12/28/2016 1:00PM

Legendary handicapper Russ Harris dies at 93


Russ Harris was an athlete and a scholar, but he will always be remembered for being a terrific public handicapper. Harris died Wednesday at the age of 93 at his home in Bryn Mawr, Pa.

“He basically died of old age. He didn’t have a long, drawn-out illness,” said Harris’s son, Craig Donnelly, who followed his father’s footsteps into the field of handicapping.

Harris began handicapping in 1958 for the Akron Beacon Journal under the nom de plume Phil Dancer. Harris told Bill Finley in a 2005 column for ESPN that Phil meant “friend of horses” in Greek, and Dancer came from Native Dancer, one of his favorite horses.

Harris worked for the Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Daily Racing Form before arriving at the New York Daily News in 1977, where he worked until his retirement at the end of 2008. He was selected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame’s Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor in 2011.

On May 8, 1981, Harris selected all nine winners on a card at Belmont Park and, according to Donnelly, was most proud of his selection of Coastal, who upset Spectacular Bid’s Triple Crown attempt in the 1979 Belmont Stakes.

“He wrote a lot, but he loved the handicapping aspect of it because he was very competitive,” Donnelly said. “They kept score how many winners everybody was picking, and he always prided himself on picking more winners than everybody. It was important to him.”

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“I take it very seriously,” Harris told DRF’s Jay Hovdey in 2008. “If you’re looking for hunches, don’t come to me. I try to pick every race like it’s the ninth, and I’ve just won eight.”

Harris wanted to be a pitcher, but his fledgling baseball career was disrupted by World War II. Still, in 2002, he was selected for the Greater Akron Baseball Hall of Fame.

According to Donnelly, Harris was also an academic, getting degrees from four universities, including a master’s in American history from Lehigh in 1999 when he was 76 years old.

Donnelly said he caught the racing bug from his father.

“The first time I went to Hialeah and saw how beautiful the animals are and handicapping the races and you get paid if you win,” Donnelly said, “I thought, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this.’ ”

Visitation will be held at Chadwick & McKinney Funeral Home in Ardmore, Pa., on Monday from 10-11 a.m.

In addition to Donnelly, Harris is survived by sons Stephen and Michael and daughter Janine.

– additional reporting by Jim Dunleavy