Sounds From the Past / The Happy Handicapper

I was taking a walk down memory lane. – Well, it started as a dream and evolved into a conversation with John Engelhardt. John used to suggest, help, and point me in the direction of some interesting guests when I was the host of the Winning Ponies Internet Show. It was on June 10, 2010 that I had the opportunity to have a special a one-of-a-kind guest that captured my heart and grabbed my interest. I had met this gentleman in our office at River Downs many moons ago, and I always looked forward to his yearly visit. His stories were thick with horse sense as his deep voice would take me on a trip back in time.

“The Happy Handicapper” was a weekly column in the Buffalo News. Mr. Bob Summers wrote and detailed his trips and mega-track ventures where he and Bob Engelhardt would jump in the “Bet Mobile” and hit as many tracks in 24-hours as possible. The only rule was to make at least one bet at every track and watch the race. – I had plenty of trips of the same, but none as interesting as Bob’s. – As he would finally make his visit to the Kentucky Derby and hopefully cash. The best part was when he would stop up to River Downs and visit with his friend John. I was like a little kid in the room and soaked up every word like a sponge. When Bob’s deep voice would speak the other sounds in the room would just disappear.

His stories were rich in detail and worth their weight in gold. I was like the younger brother in the room allowed to be a part of the conversation. Talk about a seat at the grown-ups’ table. – Bob Summers had a way of telling a story, and his rich voice made it that much better. The Derby, Belmont, Fort Erie, Scioto Harness, Wheeling Greyhound racing, and stops at tracks that are a footnote in the history of horse racing. – The “Bet Mobile” was his version of Batman’s car that would save the world from villains as Bob’s would make the trek to every track as humanly possible. Both noble pursuits and both had purpose. The only difference was that Bob’s was much more fun than Batman’s adventures. Bob didn’t save the day from the Joker, but he had one helluva’ time with his side-kick Bob Engelhardt as his partner in handicapping.

“Bob was a solid, well-rounded newsman with diverse skills, as was evident by his transition from the business desk to sports copy desk and columnist. He was an old-style journalist who could do it all,” said Margaret Sullivan, editor of The News.” – Bob loved covering horse racing, whether it be at Buffalo Raceway, Batavia Downs, Fort Erie or the Triple Crown races,” said Steve Jones, sports editor of The News. “He made friends on the rail and in the lines at the betting windows. As the Happy Handicapper, he relished the chance to be Everyman in the sport of kings.” – For me there couldn’t be a more noble profession. It is a rare gift to take your readers on a journey in the Bet Mobile and his stories had you a back seat ticket for the best advetures in the business.

I began my handicapping venture with Bob Engelhardt’s little brother John almost eleven years ago. – It was a few days before Labor Day, when he asked me to join him as a guest handicapper on the taped Regular Guy Show. We would tape the show in the morning as John was busy doing P.R. work throughout the busy day. He was a photographer, writer, PR man and ambassador for River Downs. – My pay for this labor of love was two tickets to the V.I.P tent which I would take my dad as my guest. It was on this day I met my longtime gal, which to this very day I still blame John.

As he was about to complete his Saturday night shift on the sports copy desk of The Buffalo News, Robert J. “Bob” Summers announced that he would treat the staff to pizza next Saturday. What’s the occasion, he was asked. “I’m going to celebrate receiving my first Social Security check,” he said.  – A few hours later, Summers died of an apparent heart attack after he was stricken at the Seneca Niagara Casino and taken to Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital. He was 66.

After going back and listening to the podcast with Bob Summers as my special guest, it gave me an idea. – I called John Engelhardt and asked if it would be a good idea to carry on with writing a special once a month article under the name of “The Happy Horseplayer.” – An homage to Mr. Summers and his love of racing. One that could never be duplicated, but only appreciated by the inner-race fan in all of us. – John agreed, and once a month I will do a blog as The Happy Horse Player. – Bob loved the Belmont Stakes and this will be my first article.

In 2003, he won a handicapping competition at Fort Erie and advanced to the national finals in Las Vegas. Just last week, he attended Fort Erie’s Legends Day at the track. “He was a great supporter of racing and Fort Erie Race Track,” said Darryl Wells, former director of communications and track announcer at the Ontario track. “He was always joking and smiling and had a story to share.” – In the photo accompanying his column, Summers’ face was obscured by a pair of binoculars. “He always watched races live with binoculars, never watching TV,” Wells said.

Bob Summers lives on with the annual edition of the Bob Summers Memorial held at Fort Erie. – I won’t try to speak in Mr. Summers voice as my words would be a poor attempt at such an accomplished writer, handicapper, and one heckeuva’ guy. – I’ll just pass along  the same love of the game and I’ll start with the Belmont Stakes this year. – The Happy Handicapper lives on, and I hope that Bob will be in my corner when it comes time to making a wager. – You can visit the Winning Ponies archives, or just click here and take a trip in the Bet Mobile back to a fond memory. –