10/19/2016 12:23PM

Robb a handicapping wizard from Oz

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One of Anthony Robb’s first memories involves horse racing. Robb grew up in Mansfield, Victoria, at the foot of the high country in Australia, about a two-hour drive from Melbourne. He vividly recalls sitting on his grandfather’s lap, with a form guide spread out in front of him. The radio was playing the calls of that day’s races.

Robb’s grandfather Frank is still playing the horses every day. On his 93rd birthday, just two weeks ago, he cashed a nice double, though he missed out on his favorite bet that day, “the Quaddie,” the Down Under version of the pick four. He was thrilled, however, when Robb called him this week to let him know he’d qualified for the National Handicapping Championship for the first time, winning an NHC online qualifier last Saturday.

These days, Robb, 41, lives in Fort Lee, N.J., and runs his own merchant services consulting business, Stoneleigh. But before he moved to these shores for good 17 years ago, he briefly worked for a famous Australian bookmaker, Robbie Waterhouse.

“I was a clerk,” Robb explained in an accent now filtered through two decades of living in and around New York City. “I would handle the bags and spend all day on the computer placing bets. It was a little stressful – those bags were full of cash and any mistake on the computer could cost somebody a lot of money.”

Even while working, Robb would have the occasional bet with another bookie, and soon it was agreed that he should be on the other side of the counter, as it were. “It was good to get back to the right side of the track,” Robb quipped.

He learned a lot from his brief time in the ring. “The bookies mostly always win, beating up the general population,” he said. “In a way, top players and bookmakers are working together and everyone else is just feeding the system.”

That different view of the game is one of the things that led him to contest play just four years ago. But first he had to come to understand something about American racing.

“I thought it was really weird they ran on dirt,” he said, “and I was surprised when I picked up the local newspapers and there was no form guide.”

Soon after Robb discovered Daily Racing Form, and then, in short order, OTB. He’s also been an actor on and off for 20 years. In 2002 he had an audition downtown on a Friday, the day before the Kentucky Derby. “I walked into the OTB on Varick Street and thought,  'This is gross, I don’t know about this.' "

But despite the tickets on the floor, a few unsavory characters, and the overall olfactory offense, he ended up loving the place. “I came up with War Emblem and ended up with an each-way bet, plus a small exacta and tri. I thought to myself, ‘I can’t wait to go back to that dirty place.’ ”

Soon he discovered the better side of American racing. There was War Emblem’s Belmont, an all-night drive to the Derby the following year, and a memorable trip to Saratoga that brought things full circle for Robb.

It was Aug. 29, 2004. Robb took the bus from Port Authority up to the Spa with $100 in his pocket. He planned it as a day trip to bet on an Australian horse named Alighi, a Grade 1-winning Aussie superstar who was trained by Gai Waterhouse back home, now in the care of Bobby Frankel.

“They didn’t bring her there to lose,” Robb said of the filly, who left no doubt who was best that day and became an instant contender for the Breeders' Cup Mile before getting hurt.

There’s a reason one of his racing buddies nicknamed him “Hurricane” Anthony. You never know what will happen when he blows into town. “I made a few friends and we had a great time that night. I ended up sleeping on the floor of a Saratoga motel and when I woke up I didn’t quite know where I was.”

Last weekend’s online win made up for a couple of years of frustration chasing NHC glory. “This year alone I would have qualified three times except for two noses and one mistake,” he said, referencing a time when he changed his pick in the last leg of contest, eschewing his initial longshot pick for a favorite.

The key move this time was that he stuck to his guns in the last race, an optional-claiming event at Santa Anita. He had studied hard for the sequence, and hadn’t changed a pick all day. His initial selection for the anchor leg was Got Even, a 12-1 shot. Robb liked his local record of success and thought he might just have a pace edge as well. But he also knew he didn’t need a 12-1 in that spot; all he needed to do was pick the winner and he’d be off his NHC duck.

“I was nervous about the price, especially when it drifted,” he said, “but no one else appealed to me and I couldn’t have lived with myself if I’d gotten off and cost myself qualifying again.”

In the end, Got Even did more than get Robb even. He got him out and up.