04/26/2012 3:12PM

Hovdey: Paying back those responsible for big scores

Horse Photos
Michael Beychok won the 2012 Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas in January.

Video: Glorious Dancer wins at Golden Gate last Sunday for owner Michael Beychok.

Whether life imitates art or the other way around really does not matter, not when the story hits home as a tale imbued with the assuring touch of truth.

Still, it did sound like a preposterous swing at the stars when Michael Beychok, dramatic winner of the 2012 Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas last January, marked his million-dollar triumph six weeks later by claiming the horse that, in effect, won him the tournament.

Except that . . .

In between Beychock’s NHC win and his sentimental claim, two episodes of the HBO series “Luck” (with which this writer was proudly associated) dealt with the idea that a bunch of hardcore gambling degenerates who’d just made a multi-million score would reach out to buy the longshot they singled on their winning pick-six ticket. It was a wildly romantic notion.

Except that . . .

Two years earlier a college professor named Douglas Johnson had gone to great lengths to rescue from an apparent case of serious over-racing a filly named Warren’s Sassy Cat, familiar to Johnson because he had cashed a bet for nearly $50,000 when she had won early in her otherwise mediocre career.

Fiction or non, the idea that gamblers have a soft spot for the horses who get them home is not necessarily an outrageous concept. Rare, but not outrageous. Beychok, a political consultant by trade, won his million-dollar contest pot when the 4-year-old filly Glorious Dancer got up in the last jump to win by a nose at 3-1 in his final bet of the tournament. His winning margin was a dollar.

“I’ve claimed horses before,” Beychok said. “But they’ve all been business decisions. This is the first sentimental claim, but obviously this filly has a special place in my heart.”

Beychok claimed Glorious Dancer out of her March 11 start at Golden Gate for $6,250 and turned her over to Steve Sherman. Beychok swears he was not inspired by the intervening episodes of “Luck,” which he saw, but could not recall the specifics of the parallel plot. And since he is a Louisiana-based political consultant, we believe him without pause.

“As well you should,” Beychok said. “Don’t buy the hype about politics. It’s all for the children.”

Last Sunday at Golden Gate, Glorious Dancer carried Beychok’s colors for the first time and won, this time for a more modest purse of $4,626 that still felt like a million.

“This was strictly lagniappe that she was able to win a race for us after all that had happened,” Beychok said, lapsing briefly into his regional term for “an unexpected gift.”

Doug Johnson can tell you all about the unexpected, welcomed or otherwise. Johnson, who teaches English at Green River Community College in Auburn, Wash., placed the biggest bet of his handicapping life – “exponentially bigger” as he puts it – on Warren’s Sassy Cat in a maiden claiming event at Santa Anita on April 3, 2008. She won, at odds of 3-1, in what was only the second start of her career.

Johnson will never forget the day, but not because of the horse. It was on that same day four years ago when Johnson and his wife, Mary, parents already of a 6-year-old girl, learned that their 18-month-old daughter Gretchen might be suffering from a rare genetic disorder that, if confirmed by tests, could lead to a shortened lifespan filled with constant monitoring for deadly lung and liver tumors. Johnson heard this news, then went to his online account and placed the biggest bet of his life, as if rolling dice in bald defiance of fate.

When he won, when Warren’s Sassy Cat came to the wire a length on top in the last race of the day, Johnson felt the weight of the world magically lift. As he described it, in writing the story:

“I sat in disbelief for a long moment. Then I bolted upstairs. Mary sat with Gretchen and Laura on the bed, her face still filled with fear. ‘I just won $50,000!’ I exclaimed, and, as if understanding all that I meant and intended in that simple declarative, my wife broke down and cried. And all at once, I was seized with more insight. ‘You’ll see! We’re going to remember April 3, 2008, as a happy day!’ ”

Further tests revealed that Gretchen was not afflicted with the feared condition. Her parents were relieved, overjoyed, and grateful, to the extent that Doug Johnson made a vow to evermore follow the racing fortunes of Warren’s Sassy Cat, the filly who in her own way tried to tell them everything would be okay. To his horror, he watched her run 27 times over the following 14 months, never winning but often showing enough heart to hit the board. Finally, he’d seen enough.

Seeking advice from racehorse rescue advocates Katie Merwick of Second Chance Ranch and Priscilla Clark of Tranquility Farm, Johnson was able to track down the elusive owners of Warren’s Sassy Cat. There ensued a protracted negotiation, during which the owners seemed clearly intent on plucking what they perceived to be a pigeon, but Johnson held firm and got the mare for his final offer. In February 2010, Warren’s Sassy Cat arrived in Auburn to be welcomed by her new family.

“I spend more time out at the barn now around the horse than I do handicapping,” Johnson said this week. “In a way, for me, it’s a lot more satisfying.”

Michael Beychok, who will receive an Eclipse Award as America’s champion handicapper, vows Glorious Dancer is guaranteed the good life whenever her racing days are done.

“I’d love to bring her home to Louisiana and maybe breed her, or just have her around to talk to,” Beychok said. “Maybe she’d have a foal with the same big heart as her mother.”

As for Gretchen Johnson, she is going on 6 now, a healthy little girl with nothing more than a delay in her speech development. Whenever she can, both she and her sister go out to a nearby stables with their dad and ride the 7-year-old chestnut mare that answers only to the name of Sassy.