06/10/2016 2:06PM

Life lessons apply to contests, too

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Everything Leo Vukmanovich needed to know about business he learned taking book on horses in the bars of Los Angeles. These days, the Cypress, Calif., resident is a regular at Santa Anita: a big, tall, beloved figure around the Eddie Logan Suite, the Great Race Place’s horseplayer VIP area.

Vukmanovich, 56, who won his way into the Santa Anita Gold Cup Contest on DRF Tournaments (tournaments.drf.com) last weekend, traveled 2.5 million miles all over the world over the last 25-plus years as an information-technology specialist. He currently runs a small computer-consulting company. During his career, he has worked special events and been the go-to guy for the chief executive of Accenture, a $30 billion global professional-services company that has 275,000 employees.

He was working construction after high school when a colleague took him to a San Gabriel Valley bar to make a bet on a football game. He befriended the guy who ran the place and became his personal driver. When a spot opened up within the bookmaking organization, Vukmanovich took it.

“I was always betting horses, so I knew the game,” he said.

This was in the era before cellphones. People would come in and make bets, and all the players had nicknames: Philly Joe, Bob the Painter, Jack the Butcher, etc. There was a back office he and his group would work with. They would rent a hotel room near Santa Anita, and from the roof they could glimpse the tote board with binoculars and get the results, then call them in from the hotel-room phone.

The boss would set it up where Vukmanovich would open a bar tab – players could come in and drink for free, bet horses and sports, and hang out. One edge a player had betting in the bars was that he could play $1 exactas, whereas at the track, the minimum exacta bet was $5 back then. It got to the point where he was booking $10,000 a day in $2, $5, and $10 increments. There was just one problem: It was all highly illegal.

Over the years, he worked in a lot of different bars in a lot of different places in L.A. because he’d get arrested and have to start over. The fines escalated from $100 to $2,000. After his 11th arrest, Vukmanovich went to jail for six months for bookmaking. At that point, he’d had enough.

“That was the end,” he said, “After that, I went to a one-year tech school for computer repair.”

Vukmanovich still sees some of the characters he knew from those days at Santa Anita. “Some of them pretend they don’t remember me, but I definitely remember them,” he said.

Unlike other businesspeople with advanced degrees and a lot of specific training, Vukmanovich attributes his success to the lessons he learned back in the day:

The critical importance of integrity. “What was really important was being honest and making sure people got paid,” he said. “Even if we got hit pretty hard, the boss would just take out a wad of hundred-dollar bills and pay everybody right on the pool table; there was a lot of credibility and trust. The equivalent of that in IT was someone coming to me with a problem and knowing it was going to get solved.”

The value of customer service. “I treated the $2 bettor just the same as the guy that was betting $100,” he said. “I treated the lowest-level guy in my company, say an analyst, the same way I treated the CEO. A lot of people don’t get that. You have to give people everything you’ve got in terms of service. Plus, you never know, that analyst might become the CEO one day.”

Keeping an even keel. “You have to have a poker face,” he said. “Nobody knew if I was winning or losing.” That ability to keep calm under stress served him extremely well when managing professional crises.

Little things mean a lot. “I was very detailed. I didn’t miss anything,” he said.

That latter skill translates well to playing the horses, and he’ll rely on his detail-oriented handicapping approach in two weeks at Santa Anita, where he’ll have a chance at a $1 million bonus at the Breeders’ Cup should he go on to win both the Santa Anita contest and the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge. But for now, his focus is on the matter at hand.

“I’m just excited to be able to play at the best track with the people who run tournaments better than anybody,” he said.