An American in Paris: the life and times of a horseplaying adventurer

Studying the form: Mark Cramer with a copy of Paris Turf in his favourite bar in Clichy Paris. Photo: John Gilmore

He may look like any typical French 72-year-old, his head buried in a copy of Paris Turf at one of the country’s many PMU bars, but don’t be fooled. To begin with, Mark Cramer is not French. And he’s certainly anything but typical.

In a rich, varied and adventurous life, the American has been a handicapper, an author, an ecology campaigner, a travel writer, a tipster, a university lecturer, a rebel, a TV reporter and a professional gambler. Central to it all has been his love of horse racing, wherever he has lived - and that includes New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington DC in the U.S., La Paz in Bolivia, Barcelona in Spain and Avignon and now Paris in France.

Paris has been home to him and his Bolivian-born wife since 2000, and it was there where John Gilmore caught up with him on their return from a six-week trip to La Paz.


A rebel at an early age

Cramer has travelled a great deal, combining work with pleasure throughout the U.S., South America and Europe. He was never going to be a conformist. He grew up in New York in the 50s, uncomfortable with the rigid rules of McCarthyism and the supposed Communism threat.

“I attended Bayside High School in Queens, where we had regular air raid drills, hiding under the table, and each Thursday going to assembly,” says Cramer. “Feeling so pissed off with this, I eventually refused to wear a tie at assembly. The teacher, for punishment, made me wear a bow tie like a clown wears in a circus. I was against the system because they were forcing people to conform and keeping them under control.”

A ‘beatnik’ lifestyle on the road

In the late 1950s, a big influence on Cramer and many others was the anti-establishment Jack Kerouac novel On The Road, published in 1957. The book describes Kerouac’s way of life in the late 1940s and early 50s of just dropping everything and taking off for the pleasure of travelling and getting by as best he could.

“He wrote the novel as if he was playing jazz, liberated from the things that constrain you, and in some ways horseracing and jazz are similar - as they are counter culture and complex,” says Cramer. “It created the word ‘beatniks’, for individuals wanting to be free from traditional everyday obligations, and the book proved attractive to me, with the education system so repressive.”

Having a talent for writing, and as an admirer of the easy-going culture of South America, the 18-year-old Cramer put Kerouac’s style to the test, hitchhiking to Peru and back. “I did this alone but met friends along the way and either got invitations or found places to sleep, like military barracks or hostels,” he says. “The series of articles I wrote about the trip were published in the Long Island Leader.”

A teenage gambler

Even as a teenager, horseracing was already proving a major attraction for Cramer, whose first visit to a racecourse was Saratoga - about 25 miles from the family home in Schenectady.

“My grandfather went every Friday night for harness racing, and I started going with him at 15. I saw him handicapping and was immediately attracted - all this info and you can challenge your mind doing something that others can’t do. It was the ultimate puzzle and what makes it even better than crossword puzzles is the calculated risk involved.”

A year later the racing bug had truly bitten and Cramer was often at the track betting. “I was going with a friend and you had to be 18 to bet, so we asked an older person to put our wagers on,” he says. “Even at 16, I was a calculated gambler and didn’t feel the compulsion to play every race.

“I studied form - not bad at it either - winning a little and losing a little, just playing $2 a time at the beginning. My first big hit was an $18 winner at Roosevelt Raceway. I don’t recall the name - my records are buried somewhere back in the U.S.”

An academic on the racetrack

Cramer studied at the University of Illinois in Chicago from 1973 to 1976, obtaining a PhD in Latin American literature. “I was studying and working part time to pay for my tuition fees, but I still went to the local tracks of Sportsman’s Park and Arlington as often as possible, keeping an eye on my records, until I could see bigger percentage profits to bet more.”

But things began to take off when he took a full-time job at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, after finishing his studies in 1977. “I went to California and began to play seriously. The weather was great and I was a regular feature at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park tracks.”

