John Friedland was working for his PhD in political science when he was gripped by the preoccupation that would dominate his life.

He was making occasional trips to the New York racing tracks and, thinking like an academic, he decided that handicapping was a riddle that must have an unambigous answer. There must be a system that can beat the races.

Friedland left New York University to pursue his new passion, and finally found the answer he had been seeking.

One day at Belmont Park, he saw a horse named Captain Cee Jay make his first start on the grass and win at 38-to-1 odds; he learned that despite the animal's poor recent form he had once been highly regarded and cost $43,000 as a yearling. Soon Friedland saw another horse with a similar history: high-priced yearling, bad form on the dirt, a victory at long odds in his turf debut.

Perhaps there was a pattern here, a pattern of well-bred young horses who didn't live up to their potential until they ran on the grass. Friedland studied only racing forms and breeding records, formulated a system based on his assumptions, and then holed up for three weeks in the Jockey Club library to test its results over a 10-year period.

In the wee hours one morning, he reached the bottom line of his research: if he had bet $1,000 on each of his system plays, he would have made a profit of $260,000. Excited, he telephoned a racetrack friend and told him of the results. The friend shook his wife awake and said, "We never have to worry about money again."

Friedland was thinking exactly the same thing when he started putting his system to a practical test in the summer and fall of 1974. He was betting cautiously and erratically at first, but he did cash a $600 wager on i'm in Business, the $19.20 winner of the Great American Stakes at Aqueduct, and at the end of the turf-racing season he had amassed a decent profit.

But that, Friedland knew, was only the beginning. He looked forward to 1975 as the year when he would escalate his betting and make his great killing. His friends couldn't temper his feverish excitement because they had been infected by it, too. "They all thought I was a genius," Friedland said. "We knew we were going to win. The system was logical, and the results were right there in black and white."

Friedland made his first bet of 1975 on a colt named Naval Person, a $32,000 yearling, who rallied to win at 5-to-1 odds -- only to be disqualified. That may have been an omen. By the time of the Saratoga season, Friedland had bet he couldn't abandon his system; it was surely overdue for a winner.

The winner never came. At the end of the turf-racing season, Friedland's system was 0 for 22. Its inventor was spiritually and financially devastated.

A prudent man might have abandoned the game after such an experience, or at least abandoned the notion that it can be beaten by a simple system. But friedland's faith in his basic assumptions was unshaken. After the wounds inflicted by his turf-racing system had healed, he began exploring a new possibility.

He noticed that horses who came from California to New York in the early spring seemed to run very well. This was no illogical: the quality of racing on the West Coast during the winter is very high, and horses who come East are taking a drop in class. Friedland punged into research on the performance of these shippers and found that, indeed, a system centered on California shippers did work.

Friedland made money with his new system in 1977 and 1978 and looked forward to the 1979 season with intense excitement. "Around February 1 I started getting very introspective, very withdrawn," he said "It was make or break time."

This year seemed to break time. Friedland was going to Aqueduct every day, betting inclusively on California invaders, and over a period of several weeks he was blanked. He bet 13 horses and all lost.

On a Saturday in April he drove to the track to play No. 14, Instrument Landing, in the Wood Memorial Stakes and, he recalled, "On the way I was starting to thin about the alternate things I could do with my life. I thought: Here it is again. I felt as if I were standing on the brink of an abyss.

Friedland made a serious bet on Instrument Landing and watched with a mixture if joy and relief as the colt drove to victory at 7 to 1. The next day he hit another system play at 30 to 1, and he was rolling.

By the time the California horses had stopped arriving in New York, Friedland had amassed a solid profit. He was already looking forward to 1980 and thinking that maybe, with this system, there would be no repeat of his 1975 debacle. Maybe, this time, he had truly found The Answer.