BANGOR, Maine — If there’s one piece of advice Bob Fitzgerald hopes every harness racing bettor takes from him, it would likely be this: Don’t bet the house.
If his name doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps his nickname and official title at Bangor Raceway will. Fitzgerald is “The Track Man” of “The Track Man’s selections” appearing in every racing program for the Bangor Historic Track.
If you think Fitzgerald spends his days poring over computer-generated statistics, consulting charts and employing complex theorems or formulas to determine his prerace picks, you’d be mistaken.
Then again, the Saint John, New Brunswick, native doesn’t rely on gut feelings or intuition, either.
“That’s all I do is make informed guesses. Some I hit right on and others I’m out to lunch on,” Fitzgerald said matter-of-factly. “I do it as if I was picking up a program and betting.
“It’s just an educated guess from watching the horses race. Sometimes I’m out to lunch with horses coming from out of state or Ontario. I haven’t seen them before.”
The 68-year-old Fitzgerald, who has been following, betting, or even owning and training horses for the last 50 years, said the beginning of the season is harder to call because he hasn’t had a chance to scout the new horses and/or drivers.
“I take the starter sheet and I look at the entries. From going to the races all my life, I know most of the horses and the drivers, but sometimes I don’t know some of them,” Fitzgerald explained. “The biggest problem is sometimes a driver like Heath Campbell or Shawn Gray will be listed on two or three different horses in the same race because I have to make the picks before the final sheets are printed up, so I have to make a guess as to which horse they’re driving and go from there.”
Fitzgerald has been offering his “railbird” insight as The Track Man for the last two years.
“The biggest factors for me are the drivers and the classes of the horses,” he said.
Fitzgerald, a retired middle school teacher of 35 years, kind of lucked into the track job by being in the right place at the right time.
“I should get another horse, but I’ve been out of it for seven years,” said Fitzgerald. “I still have all my rigging home and everything, but the longer you stay out, the harder it is to get back in.”
Fitzgerald, whose son used to race at the old track in Foxborough, Mass., until it closed, has owned about 35 or 36 horses in his life and never more than four at a time. He was a trainer, but never drove.
Many of the Raceway regulars share an extensive harness racing background, and many extend beyond just betting.
Glenburn’s Keith Prescott has been coming to Bangor Raceway to watch races and bet since 1962. He prefers to use his own expertise or gut instinct, but sometimes relies on Fitzgerald’s.
“I probably use his picks half the time. I’d say they work out 20 to 25 percent of the time,” Prescott said. “A lot of times I’ll bet just win and place. Sometimes I’ll do a trifecta or an exacta because they pay better, but a lot of times I don’t and then after the race is over, I wish I had.”
That’s a common refrain around the betting counters.
Merle Townsend, a Bangor native who just got back from six months in Florida, spent his first day back at the track.
“I probably come out here once a week, and I use him maybe 25 percent of the time. I think maybe they pay off maybe half the time,” Townsend said. “I use them more when I really don’t know a lot about most of the horses.”
Many bettors don’t use the track man’s informed hunches even then.
“I never use the picks,” said former Bangor High baseball coach and Maine Sports Hall of Fame member Bob Kelley. “That’s the fun of it for me is trying to figure it out on my own.”
Fitzgerald spends his retirement watching the horses in season and divides his time between Bangor Raceway, Farmington, and the Fryeburg Fair.
“I just came down here last week and I stay here for most of the race season,” he said.
Fitzgerald got off to a slow start as Bangor opened its 127th season two weeks ago.
“You can see today I look like I’m right out to lunch with my picks,” he said while shaking his head in disgust after seeing the Nos. 1 and 6 horses finish first and second, respectively in a race he picked 6-1. “And that was a good one for me tonight.”
Ironically, even when he’s having what he considers a bad day, that doesn’t necessarily mean the people who rely on his picks are, too.
“I remember some night last year I was here and lost about $40 and there were two guys ahead of me in line at the betting counter,” Fitzgerald recalled. “One of them asked the other how he was doing. The other guy said ‘I made $32,’ so his friend asked him how he did it.
“He said ‘I just bet what they picked on the program.’ I guess I didn’t follow my own picks very well.”