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By Howard Canan - 1978 Hoof Beats

The Kid stood there thinking. No, he had not realized that Gabrielle Bernat was a woman driver. For all he knew, Gabrielle was one of those strange sounding French names which seemed to be so popular among the male harness drivers.

"Can she handle herself in a race?" the Kid asked. Assured that Gabrielle could drive with the best of them, the Kid breathed a sigh of relief. He had never before changed his opinion after studying the program and making his selection, but this was one choice about which he had to be certain.

Confidently making his way to the front of the room, the Kid handed in his selection—$182 on the nose for Queen Streak to win the sixth race. Much more rested on the outcome of this race than the nearly 9, 000 in attendance realized.

The gate folded, the starting car pulled away and the race was on. Gabrielle took Queen Streak right to the front while the rest of the field jockeyed for position. Past the quarter in :31.3 and the half in 1:05. The Kid urged on the horse as he remained standing. Queen Streak stopped the clock in 1:37 at the three‑quarter pole and the Kid could feel his heartbeat increase with each step the horse took.

As if in response to the Kid's urging, Queen Streak held on to her advantage and crossed the wire in 2:07. 1, two and a half lengths in front of the nearest competition. The Kid let out a roar and threw his fist into the air with a force that would have leveled anything in its way. He had done it. He had beaten the best at their own game and at their home field.
Eric Alwan had indeed done it. The 13 year‑old eighth grader from El Paso, Texas, had been flown to Los Alamitos Race Course in Southern California to take part in a special handicapping contest which was the brainchild of general manager Dan Downs.

In an effort to show the public that hand­icapping horses and picking winners can be as easy as child's play and just to have a fun evening at the races, Downs sent out invitations to the leading turf authorities, sportswriters and radio and television personalities in the area inviting them to face the Kid in a handicapping contest.

The invitation failed to mention, however, that Eric the Kid had never seen a harness race in his life, and wouldn't until the night before the contest. And on that Friday evening with cameras flashing in his eyes and microphones being shoved in front of his face, Eric could have been excused if he failed to pick up some of the finer points of the sport of standardbreds.

Before he even reached Los Alamitos Race Course, situated 24 miles south of downtown Los Angeles and eight miles down the road from Disneyland, Eric was whisked from LA International Airport for a radio talk show interview where he got a taste of the congeniality of some racing fans.
"I don't think handicappers can help a person make money and frankly I don't believe in Eric," one caller offered. "Ahh, don't listen to him. He probably doesn't believe in Santa Claus either," the talk show host told Eric.

Not to believe in the Kid? It is hard to imagine. All the young man has done in his 13 years is to establish himself as the nation's youngest professional handicapper and one of the best to boot. At the tender age of eight, Eric began hanging around the press box at both Sunland Park and Ruidoso Downs, the leading throughbred and quarter horse tracks in New Mexico.

"I was bored and had nothing to do so my Dad (Dick Alwan, publicity chief at both Sunland and Ruidoso) asked if I wanted to go to the track with him. At first I used to bring my coloring books and crayons to keep me busy but then I began noticing the horses.

"When I learned to read a program, I started to try and pick the winners of each race. I would tell my Dad all about the winners I had but he said it didn't count unless I wrote the selections down on paper "The first time I wrote them down, I had seven winners."

Well, one thing led to another and within two years, the Kid had shown enough skill at picking winners that he was offered the job of publishing a daily tip sheet, entitled Eager Beaver, at Sunland and Ruidoso.

"I was paid five dollars every race day to write the tip sheet," Eric recalled. "And things went real well. I was the leading handicapper at the track when I was only ten, picking about 35 percent of the winners.
"The tip sheet didn't interfere with the other things I did either," the Kid understated. Taking about an hour and a half for each tip sheet, Eric maintained his straight‑A average in school and was learning to become a good little viola player. "I also love to follow professional football and play tennis," the Kid added.

The elder Alwan knew he was watching quite an interesting story unfold before his very eyes, so being the keen publicity man, he took advantage of the situation. The Eric Alwan story soon was being told in newspapers and magazines and on radio and television shows throughout the country. The Mike Douglas Show, To Tell The Truth, the Tomorrow Show and Paul Harvey's syndicated radio news show all featured the Kid.

But these were just drops in the bucket compared to what was to follow. Eric was invited to participate on the $128,000 Question television quiz show as an expert on the subject of thoroughbred racing.

"I crammed as much about the subject as I could every day for about three months, " the Kid said. "And when I went on the show, the early questions weren't too difficult."

