Van Patten's interest in racing is no act

He's played over 100 different roles in the movies and on television, but in reality, this actor is a hardcore handicapper.

Updated: October 3, 2001, 3:04 PM ET
By Kenny Rice | Special to ESPN.com

What? Dick Van Patten, the actor who created beloved TV dad Tom Bradford on "Eight is Enough," actually needed an ID? The man who has played over 100 movie and television roles -- in such diverse offerings as Soylent Green, Joe Kidd, Freaky Friday, and High Anxiety -- wasn't recognized? King Roland, Ruler of Druidia from Mel Brooks' "Space Balls," had to show a picture?

Okay, the teller at Hazel Park near Detroit did know who Van Patten was, but rules are rules and he was waiting to hand over $1500 to the actor, who had just hit the Trifecta.

"I had to sign (the IRS voucher) because of the payout," Van Patten says, the trademark twinkle in his eyes, "and I didn't have my wallet with me. But Jimmy (his son) was with me and he signed for it."

It was the perfect day for Van Patten, an afternoon of racing and a night on the stage. He is touring the country with Frank Gorshin in Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys." His son, actor James Van Patten, co-stars in the play and occasionally accompanies his father on afternoon breaks to the track. Fortunately, one of those trips was during the appearance in Dearborn, Mich., where the younger Van Patten's signature was needed.

James sums up his father's passion for the ponies: "It's the old joke, my dad doesn't go to the track on Mondays because they're closed."

Handicapping is no act for Dick Van Patten, who grew up during the Depression in the Richmond Hill section of New York near Aqueduct Race Track.

"I had a real stage mother, thank God, who got me into all this (acting) when I was seven," Van Patten warmly recalls. "I was in 27 Broadway plays in a row as a kid, and in between, I learned how to play the horses from the stagehands."

He learned so well that as a teenager, he would ride his bicycle to Aqueduct after school, sneak into the infield "because you had to be 18 to get in the track" and send bets over to the grandstand with his older friends.

"My mother's friends would always tell her, 'Don't worry, he'll outgrow it,' but I never have."

At the height of his "Eight Is Enough" fame, Van Patten was a guest at the 1978 Kentucky Derby. He made an appearance on a Louisville television station's live broadcast of the Derby undercard. Instead of being the token Hollywood celebrity, telling the host how great it was to be there and that he liked a horse because of its name, Van Patten nailed five winners on the day, including Derby victor Affirmed. He came back as the station's official handicapper for the next three years.

A few years back, Van Patten, an accomplished tennis player, declined a chance to play a set with Bjorn Borg on a made-for-television event called "War of the Stars." It featured Jack Lemmon playing a round of golf with Jack Nicklaus, Milton Berle shooting pool with Willie Mosconi and Gabe Kaplan bowling against Dick Weber.

"I told them I had always wanted to be a jockey but had gotten too big, but would like to ride in a race."

The producers loved the idea and Van Patten rode against Chris McCarron in a six-furlong match race at Hollywood Park.

"Oh yeah, he beat me, but it was thrill."

The 72-year-old actor, who keeps racing publications right next to his scripts, has a stable of four California-bred racehorses at the moment. But the Cal-bred he is most excited about now is one he doesn't even own.

"He's the horse who's going to win next year's Derby -- Officer. Have you seen him in person?" Van Patten said, voice rising. "He's scary -- a monster. I don't see how anybody can beat him. He's the fastest I've seen."

And he's seen virtually all of the great runners in the last half-century.

"Affirmed and Citation are my favorites. Affirmed was very underrated. They could catch him but couldn't pass him. And Citation, if people knew how crippled he was ... but he kept winning with 136, 134 pounds."

Van Patten takes pride in mixing his work travels with the races. "I've been to more racetracks than any other person I've met. Almost every track, missing only a few of the newer ones."

He and his wife are guests of Sid and Jenny Craig during the Del Mar meeting. The La Jolla, Calif., track makes his all-time top-three list.

"Hialeah is my favorite. It's so bad to see how it's changed from when I first saw it. Then Saratoga and Del Mar are right there. They all have a lot of charm."

Backstage after a sold-out performance at the Lexington, Ky., Opera House, Van Patten is surrounded by two-dozen fans and well-wishers. Their ages range from those who saw him in his first TV hit "I Remember Mamma" (1949-57) to teenagers who probably first saw him in a " Weird Al" Yankovic video on MTV. He poses for pictures, signs playbills and never once appears to be going through the motions of a scene played out for decades.

As his fans leave, the actor transforms into the handicapper once more.

"It used to be said all horse players die broke -- you can't beat the races. But today with the Pick 6's and Superfectas you can. Not that the odds aren't against you, but a good hit and it's hard to blow that back. A person has a good chance now."

Van Patten modestly admits he is ahead of the game. "I've hit the Pick 6 for a hundred thousand a couple of times. A few more for 60, 70 thousand." His face lights up as if the replays of those successes have flooded his memory.

Van Patten walks out of the theater into the night air and the bus awaiting him. There's time to get back to the hotel for rest and maybe to peruse The Form. Off-track wagering is close by.

He'll be there in the morning, but you can bet that after his experience in Detroit, Van Patten will have his wallet and ID close at hand -- just like any other die-hard handicapper hoping for a big score.