The Making of the Twin Spires Public Handicapper

Joe Kristufek's rise as the Lead Analyst for Twin Spires (left, with Triple Crown Champion, American Pharoah in 2015) began some 30 years ago in his hometown of Chicago; where for a time, he worked as a green jacket-clad employee at Arlington Park (right), Photos courtesy of Joe Kristufek.
Joe Kristufek's rise as the Lead Analyst for Twin Spires (left, with Triple Crown Champion, American Pharoah in 2015) began some 30 years ago in his hometown of Chicago; where for a time, he worked as a green jacket-clad employee at Arlington Park (right), Photos courtesy of Joe Kristufek.

The opening at 223 received much fanfare. Situated centrally on W. Jackson Boulevard near S. Franklin Street, the “Winner’s Circle” as it was known, was the first off-track-betting (OTB) storefront in Downtown Chicago. A prime location, it proved to be terribly convenient that steamy July in 1988. Today, it is all but a collective memory.

Then, thirsty bettors and wide-eyed watchers passed through its portal into what was a crossroads for all sorts. The attire included everything from torn AC-DC T-shirts to Brooks Brothers suits. Garb was least important, what mattered was who you liked. Sharps ruled…

The OTB’s location along this urban landscape was key because it was adjacent to none other than Bruce Graham’s Sears Tower, an architecturally significant monolith to the new business consumerism of the second half of the twentieth century.

The Chicago Tribune covered Winner’s meteoric rise at 223, which appeared just as euphoric as when its neighbor opened back in ’73. The paper was on hand to report on how the tidal wave of interest in laying down a legal wager, overwhelmed the doors and windows.

According to an August 12, 1988 piece by Ronald Koziol and Neil Milbert, “The air conditioning was on but had little effect in the stifling, crowded room.” Those teeming masses numbered around 250 and led to a temporary shuttering of its doors because the long lines created a mosh pit, as each local post time approached for tracks like Hawthorne, Sportsman’s, Balmoral, and Maywood Parks.

Shortly thereafter, a new and improved Winner’s Circle expansion was unveiled with 27 windows to place bets and a restaurant located upstairs that required foisting over a door fee. This brought the square footage from 3,000 up to nearly 18,000, which was reflective of the revenue that was being generated within a short amount of time that the OTB existed.

A year later, a young man who possessed quick wits and had a penchant for baseball stats, sauntered in the entrance at 223 W. Jackson. He had graduated from high school and was doing double duty as a student at nearby Columbia College, as well as holding down a job at the Sears Tower.

That part-time position netted him some steady cash. Since he lived at home with his parents, it allowed him to be constantly flush—the envy of every teenager. The proximity of Winner’s was just too good to be true. And that is where Joe Kristufek got his first taste of the game of Thoroughbred racing that would become the very marrow of his life. Without some of those early experiences, an Act 1, it is not a foregone conclusion that he would become the Lead Analyst for Twin Spires, under the auspices of Churchill Downs Inc.  

Kristufek always enjoyed the thrill of a wager. When we spoke over the phone, the enthusiastic picker told me that even though his parents were not interested in betting or racing, you can still have “gambling in your blood.” At St. Joe’s, a prominent Westchester high that was the alma mater of basketball stars like Isiah Thomas, he ran the football pool and… went to classes. That weekly game was a primer, but it didn’t just include students. Instead, it was a mainstay among the faculty and coaching staff. “Oh my gosh, they had to get in on the confidence pool.” said Kristufek, “It was a ton of work, with something like 120 people taking part.”

That early “internship” experience led Kristufek to begin to think seriously about what he wanted to do with his life. Like any number of grads, the ubiquitous pursuit of something you love came into focus, and he began to toy with the idea of everything from being a news hound to utilizing that legato voice of his over a mic.

Scoring a more than respectable 26 on his ACTs led the numbers scholar to Columbia College, where he began to study journalism and work for the student newspaper. Located 20 minutes away from the Sears Tower, it was a mere jaunt to that part-time spot over on W. Adams Street. The expeditious way took him along W. Jackson Boulevard, and that is where he spotted the OTB.

To hear Kristufek tell it, by the time he frequented the spot, it was the apex of a smoke-filled den of scum and villainy. Star Wars references suit because the cast of characters was colorful, to put it mildly. “It had that feeling of the Cantina, and you would get all sorts milling about,” he recalled, “I had to be the youngest guy in there.” He took to the scene like a duck to water, especially after watching the 1989 Triple Crown. His home away, was where he learned several key lessons.

The mentor that took him under his wing, serving as “professor” and “internship advisor,” was named Angelo. He was a hustler and fancied himself a tipster, who hung around the grimy OTB, holding office hours. Not that much older than his young protégé, he handed over lessons that ranged from form reading to looking for value in horses with boxcar prices. Kristufek mused, “You know, he was not afraid to put you straight about something that he saw you were doing wrong.”

That kind of guidance made a lasting impression on the horse racing analyst to-be, and his non-sanctioned “internship” at the Winner’s Circle OTB gave him a taste of what was to come. There, he learned money management, that there was profit in losing, and playing the races had a distinct set of parts, which included, the gambling and the creative—those are not one and the same.

While the OTB experience was opening the possibilities in Kristufek’s mind, he also was greatly affected by an epiphany that would change his life forever. Although he was occupied by work and going to school, he was spending a fair amount of time doing what college students tend to, carousing around.

