Len Ragozin, thoroughbred handicapper extraordinaire, hates to be interrupted when he is working. This puts him on a collision course with the horseplayers who trudge up to his cramped office on the fourth floor of an elevatorless building in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. While his visitors shoot the breeze in one of the office's two rooms, Ragozin sometimes retreats to the other. A lean, bookish figure in wire-rimmed glasses, he usually has barely settled in at his drafting table, an eye-shade on his head and a calculator at his fingertips, when somebody intrudes.
"Say, Len, I was wondering...."
"Knock!" screams Ragozin. "Don't sneak up on me like that!"
Ragozin's diligence is a fearsome thing, and it has helped lift him, at last, out of obscurity. For two lonely decades Ragozin, a Harvard graduate who estimates his IQ at somewhat more than 170, toiled in the certain, but largely unshared, knowledge that he was the king of the speed handicappers, a breed that tries to beat the horses without knowing a fetlock from a bag of oats. Ignoring conformation and backstretch gossip as well as such factors as breeding and the reputation of jockeys and trainers, speed handicappers rely instead on elaborate mathematical calculations known as "numbers." "figures" or, more formally, "speed ratings." They believe that their numbers, which are based on horses' past performances, accurately indicate what those horses will do when they race again. But while Ragozin knew his numbers were the best, he had trouble proving it.
April 30, 1978
As he tells it, he would make cool and brilliant calculations at sundown only to lose his shirt at daybreak. "Jitters at the ticket window," sighs Ragozin. More recently, he enjoyed some lucrative results by using his numbers as guidance in operating his own claiming stable, but the pressures of being a horse owner apparently got to him, too. At any rate, it is with ill-concealed relief that he has lately been phasing out the stable. "The figures can be perfect but they still have to be interpreted," Ragozin explains. "My style is to sweat out decisions. I just don't handle myself well at the track."
Maybe Ragozin doesn't do well at the track, but a couple of years ago he started supplying numbers to people who do. It was a masterstroke, and at 49 he now finds himself doing a thriving business advising horse owners and bettors. The nice part is that he doesn't have to bet or claim horses himself, or even go to the accursed track. He simply waits in his office as the customers climb the three flights to beg, borrow and buy his numbers.
The uses that Ragozin's followers find for his numbers vary. Dennis Heard, a bearded Brooklyn businessman, has taken Ragozin's cue and is using the numbers as the guiding factor in the operation of a stable he started in 1976. In his second year Heard finished 17th in the nation with $448,029 in purses, and he raves, "Len's figures are terrific. I wouldn't dream of buying horses without them." Another satisfied customer is Constantine Merjos, a onetime symphony bassoonist who uses Ragozin's figures in preparing a tout sheet he peddles at New York tracks under the name "The Beard." "Len's numbers are the best," Merjos gushes. "They're tremendous." And finally, the numbers have become golden to some two dozen horseplayers, who complain of being brazenly set upon at the track by other wagerers anxious to learn how Ragozin's customers are beting, and worse, of being robbed of their winnings on the way home. This makes them reluctant to be identified, but it also demonstrates, they say, how nicely they're doing. And one of them, a chain-smoking fellow named Lou, rhapsodizes, "There can't be any better numbers than Len's. He's the only person who could put out such numbers."
Ragozin readily concurs. Delighted that his speed ratings have won such enthusiastic, if belated, acceptance, he estimates that bettors using them wagered upward of $10 million last year. And he shows visitors tax receipts attesting to some huge scores, notably a $59,710 trifecta payoff on the now-infamous race last Sept. 23 at Belmont won by Lebón, the 57-to-1 shot who apparently was not Lebón at all. Ragozin's customers also have suffered some spectacular tap-outs, but Ragozin counters that Lockheed and Penn Central have lost more. "We do all right. What can I say?" he says. "In fact, we do better than all right."
That Ragozin manages to run any kind of a business out of his office is a wonder. The place is not only inconvenient but also hopelessly cluttered. It is piled high with Daily Racing Forms, overburdened with filing cabinets and littered with unwashed dishes. Over here is somebody's bundle of dirty laundry, over there is a lone sneaker pining for its mate. The place also bears the marks of Ragozin's penchant for puttering and tinkering. "I like to fix things," he says, which may or may not explain the lamp held together by a huge wad of Scotch tape. When Ragozin turns 50 in September, some well-wishers might be tempted to buy him a new lamp. Those who know him better will buy him more tape.
Then there are the bettors who congregate in the place. Drawn in large part from Manhattan haunts like the Chess & Checker Club, the Mayfair Bridge & Backgammon Club and other gaming parlors, Ragozin's customers sometimes seem more interested in swapping palindromes, puns and puzzles than in winning at the races. One insider insists that each of them secretly yearns to claim a horse named Vengeance that runs on the New York circuit. Then the new owner would have the satisfaction of climbing the steps to Ragozin's office, flinging open the door and announcing triumphantly, "Vengeance is mine!"
