09/01/2005 12:00AM

No place else he'd rather be

Benoit & Associates
Jimmy Nestegard, who has cancer, is spending his summer at Del Mar.

DEL MAR, Calif. - It has been an unusual summer in Box 32 of the Del Mar grandstand.

Surrounded by racetrack chatter, Jimmy Nestegard hunches over marked-up past performances, reviews a colorful handmade chart, and studies the tote board. While his handicapping style is his own, it is not noticeably different from other bettors fighting through a Del Mar summer of bad rides, bad calls, and bad beats.

But there are two sides to Nestegard. Friendly and enthusiastic, the droll 68-year-old has been so busy handicapping and making friends with ushers, trainers, jockeys, and fellow horseplayers, that he has had little time to consider the possibility this summer might be his last summer.

Bone cancer has spread to Nestegard's lymph nodes. He recently asked doctors if he would make it to Christmas. The doctors' grim reply: "We can't tell you that."

"Fortunately, I'm not scared to die. I'm really not," he said.

Believe it. Nestegard is tough. He ran marathons, competed in triathlons, served four years in the Navy, and was a successful entrepreneur before becoming an even better handicapper. His attitude and humor belie his condition.

There is no time for sympathy. Not with six-day-a-week racing.

"I don't even think about the cancer," he said. "I'm having fun. And hell, you're handicapping all the time. It's made me a new person. I don't feel like I've been screwed. I'm living my wish; I know this Del Mar experience is keeping me alive."

Nestegard actually considers himself lucky. He frequently recites a favorite expression: Life is not a game, it's how you play the game of life.

"I didn't understand that until I heard the word cancer," he said. "What it means is that you have to roll with it, go with it. It does no good to fight the situation. Accept the situation, and do what you can. You can't sit there and drag your ass around. You have to get your feet under you and get going. And here I am."

Nestegard was introduced to racing in 1989 at the Hilton in Reno, Nev. Until this year, he had seen live racing four times, including a 2002 trip to Turf Paradise, where he finished second in a handicapping tournament and qualified for the Daily Racing Form/National Thorough-bred Racing Association Handicap-ping Championship.

Spending an entire summer at a live race meet did not cross his mind until he met with his broker to get his affairs in order.

"He said, 'You've busted your ass off for 65 years,' " Nestegard said.

" 'Why don't you do something for yourself?' "

It sounded like a good idea.

"I went home and told my wife, 'I'm going to Del Mar,' " he said. "And when I'm done with that, I'm going to buy a Corvette and go up to Los Angeles and pick up Route 66 and go all the way to Chicago."

Nestegard's wife, Gail, endorsed the idea. "I'm always up for an adventure; Jimmy came to the realization that now is his time to enjoy life," she said.

It is not reckless whim. Friends and family say Nestegard is frugal, almost to a fault. It is reflected in his wagering habits - Nestegard's standard bet is a $6 daily double, though he occasionally swings for a home run in a superfecta.

He credits handicapper Steve Fierro for teaching him the nuts and bolts of handicapping, which includes the cautionary advice to "be very careful with your money," Nestegard said. "I got carried away a couple times, and I started to realize that, boy, this game is money management."

Although Nestegard uses computer programs and published selections by Fierro, Jon Lindo, and a DRF handicapper to identify contenders, he walks to his own beat.

"I like horses that finished third and fourth," he said. "I want to see slight improvement, and I hardly ever re-bet a horse that finishes first. I ran marathons and triathlons. I know your body wears down. Horses are the same way."

Even at 68, Nestegard recognizes that winning at the races requires fresh, unique ideas.

"You have to think outside the box," he said. "I try not to get stagnant. I try not to get complacent. I want to know what are we not looking at? I try to break the mold. That's hard for me, because I am a 'mold' person."

Even while he lives with the disease that eventually will kill him, Nestegard remains full of life. He jokes with his friends in Reno about his pending cremation and the urn that will hold his ashes - what will his wife do with "the jar?"

"I can see it coming," he said. "The jar and Gail will go to Santa Anita, and she'll turn to the jar and say 'Who should I bet on now?' "

Ten days before the start of Del Mar, doctors told Nestegard the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. He declined radiation treatment.

"You can fight things and not accomplish things," he said. "I could spend time fighting, dammit, but I just accept each day, accept what's happening, and work around it."

Some days are harder than others. "Some mornings when I get up, it's tough," he said. "I just psyche myself up [and say], 'Hey, we're going to the track, we're going to have fun. It's another day, and you're going to run with the football.' You have to continue appreciating each day and finding fun."

For Nestegard, acceptance and surrender are opposite concepts. "I can see where some people just give up," he said. "But if you set new objectives and new goals, you're going to be there. When you give up on setting objectives, you're dying."

The current objective for Nestegard is to uncover nuggets in the past performances and continue the racetrack banter in Box 32.

"The thing is," he said, "I've lived my life. I feel good about that."

Even still, Nestegard remains both realistic and hopeful. "There are miracles," he said. "You have to earn the miracles. You have to do it yourself."