LAS VEGAS — Those first forays with buddies to Sportsman’s Park in Cicero, when he was 16, propelled David Gutfreund on a journey that delivered him to Bally’s Las Vegas on Sunday.
At the National Horseplayers Championship dinner, to cap its 23rd annual tournament, the 60-year-old Skokie native was inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame.
He joined Stanley Bavlish, Michael Beychok, Paul Matties Jr. and the late J. Randy Gallo in the NHC’s latest class of luminaries.
The outspoken Gutfreund says he was stunned when informed of the honor a week earlier.
“This was not like three guys in a room deciding,” he says. “The people playing in this tournament are the people who voted me in. I’m thankful, humbled and honored.”
His frank assessments and criticisms over the years have been thorns in the side of the very NHC that welcomed him into its glorious hall, and he admits he has been “polarizing.”
So his modesty might have caught some off guard, but not Horse Racing Nation editor Ron Flatter.
“Not completely surprising,” says Flatter. “Out of character, yes. But I also know he has a humble side.”
Gutfreund is particularly grateful that his parents experienced his lifetime achievement.
“It’s wonderful to have this happen while they’re here. I’m so happy they get some sort of outside notice of my relevance in something I’ve spent a lot of time in and have had a lot of passion for.”
Gutfreund attended Niles East and New Trier East high schools. He caddied at a golf course, worked at a bowling alley, played hearts, gin rummy and poker with those pals.
When they ventured to Sportsman’s Park, however, something triggered Gutfreund. He discovered Andy Beyer’s 1975 book “Picking Winners” and Steven Davidowitz’s 1977 tome “Betting Thoroughbreds,” and was hooked.
“I stumbled into those early in my horse-racing development, which gave me a big head start,” he says. “It happened at a time when horse racing was great, with Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid.”
He possessed a couple of years of college and a sharp facility with numbers. A girlfriend who was a runner at the Mercantile Exchange introduced him to that fast-paced business world, and he was, again, hooked.
Gutfreund started as a runner, for Peavey, at the exchange in 1981. He’d acquire an account and deal stocks at the Board of Trade, retiring in 1991.
He has attended the Kentucky Derby on 15 occasions, viewing the famous race everywhere from an owner’s box to the Churchill Downs infield that once defined debauchery.
“An incredible spectacle to have 150,000 people cheering wildly for 20 3-year-old horses to go around in a circle as fast as they can,” he says. “They’ve never run this far, so there are many unknowns and uncertainties.
“And everybody wants to correctly handicap that race.”
He fared well picking horses and created a short-lived handicapping service. His sister helped him concoct the hotline number 1-900-89MAVEN, using a catchy nickname—meaning “expert” or “connoisseur.”
“A Yiddish catchphrase,” says Gutfreund. “I had a little know-it-all to me at the time, so we thought it would be kind of a funny name. Who knew it would stick the way it has almost 25 years later?”
Gutfreund once turned a 20-cent Rainbow Six wager into $87,000, a 50-cent Rainbow Six wager ticket became $133,000. One Pick Six winner returned nearly $150,000. And a poker-tournament triumph made him $156,000.
He began playing poker, with serious goals, 12 years ago, and he moved to Vegas in May 2019. The Hendon Mob poker database site pegs his career earnings at $1,022,457.
In November at the Rio, he finished in the top 100 in Seniors and Super Seniors events at the World Series of Poker. He cashed in the Main Event, enjoying time at the same table, on Day 3, with eventual runner-up George Holmes.
Holmes pocketed $4.3 million, victor Koray Aldemir took home $8 million.
“I look forward to being in this very ballroom, in which we’re talking, for the next WSOP,” says Gutfreund. “This will be the Horseshoe, or Horseshoe Las Vegas. So I’m doing reconnaissance right now.”
He has witnessed horse racing “spiral sideways,” he says, with many issues. He notes that in January, a third of Santa Anita’s dirt races featured five or fewer entries.
“It’s really sad and difficult to watch that [Southern California] circuit erode the way it’s eroded.”
Equine drugs and blended take-outs (the amount of wagers retained by the house, that climb north of 20% at some tracks) are also high on his hit list. He has railed against online NHC-qualifying avenues.
“If the worst thing I do is speak on behalf of players who have been belittled and not dealt with in a fair manner,” says Gutfreund, “then if that’s a sin, forgive me, for I have sinned.”
He does call the NHC the premiere tournament of its kind, and he praises how efficiently Hawthorne Race Course assistant general manager John Walsh operates live qualifier events in the Chicago area.
Gutfreund always attempts to qualify through Hawthorne, but he didn’t make it into last weekend’s event. In 15 NHC appearances, he has two top-10 finishes, four in the top 20. On its all-time scoring chart, Gutfreund is among the top 10.
“Once you get here, it’s a great opportunity. And, dammit, I want to win the effin’ thing one day.”