Developing a betting system

“I began to look for statistical methods in racing that would show a profit. The first stats I did in California I later wrote about for the American Turf Monthly [in an article] called ‘The jockey switch class drop’. The horse drops in class, usually to a claimer, and switches to a jockey with a better percentage of winners, or the jockey who won with the horse last time, even if he had a lower hit rate. There were many of these bets and California had a superb jockey colony.”

A college tutor on handicapping

Cramer convinced USC to let him run courses on racehorse handicapping. And, in 1982/83, he ran similar courses at Los Angeles Community College, where he also taught Spanish.

“I wanted to make a point that horseracing deserved a place in academia,” he says. “I had plenty of friends who played horses everyday, some brilliant students and good handicappers in their own right. A number of actors who didn’t work everyday attended the classes.

“The course involved the realistic study of previous races, jockey and trainer statistics, with some famous racing authors coming to give talks. I encouraged them to refrain from betting when there was no value and have discipline, including keeping records. Several of these ‘students’ surpassed their professor, and I was pleased with this outcome.”

As the racehorse handicapping course evolved, a hard core of Cramer’s students would regularly get together at the track. “I got their minds to think in a certain way. They were great people who became good friends and eight or nine of my students (some of them actors I would see in plays) would meet at the M section of Santa Anita racecourse in the afternoon, then go on to classes in the evening, where we would go over the day’s races.

“There was a fantastic spirit of solidarity amongst us, though we all bet in our own way, the objective of the course being to find your own style, but occasionally we would combine for exactas.”

Magazine editor

At the end of 1983 Cramer became the horseracing editor for the Californian magazine Gambling Times, where he stayed until 1989.

“I had written articles for them over the years, so when they needed an editor I jumped at the chance to be on the other side of the fence.

“Editing at Gambling Times was an easy job because I called all the shots and at the same time discovered some impressive minds who wrote articles for the magazine, including Frank Cotolo, who became a good friend.”

Aside from writing on racing, Cotolo has been an accomplished talent in TV and radio over the years, notably as head writer for the Wolfman Jack radio show during most of his career.

Like mind: Mark Cramer’s friend, the TV and radio writer Frank Cotolo, preparing for the action at Hollywood Park in 1987. Photo:

The tip that won at 45/1 - and was ignored

Cramer recalls one afternoon at Hollywood Park on July 6, 1985, when he tipped a 45/1 winner, Woodcote, in a claimer, but one of his clients refused the tip and bet against it.

“Frank Cotolo and I recommended the 5-year-old gelding at a Los Angeles City College morning seminar, and in the afternoon at the track had $20 win and place on it,” says Cramer. “I selected Woodcote as the horse had legitimate excuses for his poor finishes in the last four races, had tactical speed on grass and nothing else in the race looked good. His last win was under identical conditions as this race, which I called a ‘pattern match’.

“At the track I had a client called Carson Rapp, who paid me $200 a month for my top recommendations. Rapp looked at the form and could not get himself to bet on the horse, even though paying me for this selection, having $200 on the favourite instead. After Woodcote won, Carson screamed, ‘You better pack me in ice.’”

Six months in Barcelona ...

By 1989 Cramer and his wife, Martha, wanted a change of scenery and a break from everyday life, which led to him writing a book about racing systems called Thoroughbred Cycles.

“My wife had a stressful job in a bank and we both decided to get away from everything and take a sabbatical, finding an apartment in Barcelona in Spain,” says Cramer. “We spent a year split between Barcelona and Avignon in France, during which time I wrote the book. One of my former handicapping students became my agent and, after submitting a chapter through him, I received an advance of $4,000 from the publisher William Morrow. The initial print run was 8,000 copies. Amazingly, some 25 years later another publisher, Echo Print, bought the rights to re-publish the book.”

Cramer had limited betting opportunities in Spain, where the racing was lagging behind the major jurisdictions. “We both enjoyed the relaxed way of living in Spain, but I missed the betting. However, I can live for extended periods without racing. It’s a good friendship I have with racing and it will never end, but sometimes we get separated.”

