Russ Harris, who was far and away the greatest public handicapper I’ve ever seen, died last Wednesday at the age of 93 at his home in Bryn Mawr, Pa.
“He basically died of old age. He didn’t have a long, drawn-out illness,” said Harris’s son, Craig Donnelly.
Harris began handicapping races in 1958 for the Akron Beacon Journal under the alias Phil Dancer. Harris told Bill Finley in a 2005 column for ESPN that Phil meant “friend of horses” in Greek, and Dancer came from Native Dancer, one of his favorite horses.
Harris worked at the Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Daily Racing Form before arriving in New York to write for the New York Daily News in 1977. He worked there until his retirement at the end of 2008.
I was born and raised on Long Island, NY and after I won the very first bet I ever placed on a horse named “Plethora” in 1980, I was hooked. I had to know more about this sport of Horse Racing. So, the next day instead of opening up the Daily News and reading about my beloved St. Louis Cardinals or my beloved Dallas Cowboys, I went straight to the Horse Racing section and read Russ Harris’ article for the first time….and went on to read every single word the man wrote for the next 31 years.
Through my now 38 years of being involved in this sport, I can name five people who were instrumental in teaching me about horses and racing over the years and I’ve learned to mesh the two…. Russ Harris was, without a doubt, one of those five even though I never had the privilege of meeting the man.
On top of picking thousands upon thousands of winners over the years, several other things stood out to me about him.
He was selected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2011 and on May 8, 1981, he selected all nine winners on a card at Belmont Park.
However, according to Donnelly, he was most proud of his selection of Coastal upsetting Spectacular Bid’s Triple Crown attempt in the 1979 Belmont Stakes.
Those facts aside, perhaps the thing that made the biggest impact on me was when he told a mutual friend who the greatest horse he ever saw was.
To make a long story longer, back in 2008, when I made my first trip to Old Friends Retirement home in Georgetown, Kentucky, I went for one reason and one reason only…. I wanted to see Ogygian.
Upon my arrival in February, and with a foot of snow on the ground and about 30 degrees out, I asked farm president Michael Blowen to point me in the direction of Ogygian.
I loved “Oggie” and he was, right up to the day he died, one of the most magnificent looking horses I’ve ever seen. He had enormous talent, he was a stakes winner, he was extremely fast and was one of the last living offspring of the great Damascus. Of course, him looking every bit like his dad didn’t hurt my urge to see him either.
Michael said: “Come on, I’ll walk you over there.”
When we arrived at “Oggie’s” paddock, Michael said to me “do you know who Russ Harris is?” …. I shook my head yes and said “where I’m from, if you like horses, Russ Harris is an icon……so yes, I know exactly who he is”.
Michael then went on to tell me that the day Ogygian arrived at Old Friends, he received a phone call from Harris congratulating him on getting the gorgeous bay horse “back home (from Japan) and safe.”
Harris then went on to tell Michael “I saw Secretariat …I saw Seattle Slew. The horse you have in your back yard was better than all of them. I’m just sorry he didn’t really get a chance to prove it”
It was a good thing that, at that point, Michael opened the gate to Ogygian’s paddock and went to catch him so I could get a closer look at him, because I was speechless.
I was not only shocked that Michael knew Mr. Harris, but he thought one of my favorite horses of all time was “the greatest horse he ever saw.”
“He wrote a lot, but he loved the handicapping aspect of it because he was very competitive,” Donnelly said. “They kept score how many winners everybody was picking, and he always prided himself on picking more winners than everybody. It was important to him.”…(yes, I know the feeling)
“I take it very seriously,” Harris told Daily Racing Form’s Jay Hovdey in 2008. “If you’re looking for hunches, don’t come to me. I try to pick every race like it’s the ninth, and I’ve just won eight.”
Donnelly, who is also now a public handicapper, said he caught “the bug” from his father.
“The first time I went to Hialeah and saw how beautiful the animals are and handicapping the races and you get paid if you win,” Donnelly said, “I thought, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this.’
Rest in Peace Mr. Harris…and thank you for all you’ve unknowingly done for me over the years. One day, I hope to be half as good, and be half as knowledgeable, as you.