Sometimes the difference between being a good horseplayer and a bad one is mental toughness and discipline. Which might explain why Gordon “Swede” Larson will be making his fifth appearance this weekend in the National Handicapping Championship, a competition that pits the finest handicapping minds in the country against one another.
Larson is 84 and among the 500 or so set to assemble Friday at the Treasure Island Casino in Las Vegas to compete for an estimated $1 million first prize. It is an impressive and eclectic field that includes a chemical engineer, an eye surgeon, CEOs, attorneys, a nationally ranked chess player, the screenwriter who wrote “Forrest Gump” and a former member of the San Diego Chargers.
Perhaps one is a better handicapper than Larson, but no one on that list could possibly be tougher.
Larson got his first taste of racing in 1949 when he went to a racetrack in Munich, Germany. Four years earlier, he had enlisted in the Navy to serve in World War II and was still there helping with the aftermath of the war. He says he has always been interested in horses and made a point to visit tracks as he traveled around the U.S. and the globe for the military.
The Vietnam War took away whatever leisure time Larson might have had and, then a colonel in the Air Force, he was sent to Thailand in 1966 to fly bombing missions over Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam. In May of 1967 while on his 95th mission, he was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese.
“Thus begins the saga of almost six years of indescribable brutality, degradation, suffering and loneliness that is hard to even imagine,” Larson wrote in his autobiography.
He was sent to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” a prisoner of war camp where he spent six years, nearly three of them in solitary confinement.
“There was never a really dull moment there,” he wrote of his confinement. “It was really hours of fearful boredom interspersed with moments of stark terror.”
From Wikipedia, here is more on the Hanoi Hilton, where Sen. John McCain was also imprisoned:
“The Hanoi Hilton was one site used by the North Vietnamese Army to house, torture and interrogate captured servicemen, mostly American pilots shot down during bombing raids. Although North Vietnam was a signatory of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, which demanded ‘decent and humane treatment’ of prisoners of war, severe torture methods were employed, such as rope bindings, irons, beatings and prolonged solitary confinement.”
With the end of the war he was released in March of 1973. About a year later Larson was medically discharged from the service. He took with him a treasure chest of honors and medals, including two Silver Stars, five Distinguished Flying Crosses and 2 Purple Hearts.
As a civilian, he has worked as a stockbroker in real estate and formed his own small oil company. He lives in San Antonio, where he raised and raced quarter horses. He has also dabbled in thoroughbred ownership and is the co-owner of a horse currently campaigning at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Always interested in handicapping, he started playing in the tournaments in the late ’90s.
Maybe none of this has anything to do with playing the horses. Then again, maybe it does. He’s 84, an iron-willed, old soldier and wants to stay mentally and physically sharp. His way of doing so is to handicap.
“I like the idea of competition,” he said. “I like to compete with the young turks.”
When asked if his handicapping skills have declined with age, he scoffed.
“I’m getting better,” Larson said. “I have learned a few things in recent years. I am still holding my own with the young turks. I keep qualifying for the contest so that alone tells me what I am doing I am doing right, that I haven’t lost the touch.”
The youngest contestant is 22-year-old Chris Bertolucci. Several others are in their 30s. None are older than Larson.
Something tells me these young turks are in trouble.
Sheldon Finkelstein Update: Finkelstein is the NHC contestant who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in May and made it his goal to live long enough to compete in the finals. With two days to go until the NHC kicks off, Finkelstein is alive, but not necessarily well. He said his doctors have told him to get his affairs in order because he cannot expect to live much longer.
But Finkelstein knows he is going to make it through the weekend, to him a major triumph.
“I’m here in January,” he said. “The fact that I’m here is the important thing. I’ve won this.”
Originally Posted on ESPN