… and six months in Avignon

The stay in Avignon was a different kettle of fish. “We immediately fell in love with the French way of life, the culture, beautiful scenery, historic places to visit,” says Cramer. “With the added bonus for me of pari-mutuel wagering outlets on French racing in bars everywhere.

“I was writing and playing the horses just a little like wading in the water, trying to adapt my systems to French racing. I developed some confidence with the trotters, but not altogether for flat racing, though I more than held my own, notably through a nice Tiercé when picking Ourazi to win the 1990 Prix de L’Amerique, followed by two outsiders Poroto and Pussy Cat.”

A betting system in Maryland

Having recharged their batteries, the Cramer family returned to the U.S. during 1990, settling in Maryland.

Betting on horses was still very much on the agenda and the key to Cramer’s success over the years has been his ability to keep ahead of the game, thinking up new innovative systems to add to his portfolio.

“I got a job at University Center in Washington DC and ran handicapping classes at Montgomery College, while my wife worked for a community organisation teaching literary classes. At this period of time, I was going to Laurel Park, or betting at the Cracked Claw restaurant in Urbana $60-80 a time, using mainly one single method on turf maiden races, where many of the entrants had proven to be losers on the grass or had strict turf pedigrees. I would find one or two horses with deeply solid turf breeding, often coming from a horrendous dirt prep race, or first-time starters.”

Sell-out books

In 1993, Cramer’s book Kinky Handicapping was published. As the title indicates, it looked at more off-beat betting patterns. It proved successful, with the initial print run quickly selling out. Cramer followed up with Scared Money a year later.

“There is much that is autobiographical in Scared Money, but it is still fiction,” he says. “I was pleased that the book sold out when published by City Minor Books in Berkeley and also when the Daily Racing Form Press republished the book in 2006. There is a lot of understatement in this book, so it is not sensational fiction. But I believe it is entirely authentic, and my editor, Mike Helm, was very strict about this.”

To Bolivia - and the most exciting job of the lot

Cramer, though, was soon on the move again - this time to La Paz in 1995. He worked as a journalist for an English-language newspaper and also wrote articles in Spanish. Martha worked as a teacher. “It was the most exciting job I have ever had, covering everyday events, restaurants, football, politics, and investigative reporting, with one of my reports appearing on prime time TV,” he says. “Though, if I couldn’t bet on American tracks, I would never have gone, - as there was no racing in Bolivia.”

Cramer used friends in the U.S. to continue betting as in Maryland, using the same turf pedigree system. “I had [one friend] faxing the race programme from the Louisiana racing circuit and [another friend] from the New York circuit. I would re-fax back my bets for them to put on, normally one or two a day. I continued betting in this way for about a year until statistics became more common with racing form and pedigree stats were added to the Daily Racing Form PPs (past performances), with the writers of the Closer Look column referring to turf pedigree stats. I lost much of my edge.”

Settling in Paris

The Cramers moved to Paris in 2000 and are there to this day. Cramer has had a number of teaching jobs in Paris, including working at the prestigious Sciences Po University between 2006 and 2014. He is still a freelance journalist, an author and a public speaker on social ecology and municipal policy. Martha has worked as a freelance translator and has taught English and Spanish.

“Our choice of Europe in general and France in particular for living, was largely aesthetic, because my wife and I both love walking and treasure communities that do as much as possible to preserve the surroundings,” said Cramer.

“We both appreciate the opportunity to do purposeful walking here, but Los Angeles, where we lived for ten years, is an aesthetic disaster. Fourteen percent of all terrain is occupied by parking space. Add to this the ugly freeways and Los Angeles County is filled with what is called non-space.

“Things are beginning to change for the good due to the County Bicycle Coalition as well as improving public transportation. I have no objections to a citizen choosing to own a car, but I also want the choice of not owning a car. I did not have that choice in LA or Maryland.”

Zarkava unappreciated

Cramer recalls recalls a lesson at Sciences Po during which he showed videos of Zarkava winning both the Prix Vermeille and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in 2008 - and was surprised that the students were unimpressed by the filly’s magnificent performances.

