Monday, September 6, 2010

Rest in Peace Happy Handicapper

The Turk learned to accept the fact a long time ago that most of the knowledgeable folks in horse racing were older men, mostly veterans of Korea or Vietnam. That perception has changed a bit for me now after meeting a diverse group of men and women online, and at the tracks, who are passionate and very knowledgeable about the sport we love. The Turk came of age hanging around and learning from the older generation of fans, the ones who remember what it was like to see the stands full most of time, not just on the big days, the ones who remember opening the sports page and reading about horse racing like it wasn't the afterthought it's become, jammed in between the bowling article and the fishing news. Friends, a man who I modeled myself after in presentation, The Happy Handicapper, has passed away. Writing in the third person, Mr. Robert Summers, Bob, was a very good handicapper with a keen eye and he was able to translate his observations into the written word. I exchanged emails with Bob from time to time and he was always very pleasant and willing to discuss his thought process with his selections. I explained my use of the third person in my own writings and he wished me well.

The Turk extends his sympathy to his family, wife Sheila, daughter Samantha, and his extended family as well as the horseplayers and coworkers who he influenced and shared good times and bad with over the years. the following is a reposting of the lovely obituary written by longtime Buffalo News writer, Milt Northrop.

As he was about to complete his Saturday night shift on the sports copy desk of The Buffalo News, Robert J. "Bob" Summers announced that he would treat the staff to pizza next Saturday.

What's the occasion, he was asked.

"I'm going to celebrate receiving my first Social Security check," he said.

A few hours later, Summers died of an apparent heart attack after he was stricken at the Seneca Niagara Casino and taken to Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital. He was 66.

Summers, who wrote the Happy Handicapper horse racing column and covered thoroughbred and harness racing as well as the Buffalo Blizzard indoor soccer team and other sports for The News, was the Happiest of Handicappers. He was a multifaceted personality with an inquisitive mind as well as being a thorough editor and an expert reporter of horse racing. Besides the racetrack and gambling he had a reporter's curiosity about a number of things.

"Bob was a solid, well-rounded newsman with diverse skills, as was evident by his transition from the business desk to sports copy desk and columnist. He was an old-style journalist who could do it all," said Margaret Sullivan, editor of The News.

"Bob loved covering horse racing, whether it be at Buffalo Raceway, Batavia Downs, Fort Erie or the Triple Crown races," said Steve Jones, sports editor of The News. "He made friends on the rail and in the lines at the betting windows. As the Happy Handicapper, he relished the chance to be Everyman in the sport of kings."

Summers was diligent about keeping his records of the sport and always seemed to experiment with new horse-betting systems, some that were silly, some he shared with his readers.

"It wasn't to get rich. He was in it for the math and the headwork," Sheila Summers, his wife of 42 years, said of her husband's fascination with racing. "Bob loved to read. He wasn't religious, but he read the Bible for fun because he liked how it was written."

"He was truly a family-centered man. I don't think I ever spent a day without talking to him," said his daughter, Samantha Summers. "Family was first, writing second and gambling third."

Summers was a student of the history of Buffalo and its industrialists and politicians as well as the genealogy of his own family. His grandfather was a city judge.

Known for his wit, his standup comic bits were a traditional feature of the annual Buffalo Newspaper Guild Christmas parties and he often tested his humor on audiences at comedy clubs.

Since he worked most Saturdays and Sundays at The News, he would joke that Tuesday and Wednesday were his weekend. Some of those off days were spent doing the unusual. More than once he spent a whole day riding the Metro Bus system, just to experience it and the people he ran across in his travels. On the days he wasn't at the race track, he would ride his bicycle. Annually he made a cycling trek from his home in North Buffalo to Niagara Falls.

"He called it the Tour de Bob," his wife said. "He wanted to get to Niagara-on-the-Lake, but he never quite made it."

Summers met his own father only once, as an infant. Robert Hunter Summers was killed in action with the U.S. Army during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, just a few months after his son was born. Robert H. Summers is buried in a military cemetery in Belgium. Naturally, Bob eventually made a trip there to visit his father's grave.

Summers grew up in Bennington Center, in Wyoming County, but moved to Kenmore with his mother when he was 12 years old. He graduated in 1962 from St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, where he was a substitute guard on the championship 1961 football team that was installed into the school's Hall of Fame. He graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 1966.

His professional career began with a trade publication in New York City, Metal Working News, before he moved back to Western New York to become a reporter for the Niagara Gazette. He then worked in corporate communications for Bell Aero Systems and as a reporter for the Buffalo Courier-Express. He joined The News in 1977 as a financial writer, then in 1984 moved into the sports department, where he was able to pursue his love of horse racing.

In 2003, he won a handicapping competition at Fort Erie and advanced to the national finals in Las Vegas. Just last week, he attended Fort Erie's Legends Day at the track.

"He was a great supporter of racing and Fort Erie Race Track," said Darryl Wells, former director of communications and track announcer at the Ontario track. "He was always joking and smiling and had a story to share."

In the photo accompanying his column, Summers' face was obscured by a pair of binoculars.

"He always watched races live with binoculars, never watching TV," Wells said.

"He was fair, unbiased and knowledgeable in terms of writing his articles," said Rick Cowan, chief operating officer at Fort Erie Race Track.

"The sport of horse racing across Western New York and Southern Ontario lost one of its most dedicated voices," said Sam Pendolino, general manager at Buffalo Raceway.

"He was such a fan of the sport that he would go out to the racetrack on his nights off just because he enjoyed the people and the atmosphere," said Bob Salzman, a horse owner, former trainer and former colleague of Summers' at The News.

Besides his wife of 42 years, and his daughter, Summers is survived by two sisters, Donna George Fox (John) of Los Gatos, Calif., and Mary George Finamore (David) of Louisville, Colo., and a brother, Charles Anthony George of Louisville, Colo.

Calling hours will be 7-9 p.m. on Wednesday and 1-3 and 6-8 p.m. on Thursday at Perna, Dengler and Roberts Funeral Home, 3000 Delaware Ave., Kenmore. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 9:30 a.m. on Friday at St. Margaret's Church, 1395 Hertel Ave. In lieu of flowers, donations in his memory can be made to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation at

Article posted without permission of the Buffalo News but they'll understand.