But the difficulty of the questions increased with the amount of money offered. Which horse lost his only lifetime race to Upset in 1919? "Man O'War," the Kid answered so cooly that it appeared he was present for the race.

"I won $16,000 and a new car before I finally missed a question. They asked me a six‑part question about female jockeys dating back 100 years and I wasn't really prepared for such an obscure subject." Obviously there are some things that the Kid still has to learn.

So when the Kid and his family—father, mother and little sister—arrived in Southern California, his reputation had already preceded him. But how would he handle himself with harness racing, those funny stepping creatures that pull a little cart with a person sitting in it?

Although Eric had proven himself to the quarter horse and thoroughbred world, he was still unknown by harness racing fans. And the ease and nonchalance with which he had previously picked winners had no bearing on the present handicapping contestants.

And they were all there, each with a mythical $125 stake in his pocket. Ernie Mason, the area's own syndicated handicapper who has seen more races at Hollywood Park, Santa Anita and Los Alamitos than Eric has seen horses. Jerry Antonucci, the handicapper for the (Los Angeles) HeraldExaminer. Warren Eves, a leading turf authority in the harness and thoroughbred industries. They had all come, 28 of them, to see about this young Kid who claimed he can pick winners.

When Eric walked into the Post and Paddock Room he looked more like he was about to render a recitation of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass than to take on the Southland's best horse experts in a special handicapping contest. Every one of his red hairs was in place. His black‑rimmed glasses could not hide any of his freckles. He wore a polyester shirt over a white turtlenecksweater and plaid‑checked pants that were about a half‑inch too long.

There was no sign that he had spent three hours that afternoon studying, examining, re‑studying, re‑examining the program. There was nothing about the horses in the first six races that had escaped his eagle eye.
Still, the Kid had a lot to prove. Picking quarter horses and thoroughbreds was one thing. Telling which pacer or trotter would cross the finish line first was something else.

When the Kid's choice in the first race, L. L. Hal, finished third, his original $125 stood at $105. A bit of disappointment could be seen on his face after the race. Maybe it wouldn't be so easy, he was thinking.

Lucky Hondo won a photo for the place position in the next race so the Kid's $5 to win and $5 to place on Lucky Hondo left him with $104. Although the Kid was not losing very much, others were gaining and beginning to draw away in the contest. He needed a winner and he needed it now.

Dakota Star was the answer in the third race but since the horse was the favorite, the Kid was only able to bring his bankroll close to the original total. He still trailed many of the handicappers.

But his confidence had to be growing. He had picked a first, a second and a third in the first three races. The fourth race was an Exacta race, and you could see the smiles growing across the faces of the experts. This was the race, they figured, when they would pull completely out of sight of the youngster.

The Kid liked Vanderhall in the race, at 5‑2 betting odds. He played the 10‑year‑old gelding in five Exacta combinations. Vanderhall crossed the wire in front of Star Dust Beau and the Exacta paid $107. The Kid now owned $202.

Only two races were left and he still trailed three handicappers in the contest. Two winners in a row for the Kid. You could sense the interest growing.

Eric lost $20 on the fifth race. Joe Allan N. was sixth, the Kid's first out‑of‑the‑money selection. Now only one race remained and Eric was far behind. Two contestants had more than doubled his $182.
It had to be one of his toughest choices. Risk the $182 on one horse to win and be left with nothing? Bet several combinations with the money and be assured of having some money left?

With all the confidence that a 13 ‑year‑old is not supposed to have, the Kid made his decision. His mother gulped when she saw the Kid's choice. All his money on a woman driver and a 5‑2 choice, Queen Streak.
"Hadn't he already lost enough on female riders?" the Kid's Mom could not help think, recalling the $128,000 Question. But the decision was made and the bet placed.

Just as many eyes were on Eric as were on the race. His enthusiasm had been passed on to everyone. When Queen Streak won the race and the Kid won the contest with $673.40, even the losers were happy. The Kid had done it. He had multiplied his original investment more than five­fold in only six races. He had picked three winners in six races in a sport that he had never seen until the night before.

The Kid had taken it to the pros and taught everyone a lesson. All at the age of 13.

Erioc Alwan

Eric Alwan gives Donald Kennedy, president of the Southern California Racing Association which sponsors night harness racing at Los Alamitos, some tips before the start of the first race.

Eric Alwan

Eric plants a kiss on the cheek of Gabrielle Bernat after the latter won the sixth race with Queen Streak to allow Eric to win the handicapping contest.