Chuck Hagel had a hard time on Capitol Hill last week. His former Republican colleagues filibustered his nomination for defense secretary. His former friend John McCain turned his back on him – from naming him as his top choice for Secretary of State if McCain were president to calling him “unqualified for the job” of defense secretary under President Obama.
Hagel has some pretty powerful people in his corner, though. A bipartisan group of former defense and security experts called, fittingly, the Bipartisan Group, has mounted a spirited public campaign in Hagel’s defense. They have taken out ads in the Washington Post and in the daily Politico email blasts that are so influential to Washington policymakers. The effort hasn’t been cheap, but they have financed the campaign in large part with help from a horseplayer named Bill Benter.
Bill Benter is perhaps the wealthiest and most successful horseplayer of all time. Soon after earning a Ph.D. in physics, Benter started out counting cards in Las Vegas in the 1970s, cobbling together a bankroll of $150,000 after years of grinding it out (and getting banned from several casinos along the way). He then teamed up with a horseplayer named Alan Woods. Pairing Benter’s knowledge of computers with Woods’ knowledge of handicapping, the two created a computer program that could identify key overlays – situations where a horse’s tote board odds were paying much more money than what their model believed a horse’s true odds should pay. The pair lost their entire $150,000 while tweaking their model to get it to work just right. But they never gave up on it and eventually it started working for them.
Benter took his model to Hong Kong where there is much more money in the horse racing pools and it is much easier to use computers to make large bets on races in the moments right before a race is run, so as not to dramatically affect the odds on a horse with your bets before post time. He has blown the doors off the Hong Kong horse racing scene. He claims to earn somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million a year using his computer models and software.
After making his living exclusively from gambling for over 20 years, Benter eventually turned to other business interests. He still operates in Hong Kong racing, but has expanded his business interests to medical records software here in the United States. A political liberal, Benter has put up huge sums of money behind political causes he cares about. He is one of the few members of the Democracy Alliance, an elite group of liberal political funders who require members to pony up a minimum of $200,000 each. He has also been an important backer of the group Media Matters.
Benter claims he does not know Chuck Hagel personally and has no business interests in the defense industry. He was approached to fund the pro-Hagel campaign by Tony Podesta, a powerful Washington lobbyist. Benter agreed because he says he was unhappy with what he called “distortions” by the Republican campaign against Hagel. Benter has also shown a keen interest in U.S. policy in Israel and ostensibly believes Hagel would defend that position.
One thing is certain, Bill Benter didn’t get rich backing bum horses. He’s an expert at objectively analyzing the available data. Chuck Hagel may be a lifelong Republican but he could do a lot worse than to have a liberal like Bill Benter in his corner. If he’s putting up his money, it’s probably a solid pick. Washington D.C. should take notice.