04/17/2008 11:00PM

Living the dream at Keeneland

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - If you love handicapping and betting on horse races, you have probably dreamed about making a living as a professional bettor.

It's a sweet dream. Imagine saying goodbye to your dull, repetitive job, your boss who rarely seems to appreciate the good work you do, and the annoying co-worker who drives everyone crazy.

Mike Maloney, of Lexington, is living that dream, and on a much grander scale than most people would dare to imagine. He bets between $6 million and $12 million a year, closer to the high end than the low end if things are going well. That works out to between $25,000 and $50,000 per racing day.

Maloney, 52, is based at Keeneland throughout the year. So where does a guy who bets as much as $12 million a year sit at Keeneland? If Maloney cared to throw his weight around, he could probably sit just about anywhere he wants to. But Maloney's humility prevents him from making requests like that.

Keeneland wants Maloney and his associates to be comfortable, so they have given him a private room to work out of, complete with amenities geared to his handicapping needs.

"Mike is at the very top among our players, and he definitely deserves an appropriate place to do his work," Keeneland spokesman Jim Williams said.

I imagined Maloney's accommodations would be along the lines of a high roller's suite at Caesars Palace. But that isn't what Maloney imagined, or wanted. What I saw was a comfortable, attractive, functional office with lots of desk space, a couple computers, a fax machine, a couch, and a small refrigerator. The only luxurious aspect of it was that there were 12 televisions.

"I'll bet you're wondering if anybody could really need to watch a dozen TVs at the same time," Maloney said. "The answer is yes, when there are a lot of tracks running during the day, there are things we want to keep an eye on at all of those tracks."

Maloney wants to have a good understanding of all of the tracks he follows, but he isn't locked into any pattern as far as which ones qualify for bets on any given day. He plays a number of major and mid-sized tracks, but he isn't afraid to follow a minor track like Beulah, either, if something about their race card appeals to him. No bet is off limits, either, from simple win bets to the pick six, or the High Five.

Maloney can't follow all of the action on the 12 televisions himself, but he does with a little help. That assistance comes from Sean Boarman, who is in his late 20s. He tracked Maloney down after hearing him speak on a webcast. He wanted to learn how to be a professional horseplayer.

"I tried to dissuade him for six months, giving him lots of reasons why," Maloney said. "I didn't discourage him from learning about handicapping, but I did try to discourage him from trying to make a living at it."

The discouragement didn't work. The benefit to Maloney is that he has someone he trusts to share a portion of his workload. The benefit to Boarman is an incalculably valuable apprenticeship. Although they share the work, and they agree on a number of things, they each come to their own conclusions and wager separately, so their results vary. While Boarman does a lot of things right, and has an expert teacher, it still remains to be seen if he will be successful as a professional bettor over the long haul.

Maloney's son Patrick, 16, helps his father with the management of information when things are busy. It isn't certain that he will try to follow in his father's footsteps, but there is definitely an interest in it on his part.

How does a serious amateur bettor know when he might be ready to turn professional? In Maloney's case, the transition was gradual.

"From the time I graduated from Eastern Kentucky University, I went into a partnership with my dad operating small antique shops," Maloney said.

That didn't support his family completely, but a combination of that revenue and the money he won betting on horses has enabled him to live comfortably, and to send his children to private school.

"At some point, I began to make as much or more money betting on horses than I was making with antiques," he said. "That was a requirement for me, to be profitable for three years while playing part-time, before giving up my business. Once I had done that, I felt confident in giving up the business. I convinced myself at that point that I was deserving of a shot at being a professional."

There are certain hazards that aspiring professional bettors must watch out for.

"I find that the thing that keeps most people from doing well at the races as a serious player is the meltdown factor," Maloney said. "You can go for three months, or six months, and do very well and be very confident. Then sometimes in a two-week span it can all come undone if a person lets it happen. Even for me, it's something to be constantly aware of."

Maloney has worked out a way of minimizing the likelihood of a meltdown in his own betting.

"I have a complicated set of rules I put on myself to keep me in the right amounts, with the right limits, at the right times," he explained. "That's a prerequisite for being a long-term winning horseplayer."

As you can see, it takes a special person with a number of special traits to be successful as a professional bettor. Maloney's success is the exception, not the rule. Aspiring professionals should proceed cautiously before assuming that they are among the few who can actually pull it off.

* Next week: Mike Maloney discusses his handicapping and betting strategies.