“I wasn’t prepared for their reaction and didn’t realise it was so beyond their culture that they could not see the amazing story behind that filly, and knew nothing about horse racing, even though some of the students rode horses.”

A love of cycling

Cramer has always been a man for causes and, for the past 16 years, he has been an avid cyclist around Paris (including cycling to the Parisian regional tracks on race days). He has written articles on the subject of ‘The bicycle as transport for work and leisure’.

“I do lobbying in Paris, and in the past in Bolivia and Los Angeles, on the theme of more space for bicycles and pedestrians and less for cars,” said Cramer. “It’s an ecological issue. I belong to an association in Paris, Mieux se déplacer à bicyclette, and now more than four percent of travel in Paris is by bike. Before 2000, it was less than one percent.”

Cramer cycles - everywhere even when he lived in the high altitude of La Paz.

“La Paz is the most difficult city to cycle in the world, sitting 3,640 metres above sea level, with dangerous sharp rises and descents and no flat places,” says Cramer. “The metro in La Paz is the cable car, plus a bus with a bike rack at the back. I cycled each day, initially practising going up hills doing about 4km for the first week, to get used to the rarefied air. After that I commuted by bike all over the place. It was a wonderful experience with fabulous scenery, proving if you can cycle in La Paz, you can do it anywhere.”

Adapting betting to France

Adapting his methods of betting to French racing proved a little difficult at first as less statistical information was available in the Paris Turf newspaper compared to the American equivalents. “It took some time to adjust but, now we have online databases with extended info, my betting has really improved,” says Cramer. “This is a game of information, and the edge comes when you learn something the general betting public ignores.”

This is a fact he pointed out in no uncertain terms when I visited Maisons Laffitte for a meeting on September 25, 2009. The only American trainer in France, Gina Rarick, had outsider Skid Solo entered in a handicap at her local track. The horse had only been placed a few times and never won in 14 outings.

Betting coup: the Maisons-Laffitte race won by the Gina Rarick-trained Skid Solo (green colours, red cap), backed by Mark Cramer and Alan Kennedy at 20/1. Photo: John Gilmore

In the race, Skid Solo and jockey Thierry Thulliez led from from start to finish, defying pari-mutuel odds of 20/1. But it was no surprise to Cramer and friend Alan Kennedy, who went to the track specifically to back the horse win and place. “When a trainer wins in a cluster at high odds, in a short space of time, especially a small operation like Gina Rarick’s - with just seven horses in training - she’s what’s known as a ‘hot trainer’ and we take that into account.

“Rarick won with Turfani, returned at 9.2/1 on September 17, and Hard Way at 15/1 two days later, proving the stable was in form and making Skid Solo a good bet.”

Charity bike ride

Cramer’s interest in both bike riding and racehorses and a desire to help retired racehorses led to a charity bike ride to raise funds for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation in the U.S.

“The idea for a fundraising racetrack bicycle journey first emerged in 2007, when I wrote my crime novel Tropical Downs, where my main characters cycle to Saratoga and Laurel Park,” says Cramer. “I put the idea at that time to my fellow American horse-playing, Paris-based friend, Alan Kennedy, also a keen cyclist, who was all in favour of it.”

Cramer and Kennedy visited 13 tracks, stretching from Vichy in the centre of France to Deauville in the north, covering around 1,000 km, throwing in one or two train journeys and avoiding two consecutive days without racing. It was a daunting task in the French summer heat for Cramer and Kennedy, who were 65 and 59 respectively at the time.

Intrepid duo: Cramer (right) with Alan Kennedy on the Champs Elysees in Paris during their marathon charity bike ride. Photo: John Gilmore

The trip proved to be both a triumph of endurance and a success for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. Manager Diana Pikulski said the two riders raised $12,330 from donations from the ride, which all helps to reduce the number of horses that are sent for slaughter.

