Updated on 09/17/2011 11:18PM

Wife's advice crowns a champ

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Ron Rippey gives two thumbs up to his winner's purse of $250,000. Mark Lowe took home second-place money of $100,000. Both had the 17-1 winner in the contest's final race.

LAS VEGAS - Ron Rippey had just won the $250,000 first prize at the seventh annual on Saturday night and earned Handicapper of the Year honors.

But he didn't want to go to Disney World or brag about it to the ESPN2 cameras. Rippey, 65, of Wayne, N.J., a public handicapper for the past 43 years and the last 28 at the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger, wanted to celebrate with his wife of 39 years, Arlene. In what is sure to be the signature moment when ESPN2 airs a one-hour special on Feb. 19, Rippey cut short his interview and walked through the cheering throng in the Bally's race book to the area overlooking the book, and gave Arlene a hug and a kiss.

In the background, Santa Anita was showing a replay of race No. 10, the final race of the contest and a mandatory race for all who made 15 mythical $2 win-and-place bets each day of the two-day event. Rippey had Alluring Bel, a first-time starter who went off at 17-1 and ran down front-running 8-5 favorite Julep Cup. The $21,820 maiden claiming race had a bigger financial impact for the top handicapping championship contenders than it did for the owners, trainers, and jockeys at Santa Anita. Cheryl Britt, 48, of Madison, Ala., was leading going into the final race and just needed one of the favorites to win to hold off her competitors. Instead, the top four finishers all had Alluring Bel. The $36 win price and $12.60 to place pushed Rippey's score to 237.20 (scores are based on parimutuel payoffs, but capped at $42 to win and $22 to place). Mark Lowe, 58, of Bayonet Point, Fla., finished second with 228.60 points and won $100,000. Mel Moser, 55, of Lexington Ky., was third with 227.60 and won $50,000. Louis Licata, 47, of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, was fourth with 219.70 and collected $25,000. Britt had to settle for fifth place at 219.30 and $10,000.

In addition to the top 20 finishers cashing, contestants were also playing as part of three-member teams based on where they qualified. Team Sam Houston Park had the highest cumulative score of $543.60. All three members - Steve Wolfson Sr., 64, of Ormond Beach, Fla,; Matthew Martin, 53, of Katy, Texas; and Robert Chandler, 65, of Texas City, Texas - finished in the top 28.

But Rippey didn't want to settle for any lesser prize.

"I wasn't playing for second place," Rippey said. "It was all or nothing. I would have played her at 99-1, but not 6-1 or 7-1."

Rippey said a mistake on Friday, a horse he passed who won at 18-1, was really the key to the victory - along with the ensuing advice from his wife.

"I was afraid to waste a bullet and missed that 18-1 at Oaklawn," Rippey said. "She told me to put everything behind me and be more aggressive. After that, I wasn't afraid to take chances. When I saw a horse I like, I attacked."

Even after missing that opportunity, Rippey was 28th after the first day with 85.40 points. He kept playing aggressively, and his first eight plays Saturday ran out of the money, but then he caught fire. He nailed Total Command ($42 to win, $19.40 to place) in Oaklawn's eighth race, Roman Murphy ($15.60 to win, $8 to place) in Gulfstream's 10th, and Gold Ruckus ($6.40 to win, $3.80 to place) in Bay Meadows' fifth, a mandatory race.

But this wasn't the first time following his wife's advice paid off for Rippey. On their honeymoon in 1967, they were in England and bought a Jaguar for $7,000 and had it shipped back to the States. Upon returning home, they learned they could only get approval for a $3,000 loan instead of the full amount, and they only had $500 in the bank.

"I got a tip on a horse named Bolinasclip and wanted to bet $100 on it," Rippey said. "I asked my wife and she said to bet the whole $500. Bolinasclip won at $28.80 and paid for the Jaguar almost to the penny."

Rippey said this much bigger windfall will go toward allowing him to retire earlier than he was planning, as well as establishing college funds for their five grandchildren.

The Rippeys own four Rainbow Montessori schools in New Jersey and will continue with that as well as supporting the charity Healing the Children, which aids children with serious medical problems.

The Rippeys have taken seven such children into their home over the years, but it was Ron Rippey's health problems that had an unlikely benefit to his handicapping in recent years, as he was diagnosed with diabetes and other ailments in 2000.

"Arlene told me to stop coming to the school and to take care of myself," he said. "I can do a lot of my work at home, and I have TVG and HRTV on all day long. My medical problems helped me with my handicapping because it made me sit still."

The lessons he has learned have served him well, as did the previous experience of having played in the National Handicapping Championship two years ago, when he finished 47th.

"I made a lot of mistakes the last time," Rippey said. "I worked the previous day and arrived the night before. With the long flight and the time change, I vowed not to do that again, so we arrived Monday, and I was fresher.

"There is no substitute for experience, and no substitute for having guts when you need it."

And, for Rippey, no substitute for a supportive wife.

Top 20 Players

The final results of the seventh annual Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship at Las Vegas.

FinishName, AgeHometownScorePrize Money
1Ron Rippey, 61Wayne, N.J.237.20$250,000
2Mark Lowe, 58Bayonet Point, Fla.228.60100,000
3Mel Moser, 55Lexington, Ky.227.6050,000
4Louis Licata, 47Chagrin Falls, Ohio219.7025,000
5Cheryl Britt, 48Madison, Ala.219.3015,000
6Tom Zipp, 48Park Ridge, Ill.213.306,000
7Paul Yavorski, 41Whippany, N.J.213.006,000
8Bob Bandzwolek, 56Baltimore, Md.209.906,000
9Richard Murray, 63North Hills, Calif.204.006,000
10Steve Valiant, 43Brooklyn, N.Y.203.706,000
11Steve Wolfson Sr., 64Ormond Beach, Fla.203.002,500
12William Gonsoulin Jr., 68Harahan, La.200.002,500
13William Haliziw, 61Chicago, Ill.199.402,500
14John Wilhelm, 43Clarendon Hills, Ill.197.802,500
15William Downes, 34Columbus, Ohio197.402,500
16Kevin Matties, 33Las Vegas, Nev.190.902,500
17John Pappalardo, 54Staten Island, N.Y.190.602,500
18Kenneth Paszkiewicz, 43Milwaukee, Wis.189.802,500
19Paul Arnold, 34Farmington Hills, Mich.189.202,500
20John Livesay, 66Louisville, Ky.187.502,500

Top 3 Teams

FinishTeam
1Sam Houston Race Park (Robert Chandler, Matthew Martin, Steve Wolfson Sr.), 543.60, $15,000
2Thistledown (Paul Arnold, Dick Advent, Louis Licata), 524.50
3Meadowlands (Bob Bandzwolek, Paul Yavorski, Stacey McQueen), 490.70