One night, after hitting the bars with a couple of good friends, they were trailing a vehicle too closely. The result, before they knew it, was both interiors emptied onto the street. A melee ensued, and the result was a brutal stabbing of both his compatriots. One, named Scott, who was a fellow OTB-goer, died of his wounds. Kristufek was devastated.

After 2 trials, that tragedy and loss sobered him, and summarily righted the ship. “That was a life-changing moment that really helped me prioritize, and gave me a dose of reality of what was truly important,” Kristufek said full of emotion. Good grades and governance put him on a new path, and actual professors in the Journalism Department at Columbia, some who worked for major Chicago newspapers, probed his creativity.

Derailments can sometimes lead to unintended positivity. This one sent Kristufek into the next phase of his development as a handicapper. He experienced the attraction of wagering and tipping back in high school, and at the OTB from Angelo, but now it was time to actually “go” to a racetrack.

Chicago’s wagering landscape was diverse and growing into the 1990s. Popular forms of media were brimming, and so were its personalities. The “Windy City” was home to Larry Lujack, known as the “Super Jock,” and sports writers were aplenty, including the immortal Dave Feldman. These were the days when every newspaper offered daily tips, and broadcasts over the airwaves and television were like thick clouds of mosquitos. Track announcers were also prominent, like Phil Georgeff, who used his patented, “Here they come, spinning out of the turn…” phrase that became synonymous with claiming contests to stakes competition.

To enter that world of race media, you needed to be plucky and stand out in the crowd. Early on, Kristufek went to Sportsman's Park, at the behest of Dave Surico of the Tribune, for an impromptu "interview" with Frank Brabec, who was installed as Publicity Director. The young upstart did not know it was for a job, he was never told, arriving unprepared. Even though he did not get the position, it was an excellent lesson in improvisation.

Once he graduated from Columbia College, he took a square, full-time job with Sears in Hoffman Estates. Kristufek lasted 6 months. "Honestly, I hated it even though the benefits were great," he said "I knew I was not going to be happy." In the meantime, he had travelled north to the newly renamed Arlington International Racecourse. Up in the Heights, that oval was experiencing a renaissance itself during that decade. There, he worked the elevators dressed in a jacket and tie ferrying patrons up and down, but he would take any chance he got to race out, leaving them unattended, if he saw the chance to offer a tip or make a connection.

“It was Dave Zenner, who I met at Arlington, that was the Director of Publicity at Hawthorne that gave me a break in this business,” he laughed, “A guy he had hired as a PR scribe bolted for another job at the last minute, and Dave called me to offer a 3 months seasonal position." Desperate to get to the track and start his career, Kristufek spurned the stability of Sears and those benefits, and headed to Hawthorne. It was a major leap, not only because it was Phil Georgeff's final meet as a race caller, but because it set the young man on a new path. 

Those experiences, a series of “internships” in Act 1 of his career, gave Kristufek an appreciation for what the business of Thoroughbred racing and analysis had to offer. The formative years of the early 90s, which included donning the famous “green jacket” (see the picture above) for all who worked at Arlington during those hot summers, infused him with an infectious spirit for everything that had to do with the game.

Looking back at the aggregate during these formative years was a sum of many parts. This was a time when he learned the value of trip notes, the discovery of track biases, and how the creative merged with the mathematical. As Kristufek fondly remembers, “Back in those days, there was no full-card simulcast, and you were not able to cue up race replays, so in the moment, optics were essential and helped level the playing field.” Those analytical “edges” are something that the self-proclaimed ambassador of Thoroughbred racing sees as his greatest offering back to the betting public as a “public handicapper.”

Years later, after working a myriad of media jobs in the industry, Kristufek finally landed a permanent position in 2018 as the Lead Analyst for Twin Spires, covering every race day at both Churchill Downs in Louisville and the Fairgrounds in New Orleans. It has been a longtime coming. “You know, I take pride in not just regurgitating the PPs, if I give good advice, focus on fan development, and offer viewers something that they did not know already, then there is nothing better,” said the seasoned capper.

Productivity and investing in a good wager, may sound like simple truths when it comes to handicapping races. However, unwaveringly pursuing those are Joe Kristufek’s mission, as he employs his wealth of experience, that was honed long ago. When you hear him give a pick on a Twin Spires broadcast, you know that it is coming from a place forged in skill and crafted by his own history. Each and every one of them is part of a larger story that began some 30-odd years ago as Kristufek walked down W. Jackson Boulevard, heading towards 223.

You might ask, did he ever see Angelo, his former mentor, again? The answer to that is yes, he did. Dressed in his sparkling suit and tie, he ran into the tipster randomly at Arlington one afternoon. Although holding lectures around the old OTB had aged him, he still had that look in his eye that the next pick was just around the corner. As he looked Kristufek up and down, he told his former acolyte that he had followed his career, and regularly read his selections with much interest. There could not be a greater compliment, thought Kristufek. As Angelo fixed his gaze on him, like a master forger admiring one of his most accurate attempts at perfection, you could tell he understood what his former charge had accomplished to date.

The college credit earned through that “internship” at 223 W. Jackson? Suffice it to say, it had paid off, along with the others during Joe Kristufek’s Act 1.

It was all part in the making of the Twin Spires "Public Handicapper."