Ragozin is obviously at ease in these surroundings. In fact, he also lived on the premises until a year ago, when he rented a nearby studio apartment, conceding that the office was a touch too crowded for sleeping and working. There is a leak in the ceiling of the new apartment above the place Ragozin chose for his bed. He diverted the water by running some rubber tubing from the ceiling to the window. As a result, he says, "When I'm in bed, it looks as if I'm being fed intravenously."
One thing Ragozin doesn't joke about is his business. The beloved numbers are his life. It is a mere biographical sidelight that Ragozin and his wife of 18 years ("Or is it 20?" wonders the numbers man) have long been separated and that he has a 10-year-old daughter, Alexa. It is no more than a curiosity that he plays the five-string banjo and swims more or less regularly ("I go daily—once a week") at the 23rd Street YMCA. The numbers are the thing to Ragozin. "I think about them all the time, 24 hours a day," he acknowledges. "I groove my mind to them. I turn myself into a computer."
What makes the numbers so vital to Ragozin is his conviction—one shared by all speed handicappers—that before you bet on one horse to beat another, it helps to know how fast both can run. Past-performance charts list clockings, of course, but the real worth of each performance is obscured by such things as whether the track was slow or fast, how much weight the horse carried and how far he ran from the rail. All serious horseplayers make seat-of-the-pants allowances for these variables, but speed handicappers crave precision. As Ragozin puts it, "We're trying to find out the true value of a horse's performance. In other words, when is a fast race really worse and when is a slow race really better?"
Ragozin goes about his task with the help of five part-time assistants, including a nationally ranked postal chess player named Gary and a dollar-a-point Scrabble whiz named Rich. As these people toil in the crowded office, it is sometimes necessary for them to move around sideways and on tiptoe, like matadors. Nevertheless, every day they manage to produce analyses of the performances of all the horses running at as many as seven tracks—from Aqueduct to Hialeah, from Bowie to Santa Anita. They also study winners' times at a dozen other tracks. This can mean 1,000 analyses a day, and Ragozin's crew comes up with figures on them all.
The job starts with the collection of relevant information on each race. This includes wind direction and other weather data. Because racetracks are often located near airports, Ragozin has an airline-weather Teletype machine in his office, where the hourly weather readings are rolled onto spools that he fashions out of Tinkertoys ("He's the only businessman I know who writes Tinkertoys off his income tax," says one office regular). Ragozin also has a network of correspondents who phone in daily reports on track conditions and how much ground each horse saved or lost. His informants include the tout-sheet man, Constantine Merjos, who times New York races. Ragozin is particularly glad to have Merjos' clockings, because official track times are not always accurate.
Ragozin has a formula to reduce what he calls the "snowstorm of data" to a speed rating. His calculations are painstakingly done, as evidenced both by his annoyance at being interrupted and by signs on his office wall reminding him of the tricky twists and turns to be heeded at tracks around the country. The computations result, magically, in a number. In Ragozin's rating system, the lower the number, the better the horse. Numbers range from zero for a Forego or a Secretariat to the high 20s or even 30s for a plug. "The figure is the ultimate distillation," Ragozin says with a flourish. "It's my E = mc, my Picasso sketch."
But Ragozin doesn't stop here. He records every horse's career on its own lined sheet, placing the horse's successive numbers—5, 19½, 23, 17½ and so on—in such a way as to form a graph. This, Ragozin says, instantly reveals meaningful patterns. Does the horse achieve his best numbers early in the season? Is he improving from year to year? Does he recover quickly from an all-out effort? Ragozin says you can learn more about a horse's condition from "the sheets," as everybody calls them, than you can from any trainer. "When I look at the sheets, a visual picture of that horse leaps to mind," he says. "This helps tell you if the horse is ready to run well. That's the idea—to know whether a horse is reaching a peak or receding from one."
The sheets are Ragozin's stock in trade. If a bettor wants to play Aqueduct, Ragozin pulls from his files sheets on all horses entered at the track that day and runs off copies on the Xerox 3100 he has somehow found room for in the kitchen, near the weather Teletype. Off to the Big A goes the happy horse-player, presumably to rake in the dough. Of course, it is at this point that Ragozin came to grief as a horseplayer, and it is at this point, too, that four bettors using the sheets can come up with four different horses in the same race. They deliberate in what, to them, is horse talk. "That horse has been running 20s, but I think it'll take an 18 to win this one," one will say. Or: "Do you think that WA took too much out of him?" Or: "Looks to me like he's ready to run a 16 today."
