King of the Handicappers

It takes a special kind of brain to be a good horse handicapper and Mike had that type of brain.

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He told me his last name once, but I'm bad on names. I forgot it. All I knew was his nickname, Black Mike from Detroit.

I met Mike at the Fremont Casino in downtown Las Vegas. I had decided to take a break from poker and was playing the horses in the horse room. Mike was there and he was broke.

He was a solidly built black man in his 40s. He wore a perpetual scowl and rarely smiled, although I discovered later he had a good sense of humor.

Somehow we got to talking. At the beginning of the conversation, he candidly admitted he was busted, but added, "I'm the best horse handicapper in this place. Maybe the best in Las Vegas."

I sized him up and thought, "Sure you are. That's why you're broke."

A race was coming up at Belmont. It was two minutes to post time. Mike urged me to bet on the horse running from the two post.

"He'll break on top and win by three lengths," Mike said. "But hurry. You'll get closed out."

I ran to the sellers window and bet $20 across the board on the two. The horse broke first like Mike predicted and won the race by four lengths.

After collecting the money, I slipped Mike a $5 bill which he gratefully accepted.

He picked three more winners for me that day. Each of the horses performed as he predicted they would run. From that day forward, we were friends. We would meet at the Fremont or at Binion's where Mike occasionally played poker, and he almost always picked winners for me.

Mike was a down-and-outer who didn't have a place to stay. He was basically homeless. He had once worked in Detroit's Motown for Berry Gordy as an A&R man. He knew music, he knew dance routines, and he had once dated a top dancer from a Las Vegas chorus line.

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He drank a lot but in those days so did I. We would get well saturated on beer or mixed drinks and try our luck on the horses or poker. We became good friends.

Once after a winning session at poker, I drove him to Mt. Charleston where we went horseback riding at a riding stable. Mike liked the ride and later we had lunch at the Mt. Charleston Inn.

The Inn sits near the top of the mountain, just below a ski lift. A jazz band was playing. I had never seen him so relaxed.

Mike had a bad habit that I didn't find out about until later. He was into crack cocaine. That explained why he never had the money to rent a place of his own.

When he wasn't on crack, we talked about life, gambling, music and Berry Gordy. Once I treated the two of us to a musical at one of the Strip casinos where his former girl friend was dancing. She was a beauty and Mike never took his eyes off her.

The last time I saw Mike was about a year ago. He was at the Fremont, still touting horses and still betting on other people's money. And he will always be to me the king of the handicappers.

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