Hialeah was once the mecca for the nation's best horseplayers as well as horses. In the era before northern tracks operated year-round, professional gamblers from New York would always migrate here for the season.
The other day, a few veteran race trackers were reminiscing about the great bettors of the 1940s. These gamblers were forced to operate under conditions that a modern-day handicapper would find intolerable. The published times and results of races were often inaccurate. Information on workouts was practically nonexistent. There were, of course, no televised replays of races.
Yet despite these obstacles, many men managed to beat the races with spectacular success. Of them, the Hialeah old-timers agreed, one stood out.
Al (The Brain) Windeman became a handicapper when his chosen profession ceased to exist in 1940.
For years Windeman had practiced a now-obsolete specialty known as "dutching the books." He would canvass the odds in the betting ring at the New York tracks and dash wildly from bookmaker to bookmaker getting the best possible price on each horse. He attempted to play every starter in a race so that no matter who won he would get a 3 or 4 percent return on his total investment.
To do this successfully, a man needed a mind like a computer -- and Windeman had one. But when the New York legislature abolished bookmakers and replaced them with mutuel machines, he had to find a new use for his talents. He was not about to go back to his old job as a cab driver in the neighborhood of Coney Island.
So he set about observing the best handicappers of his era and learning from them. He saw that the most successful horseplayers were speed handicappers, and he adopted their methods. He realized that the key to winning at the track was accurate information.
Windeman assembled a crew of assistants who helped him compile it. They timed every race themselves (with stop watches calibrated to hundredths of a second). They took photographs of each race at various stages, including the finish, so they would know the precise losing margin of each horse. They even used anemometers to measure the wind velocity.
With this data, Windeman made some bold and brilliant bets. Once a pair of 2-year-olds were meeting on the old straightaway course at Belmont Park. One of them had set the track record in his last start; the other appeared much slower. But Windeman knew that the record-breaker had been aided by a powerful tail wind, while the "slow" horse had run his last race into a strong headwind. Windeman's speed figures disclosed that the seemingly slow horse was actually superior. He bet $10,000 on his opinion, and he was right.
Windeman guarded his information jealously. "Socially, he was a great guy," said his friend, Sam Engelberg, handicapper for the Miami News, "but when it came to the race track he was the toughest in the world. He'd lie to his grandmother."
One day Windeman said that he did not like Engelberg's selection in a particular race at Hialeah. Respecting that opinion, Engelberg decided not to bet. The horse romped home at 5 to 1, and afterwards Engelberg learned Windeman had bet $5,000 on him.
Engelberg confronted his supposed friend: "You dirty rat. All I was going to bet was $30. Would that have hurt your price?" The Brain merely shrugged. To him, the track was a battleground.
On this battleground, he waged never-ending wars against bookmakers. Because he would often bet as much as $20,000 on a horse, Windeman did most of his wagering with off-course bookies. But when the bookies received his bets, they would immediately telephone confederates, who were stationed by pay phones outside the track. These runners would bet part of Windeman's action at the windows, thus ruining his odds.
One day Windeman had an especially juicy longshot, and wagered with his bookmakers a few minutes before post time. The bookies in turn telephoned their runners -- but all they could get was busy signals Windeman had hired men to occupy every pay phone in every gas station and grocery store near Belmont Park. By the time the bookies got through to their men, it was too late. The Brain had made a killing.
The strain of the gambling life eventually began to take its toll on Windeman. He developed heart trouble, and his doctors told him to cut down on his activities, especially his regimen of swimming several miles a day.
One day Engelberg saw him just after he had completed a five mile swim and asked why he was disregarding the doctor's advice. "When was the last time they picked a winner?" Windeman wanted to know.
To the end, he was a man who believed in his own opinion. Al (the Brain) Windeman died of a heart attack in 1968.