Despite their differences in interpreting the numbers, devotees of Ragozin's sheets insist they enjoy an edge over other bettors. It is in setting his fees that the otherwise efficient Ragozin suddenly loses his firm grasp of numbers. Discussing prices on the phone recently with one of his problem clients, Ragozin said dolefully, "Listen, I know you're not doing well right now, but I think I should be getting more. I ain't going to take you to court but think about it, will you?"
Hanging up, Ragozin slumped into a chair. "I'm no businessman," he sighed. "I hate haggling over prices."
Ragozin has some relatives who were businessmen—and others who were anything but. In fact, his family couldn't get together on too many things—including its name. Len's uncle was Israel Rogosin, a prominent industrialist and founder of Beaunit, a textile corporation. Len's aunt, Rachel Ragozin, was a charter member of the U.S. Communist Party. Len's father stands somewhere in the middle. He was for many years a top executive in Beaunit, where he was known as Harry Rogosin. But he also was a "progressive capitalist" who admired his sister Rachel and called himself Harry Ragozin when he was away from the office. He and his son equivocate even today. On page 1,116 of the Manhattan phone book they are listed as Harry and Len Ragozin; on page 1,162 they reappear as Harry and Len Rogosin.
Long before Len enrolled at Harvard, he had enthusiastically embraced his aunt Rachel's politics. Known around the yard as "Rags," he spent most of his time playing poker and working for various Marxist causes. After graduation in 1949, he became a researcher at Newsweek, but it was the McCarthy era and FBI agents kept stopping by to chat. Concluding that his political views foreclosed a successful career in Establishment journalism, Ragozin quit Newsweek and plunged, even more incongruously, into the Sport of Kings. His father, a weekend horseplayer, had devised innovative speed ratings, and Harry offered to pay Len a small sum to maintain the numbers for him.
Len got hooked and soon was visiting tracks all over the East, refining his dad's numbers and trying vainly to beat the horses. He fleshed out his income playing poker (at which, by all accounts, he did win) and with odd jobs, including, briefly, an editorship at a medical publishing house. He tried writing a handicapping column ("Rag's Pickings") in the Boston Traveler and peddling tips through the mail, but neither project got anywhere.
It was not until 1972 that Ragozin's perseverance began to pay off big. Going over the numbers on a claimer named Sunny and Mild, he saw something he liked. At his son's urging, Harry Ragozin claimed the horse for $15,000. Winning stakes races with claiming horses is unusual, but Sunny and Mild won the Queens County Handicap that year at Aqueduct in what was then track record time. Harry gave his son $22,000, one third of the stable's profits, and Len began claiming horses for himself. He did it strictly by the numbers, without bothering to look at the horses. Trainers existed simply to carry out his orders.
"But Len, you ought to see that horse," a trainer would protest. "He's got a knee the size of a balloon."
"I don't care what he looks like. My figures say that he's ready," Len would answer.
The stable twice won more than $200,000 in purses and, Ragozin says, actually turned a modest profit for a couple of years. Frampton Delight, which Ragozin claimed for $26,500, won two stakes in 1976—the Gallant Fox and the Display Handicaps, both at Aqueduct. In all, Frampton Delight won $135,000 for Ragozin. His stable is now down to four horses, but Ragozin made an enduring impression on Maryland-based trainer. King Leatherbury, whose 322 victories last year were tops in the nation. "I was skeptical about Ragozin's figures at first," he says, "but they seemed to work. He'd tell me, 'This horse just ran a big race and I don't expect him to go good next time.' I'd say just the opposite. Sure enough, he'd be right."
An even greater leap forward came when, at a party in 1971, Ragozin met a man known today as the Bomber. An unassuming, vaguely patrician fellow, the Bomber, now 32, had been student-body president at a Midwestern university and had earned a law degree but never practiced before the bar. Ragozin introduced his new friend to the sheets, and the Bomber soon was betting heavily, sharing Ragozin's faith in the figures while also exhibiting poise and daring at the track. Ragozin agreed to bankroll him and share winnings and losses with the Bomber, and both men say that business has been streaky but profitable.
The Bomber specializes in trifectas, in which the bettor must pick the first three horses in their order of finish. He typically uses the sheets to find a promising long shot and then "keys" on that horse—betting it in most or all possible combinations. It was the Bomber who brought home the score on the South American horse identified as Lebón. That horse first ran in the U.S. on Sept. 9, finishing 11th in a field of 12 on the dirt at Belmont. But Ragozin says it was a deceptively fast field and that he gave Lebón a fairly respectable 22½. When Lebón ran on the grass at Belmont on Sept. 23, the Bomber was at the track with the sheets. There were four horses in the race that had consistently earned numbers between 16 and 19, but the Bomber reasoned that, because it was late in the season, at least a couple of these horses-figured to peter out. Therefore a performance of 19 or so by Lebón would put him in the triple. South American imports sometimes do good things on grass and—well, anyway—the Bomber keyed Lebón on each of the 900 $2 trifecta tickets he bought. When the 57-to-1 shot, running what Ragozin later assessed as a race worthy of a 17½ speed rating, led Li'l Tommie and Georgetown to a stunning 1-2-3 finish, the Bomber found himself holding two tickets worth $29,855 apiece. Lebón turned out to be a ringer, but Ragozin and the Bomber insist that whatever dark doings might have led others to bet on him, their good fortune was strictly an intellectual achievement.