“We have 830 horses in our care and over the past 30 years, since we began, the number of horses being sent to slaughter in the U.S. has decreased,” said Pikulski. “There are currently no horse slaughter houses in the U.S., though the problem is not solved as there are still tens of thousands of horses shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter.

“All horses in the U.S. have drugs in them because they are not raised for meat. So, they get dewormer, painkillers, antibiotics and many therapeutic drugs not intended for human consumption. The European Union has passed regulations preventing horse meat entering that is not drug free.”

The cycling punters

The two men were also up to the challenge of making money on the road through betting, using Cramer’s trusted methods and more than covering their accommodation and travel costs, adding the surplus to benefit the cause.

At Vichy racecourse they were invited with their bikes into the parade ring for a photo with connections of the main race. “It was an uplifting moment when the announcer emphasized the vital importance of saving retired Thoroughbreds,” said Cramer.

“On the road I had less time to handicap so developed abbreviated methods: horses for courses, American bred 2-year-olds in sprint races and what I call ‘The short form’, involving races where most of the starters had trainers with less than five percent win strike rates - just eliminated those.”

Cramer wrote another book Handicapping on the Road, which was published in 2011, offering a feast of valuable information on how to win at the track.

It was split in two parts. Part one was theory, introducing the featured handicap systems, with illustrations from America, Britain, France, Dubai and other countries. Part two chronicled the cycling and race track experience during the bike trip, documenting the betting methods used from part one as they resurfaced along the way.

Trips back home

Since he has lived in Paris, Cramer has kept strong ties with his racing friends in the U.S. “I went several times in the early 2000s to cover the claiming crown races at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minnesota, and write the barn notes for their website. One summer I lived in the backstretch dormitories.

“My job was to teach English to the grooms and Spanish to one or two trainers while writing barn notes. I would wake up at 5 am, watch the workouts, interview grooms, riders and trainers. My salary was exactly the same as a groom.”

At the other end of the scale he has also wined and dined in style. “I very much enjoyed my annual dinners out in Ossining, New York, with the great Tom Ainslie, who was the pioneer for writing serious books on handicapping. His real name was Dick Carter, a fine human being, having an extraordinary intellect and humanity.”

Cramer’s friendship with Art Kaufman, the man who first introduced him to turf pedigree statistics, also paid dividends.

“He was a lover of international racing and, at the turn of the century, he invited me on European racing trips he organised,” said Cramer. “I still communicate with some of the good people who went on those racing excursions. I even had a race named after me at Brighton [in England] and got to choose the best groomed horse in one race.”

Following U.S. action

Cramer mainly concentrates on betting in France now, but he still has a yearning for U.S. racing. “I follow the big races in the U.S., the Breeders’ Cup, the Triple Crown etc, but I miss the claiming races and always attend a track meeting when I go back there, betting on every race, trying to make up for what I truly miss.”

Passion and profit

Cramer looks on betting on horseracing as a hobby and, despite the long hours of studying form, has been able to make a profit, whereas 98 percent of the players lose money. “What is it worth being on this planet without passion,” said Cramer. “The passion is really about the challenge and, if you look at life as a series of challenges, doing an activity that might be difficult for most people and getting away with it is priceless.

“Even though my profits per winner are modest, I am entirely satisfied that I can show a long-term profit in such a difficult game. Though my wife has estimated, I could have made as much money per hour working at McDonald’s.”

Racing has also given Cramer the opportunity to be acquainted over the years with some interesting people and was a major contributor in elevating racing to something being discussed in universities. “Most of my friends by chance happen to like horseracing, and I have found that people who take this sport seriously are interesting people: artistic, socially conscious and lovers of difficult challenges.”

The travel writer

As well as racing and betting books, Cramer has also written a number of books for travellers on culture and places of interest, including those in Bolivia, Mexico and Paris.

“I have the same philosophy about my cycling. I get there relatively slowly and enjoy the trip along the way. Every day I look for another modest challenge and it’s the same for my writing. I do not look to write for a mass audience, but I have got tremendous satisfaction through receiving beautiful complementary letters from readers.”

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