top players such as Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, the 2000 World Series of Poker champion.

"We would practice, practice, practice, and talk about the hands," Brabec said. "The key to poker is hanging out with guys who are smarter than you, and learning from them."

Brabec obviously learned something, as he shows up this week on ESPN's coverage of the World Series of Poker. He made his national TV debut on Tuesday night, when he was part of the climactic hand in ESPN's two-hour coverage. The episode with Brabec will be rerun on Friday at 9 p.m. Eastern on ESPN, and again on Saturday at 3 p.m. Eastern on ESPN2.

Wearing a red shirt and a baseball hat, Brabec appears just after the halfway point at the featured table.

"For the TV coverage, there's a lot of hands they don't show," Brabec said. "I was involved in a number of good hands at the TV table, but they tend to show hands of people with bad beats or getting eliminated."

The big hand involving Brabec, which ESPN saved for last, met both criteria as three-time World Poker Tour winner Gus Hansen was knocked out of the tournament. But it was Brabec who suffered the bad beat.

The pot grew to $366,500, the biggest of the tournament up to that point, and Brabec held king-10 in his hand. The community cards also included a king and a 10. Hansen was going for a flush, but Mattias Andersson had a higher flush draw. According to the ESPN coverage, Brabec was a 71 percent favorite going into the final card, but it came up a spade and Andersson made his flush, winning the pot and crippling Brabec's chance to get among the chip leaders. Andersson's big win propelled him to the final table, where he finished eighth, earning $575,000.

"That could have been me," said Brabec, who was playing in his sixth WSOP and for only the second time in the main event. "I took a lot of my lessons learned in horse racing over to poker. You're looking for value, and you want to bet the most when you have the best of it. I had the best hand going in, but it didn't work out. But I would do it again; the odds were in my favor."

Brabec was eliminated later that day (though he doesn't know if that will be on next week's episode) and walked away with $15,000. Not bad for getting into the $10,000 buy-in tournament by winning a supersatellite tournament with a buy-in of $225. In all, Brabec said he spent $1,475 on qualifying events before earning his seat.

Brabec said he was thrilled with his first appearance on ESPN.

"It was my first time playing in front of cameras, and I was definitely aware of them," Brabec said. "You try and concentrate on your hands - and I don't think it affected my play - but you look up and there's big screens all around and I see my big face up there. Next time, I'll be more comfortable."

* On the second day of the tournament, Brabec said, he was at the same table as former jockey and agent Ronnie Ebanks, who has booked mounts for Shane Sellers, Mark Guidry, and Jorge Chavez. Ebanks has also had success on the California poker circuit.

* Next year's World Series of Poker, which traditionally has concluded before Memorial Day, is being pushed back to June 3 and will run through July 15, with the championship event starting on July 7. Anticipating another explosion in the number of entries, the early rounds will be held at the Rio Convention Center, with the final two days at Binion's Horseshoe downtown.

Vegas horse bits

Race book manager Norman Kelley, who has worked for 18 years at Sam's Town ("since when we still used to book horses by hand," he says), is retiring on Sept. 5, his 62nd birthday. The way of taking bets may have changed, but the way of treating customers remained the same, and Kelley will be missed.

* For horse lovers, the world-famous Lipizzaner Stallions will be performing at the Orleans Arena on Friday through Sunday. Showtimes and ticket information can be found at orleanscasino.com.

* Another Coast Casino property, the Suncoast, will hold "Del Mar Day at the Suncoast" on Monday, featuring one seminar at 9 a.m. with DRF's Lauren Stich and the Review-Journal's Richard Eng, and another at noon with DRF's Brad Free. There will also be a $5,000 contest on the first five races at Del Mar, as well as a free $1,000 ladies-only contest, plus refreshments and souvenirs.