The Bomber generally bets between $8,000 and $12,000 a day, and it is his conspicuous use of the sheets that has attracted many of Ragozin's new customers. However, the only other bettor wagering on the Bomber's scale is a looming, dark-haired figure known as the Big Man. A druggist's son who was a nationally ranked contract bridge player a few years ago, he and the Bomber have a natural rivalry going, which made for a competition of sorts when SPORTS ILLUSTRATED visited the track with each of them.
It was not even close. The outing with the Bomber took place at Keystone in Philadelphia. His bankroll bulging in a pocket of his plaid shirt, the Bomber fastidiously laid out the sheets on a table in the clubhouse. The bulge soon disappeared. The Bomber did not cash a ticket all afternoon and lost $8,000. He showed remarkably little emotion. "That happens every two weeks or so," he said in his Volvo during the ride to New York. He spent the evening reading a mystery novel in his apartment.
The Big Man's turn came two weeks later at Hialeah. Unlike the Bomber, he laid out the sheets in utter disarray. Betting roughly $1,000 a crack, he lost the first two races but had a grand on a winning 5-to-1 shot in the third and cashed two trifecta tickets worth $1,400-plus each in the fourth. After pocketing $4,400 on the perfecta in the sixth, he slyly mentioned the Bomber: "He didn't cash a ticket?" The Big Man wound up winning $24,000 for the day and left the track worrying about muggers.
There are times when Ragozin, sequestered in his Greenwich Village office, gets a hankering to make a few big-money selections himself. The results are generally disastrous. A while ago a well-heeled horseplayer asked for a tip, and Ragozin, hoping to interest the man in the sheets, gave him what Ragozin thought was a hot one. The fellow bet heavily and the horse lost. When the man phoned, Ragozin was crestfallen. "I feel bad, I really do," he grieved.
The man said soothingly, "Don't worry about it, Len. It was one of those things."
"Lemme feel bad, will you?" pleaded Ragozin. An hour later he was still brooding. "I'm sick. I should've said no to the guy. It makes it seem we're not as smart as we think we are."
Len laughs, Len cries. Describing himself these days as a "parlor Marxist," Ragozin admits, "There's always been a conflict between my politics and horse racing. It's utterly horrendous to me that so much money is tied up in something with so little social validity."
Ragozin remains close to his father but the two sometimes clash. Harry once criticized his son for breaking a soft-boiled egg with a knife and then eating it with a spoon. "You're dirtying an extra utensil." he complained, and a lively argument followed. There was a worse scene the day Len, visiting his parents' West Side apartment, blurted out to his father. "You got me involved in horses because I figured to outstrip you as a person. It makes me less of a threat to you." Harry angrily threw Len out of the apartment.
The moment passed and Harry, a cheery man of 75, admits, "I've sometimes wondered whether I did the right thing with Len. But the handicapping is something he's always wanted to do. And it seems to me he's enjoying it."
And, of course, he is. The demand for his sheets has brought Rags some riches, and he finds added pleasure in the fact that the Bomber and the Big Man, heavy hitters though they are, refer to him as "the Boss." Their reliance on Ragozin was underscored when both bettors were at Hialeah at the time of January's big blizzard in New York. Ragozin had been sending the sheets to Miami each night by air express, but the storm closed all of New York's airports and highways. Faced with the prospect of having to bet without the sheets, his customers were in a state of panic that regulars call the "Ragozin twitch." "What you have here are two desperate men," the Bomber said over the phone. Somehow a train left Penn Station for Baltimore at 2 a.m.—five hours late—and Ragozin put a young woman aboard with the sheets. She arrived in Baltimore at dawn and caught a flight to Miami in time for the first race. Both the Bomber and the Big Man won that day.
Apparently, triumphs just weren't meant to come easily for Ragozin. At least that is what he was telling the crowd of horseplayers at his office one afternoon. "What I'm doing here is hard work," Ragozin assured them. "This isn't the carefree life of the horseplayer you get in Damon Runyon. When people casually say they're beating the horses and try to make it sound easy, I have to laugh." And he did laugh. So did the members of his entourage. Then Ragozin got up and went over to the drafting table to do some work.