Monday, March 23, 2009

Mark Cramer on Sartin

Mark has written a tribute to Howard Sartin and has allowed it to be published here at HANA. Our thanks to Mark.


You’ve all heard by now that Howard Sartin has died. He passed away in the company of his family, at home, on January 31. He must have been in his 80s. Not much has been written since his death about a man who changed so much for so many.

Back in the early 1980s when I was the racing editor of Gambling Times, an article arrived at my desk from a person with a strange name: Howard Sartin. Once I got through the first paragraph, I knew I was dealing with an iconoclast. He said he was a doctor of psychology, though some of his enemies dispute that claim. He wrote that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” so if you want to cure a problem gambler, you have a better chance to teach him to win than to get him to stop. Sartin had ctually practiced his “win therapy” with problem horseplayers, and was relatively successful if you compare his therapy roi to that of the typical shrink. (We have some shrink readers. You tell me if I’m right or not.)

You see what I mean. I was hooked. Next he wrote about calculating pace handicapping on the basis of feet per second and then dividing races into segments. Once you compared the segments (or fractional times in feet per second) you could visualize if the horse was an early runner (E), a pressure (P) or (S) a sustained pace horse (what we would call a closer). You could call this a gimmick if you like, but in fact, the visual aspect of his printouts helped a player to dig into a race.

Howard explained that there’s no such thing as a closer. A horse that looks like he’s closing in the stretch is really just slowing down less than the others.

Howard developed computer programs to craft these ideas into a methodology. He paid tribute to the nearly anonymous handicapping here, Huey Mahl, who wrote the tiny classic The Race is Pace (Gamblers Book Club, Las Vegas). It was Huey who first spoke of how horses expend energy. I met him once in Las Vegas and he looked like one of the crowd, dressing no better than Albert Einstein.

So, thirsting for something original for the challenged pages of Gambling Times, I felt rewarded by Sartin’s article and published it. According to Sartin, the publishing of this article helped to jump-start his Sartin Methodology Group, but knowing the charming Howard, I suspect he was merely flattering me, knowing that I had become one of his adversaries. So this is why I relate Howard to the Music Man, because he seemed to me like a classy hustler, a PT Barnum, and I like that type of person. What would the world be without such characters?

A group of players coalesced around Howard Sartin and when you talked to any of them, you heard they were winners. All of them! They were told to do 20 race samples and then report on their results. They mainly played claiming races on the basis of the pace factor, observing the track profile of each race track in order to know
whether it favored E horses, P horses or S horses.

I went to one of his events and felt humiliated. There was a thick atmosphere of inflated ego in the room: everyone was hitting high percentages of winners, and amongst them, I felt as if I couldn’t pick my own nose. It was a regular hotel conference room but I felt as if I were in a huge tent and this was a revivalist meeting.

I dared to mention the trainer factor, and Howard smiled paternalistically, reminding me in front of his followers that “the trainer can’t talk to the horse”. I would go regularly to the SoCal tracks and whenever I bumped into a Sartin follower, he would remind me: “the trainer can’t talk to the horse”. Of course I know that a
trainer cannot talk to a horse, in spite of what Robert Redford might suggest.

Among the Sartin followers there were some very talented people. One of them was Tom Brohamer. Tom’s brother once played for the Chicago Cubs. Tom never repeated to me that “the trainer can’t talk to the horse”. I had the opportunity to actually watch Tom play and concluded that he was an authentic winner: the real thing. Then he wrote Modern Pace Handicapping, and the book is still good today.

My writing went in a different direction. I wrote my first novel, now long out of print, in which my main character had to confront the Certinites, a sect or cult of handicappers led by Prof Certin.

After the book had reached the publisher and was being printed, I had second thoughts. Had I been unfair to Doc Sartin? I honestly believed that his methodology was good, but not surely good enough to make ALL of his followers winners. I felt that there was fudging going on, with his followers consciously or unconsciously feeling that they needed to please The Doc.

Sartin read my novel and then, in his publication called The Follow-Up, edited with flare by Dick Schmidt, wrote a glowing review. It took me by surprise because I had been leaning towards thinking that Howard was a control freak, like Fidel Castro, a paternalist who wanted the best for his people but who couldn’t deal with anyone else
as big as him and who felt that his system was the only good one. As some of Fidel’s best people were dropping out or being purged, thus it was with a number of Sartin’s followers. The parting was not friendly. There was bitterness in the air and one of Sartin’s people, a magician, played an ugly prank on him.

Sartin’s empire seemed to be crumbling. I have more tolerance for control freaks. Sartin was one of those rare human beings who was truly unique, and as an iconoclast, it was understandable that he would be the center of controversy. Then Barry Meadow, never a Sartin follower, wrote an article that essentially called Howard a fraud.

My take is that Sartin had a good product and so whatever bizarre marketing techniques he would use could not be raised as evidence against his pace handicapping product.

My dear friend Dick Mitchell was another who parted with Howard, but Dick’s fine All In One program was surely influenced by Howard’s stuff. (All science and art is derived from something, and "influence" can be a positive force.)

Later, I visited Tom Ainslie (Dick Carter) in Ossining. Dick Carter, for me, was one of the greatest all-time human beings, and we owe it to him and his books that horse race handicapping has legitimacy today. I discovered that Dick Carter was using an updated Sartin program and finding it an excellent tool. Carter told me that his handicapping had become reinvigorated with Sartin’s methodology.

So now that Howard has died, how do we look back on his life? Was he the paranoid that some of his former followers allege? I don’t care. For me, he was a truly creative human being who produced something unique. Howard could play jazz on the piano, and you could see in his inventive way of living, that the jazz was there in everything.

Charlie Mingus had trouble dealing with people, as did Miles Davis.
They’re still great.

A number of the players who parted with Howard Sartin did so only after they had learned to win at the track. I suppose that if I had been a follower, I too may have parted. But from a safer distance, I could appreciate Doc Sartin.

On days when I am having an enjoyable chat with friends or family, I think back and long for something perhaps more challenging, and maybe “troubling” in a good way: another polemical discussion with Howard Sartin.

Mark Cramer


Anonymous said...

I sent Mark's latest book 'Tropical Downs' to Howard for Christmas last year and he told me he was reading through it, and that he was enjoying it, as he always did Marks fiction. Even at the end, Howard had great respect for Mark's rigour and 'free-lance' style. He reminded me of the several studies with real money Mark had done on Howard's software (the same software Dick Carter had been using), which resulted in donations to one of Mark's favourite charities.

The Sartin Methodology continues today, unabated. And the Music Man is indeed an apt metaphor for the man. Thanks for an entertaining appreciation.

Ted Craven

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mark
I went and dug out pace makes the race and Today still make sound judgment.
Mark by coincidence last month I just ordered two of your books but cannot find thoroughbred cycles.
I wonder what myth he is now thinking and the fact is ??.

The_Knight_Sky said...

Piper which two books did you order?
Not that I'm going to part with them. ;-)

It's good to good to know that Mark Cramer alive and well.

I had featured Throughbred Cycles last month on my new blog and I will most certainly be featuring items related to Mr. Cramer's teachings in the future.

Dave Schwartz said...

I knew Howard very well. He was a true innovative thinker in the horse handicapping world.

Dave Schwartz