He Got Derby

On the other end of the telephone line, Jim Mazur ponders the possibilities. A major think. Listen hard, and you can almost hear the clickety-clack of his brain at work as it rummages rapidly through the available mental data. Then after a long pause and a sighing, "Oh, geez," he makes what sounds like a complete stab: "Grits'n Hard Toast."

No, smarty-pants, he isn't describing the lonely guy's breakfast of choice. Rather, eleven days before the actual race, he is attempting to pick the winner of Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. Although certainly an important race in its own right, the Florida Derby also functions as a premier steppingstone for the May 1 Kentucky Derby. "The Florida Derby is definitely one of the key [Kentucky Derby prep] races," says Mazur, president and lead author of Progressive Handicapping, Inc., the Hollywood-based company that compiles and publishes detailed statistical guides for horseplayers. "The last Kentucky Derby winner that came out of the Florida Derby was Thunder Gulch, in 1995."

Mazur thrives on stats, and though his company's various guides (The Gulfstream Handicapper, The Belmont Handicapper, and others for many U.S. racetracks) brim with lively writing, it's their incisive analysis of horse trainers that horseplayers find so useful. Still in stat mode, still weighing what might transpire on Saturday, Mazur resumes his dissection of the Florida Derby. "The last ten winners all ran in the Fountain of Youth," he notes, referencing a major race also held at Gulfstream. "And nine of the ten finished on the board [first, second, or third]." This year's February 20 Fountain of Youth saw Vicar, Cat Thief, and Certain finish within a length of each other, not forgetting the late-running Grits'n Hard Toast, who rallied to fourth place.

"The problem being," Mazur points out, "that in the last ten runnings of the Florida Derby, eight of the ten winners have been within four lengths of the leader early in the Fountain of Youth. That makes Grits'n Hard Toast a tough shot. This race is definitely going to weed out the ones who just aren't going to go any further."

Now 41 years old, Mazur got into racing as a teenager growing up in Woodbridge, New Jersey, located, as he coyly puts it, "equidistant between the New York tracks [Aqueduct and Belmont] and Monmouth Park [on the Jersey Shore]. My dad, who liked the horses, would take me to Monmouth. I had a couple winners right off the bat and I just got hooked."

In the late Seventies he earned a business degree at Duke (nowhere near a racetrack) then relocated to South Florida. After Mazur had worked some "mainstream jobs," kismet intervened in the mid-Eighties when college chums invited him to attend the races at Saratoga in upstate New York, just as he took a severance package offered by his employer. At Saratoga he came across the Saratoga Scorecard, which profiled the strengths and weaknesses of the track's trainers.

"As a courtesy I called the author and asked if he minded if I fooled around with something like that at Gulfstream," Mazur remembers, "and he said, 'No, knock yourself out.' So I wrote this book. It was very crude: Computers weren't very good back then." He had some copies printed up, sold "maybe 100," and discovered that "handicappers liked the information." Liked it so much, in fact, that in 1994 Mazur quit a real estate job he'd taken, devoting all his energies to his handicapping books.

Which means he doesn't make it to the races much. "When Gulfstream is running I usually get out at least twice a week," he notes. "Then, of course, if I see something I just have to go play and it fits into the schedule -- you know, around lunchtime or late in the day -- then you might see me out there." Uh-huh. But only if it fits into the schedule.

-- Michael Yockel

The Florida Derby will be run Saturday, March 13, at Gulfstream Park, 901 S Federal Hwy, Hallandale. Post time is noon. Admission is $3 to $5. Call 954-454-7000.

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Michael Yockel