This Saturday, Steve Kornacki, a national political correspondent for NBC News, will compile and study reams of data and make informed decisions. But he won’t be trying to figure out if the numbers say that Joe Biden Jr. will beat Donald Trump in Pennsylvania or anything else politically related. His main concern will be who is going to win the feature at Gulfstream Park.
Kornacki is well known to NBC and MSNBC viewers and political junkies. For hours before and after each election, stationed in front of an electoral map, he’s the one making sense of the numbers, trends and voting patterns. Able to continue on for days at a time without sleep, Kornacki has been called a national treasure. That doesn’t leave Kornacki with a lot of free time, but he still manages to carve out a few hours every weekend to enjoy one of his favorite hobbies, betting the races. He normally has Saturdays off, so that’s when he takes a deep dive into the past performances and bets on the major tracks running that day.
Like many, Kornacki, 41, was introduced to racing by a relative. He had an uncle who owned a business in Maine and would take his young nephew to the harness races at Scarborough Downs.
“I was pretty young when I got into it,” he said. “My uncle owns a beach store in Southern Maine and when I was six or seven years old, he took me one night during the summer to Scarborough Downs. This was the late eighties, so there was no simulcasting or anything. It was just the trotters. I picked five straight winners that night. He still talks about that and he didn’t bet any of them. I don’t think I’ve had a night like that since.”
It was that same uncle who taught him a system, the 13 system. Kornacki acknowledges that it may be a silly way to play the races, but he still incorporates it into his handicapping.
“It might be the stupidest system you’ve ever heard of, but we swear by it,” he said. “It’s called the 13 system. My uncle got it from a guy who was a jockey agent back at Suffolk Downs in the sixties. It’s very simple. The last three finishes, if they add up to a 13 you bet the horse. It’s the first thing I look for now when I get a program. I go through every race and circle them. Last Saturday at Aqueduct, in the second to last race, the winner was 19-1 and he was a 13 horse. It forces you to take a horse you otherwise would never take. When they come in, you can hit a big payout.”
Kornacki grew up in Groton, Massachusetts, a short distance from Suffolk Downs and Rockingham Park, and would spend many a day or night at those tracks while in high school or later at college at Boston University. Starting with Alysheba in 1987, he began following the Triple Crown races closely every year.
Someone with an analytical mind, he’s moved on from picking names and numbers and relying solely on the 13 system. Kornacki enjoys trying to solve the handicapping puzzle and though he says he’s not very good at it, there have been some memorable hits along the way.
“The biggest payout I ever got when I really handicapped a race would have been the 2002 Pacific Classic,” he said. “My horse was Came Home. War Emblem was running and all the money was on War Emblem. I believed in Came Home, loaded up on him, and he won.”
Politics and horse racing don’t exactly go together, but Kornacki finds that he often uses racing terms when analyzing an election. With 90% of the precincts reporting, Kornacki might say that election is coming “down the stretch.” On the night of the New Hampshire primary, he mentioned Rockingham Park when going over the vote totals for Rockingham County.
“What everybody seems to notice is when I use the terminology,” he said. “Unconsciously, I use so much of the language of horse racing because it applies to a political race and to election returns. I’ve definitely done that a lot on the air.”
From time to time, he gets to talk actual racing. A few years ago, he was hosting a show on MSNBC on the night before the GI Kentucky Derby and the subject turned to the race.
“I was sitting in for Brian Williams and we did a Kentucky Derby preview,” Kornacki said. “I told them at the outset that my track record was not that impressive. They ran a banner at the bottom of the screen that said ‘Steve is really bad at picking horses.’ I definitely didn’t have the winner.”
After the 2020 election, NBC decided to let Kornacki branch out and he was used on NFL broadcasts. Using the same style he uses for political races, Kornacki broke down the NFL playoff picture.
“I loved doing that,” he said. “I was so psyched to get that opportunity. I am an NFL fan, so I didn’t think, in terms of the subject that it would be a reach for me. My concern when they first reached out to me was that I didn’t want it to become gimmicky. We did playoff probabilities, which was the perfect way in. The minute we put the graphics together I could see that it was a logical extension of what I’ve been doing. I hope it didn’t come across as a gimmick at all because it was real information and the spotting of trends.”
With NBC having the rights to the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup, perhaps there is a way to include Kornacki and what he does on racing broadcasts. He’s not quite sure how that would work, but says if it ever came up he would be interested., even if he’s not the best handicapper out there.
“From my standpoint, I’d love to see if there is something possible with the racing shows,” he said. “They have Eddie O (Olczyk) to do the handicapping. My friends and family have said don’t let them talk you into doing the handicapping because you’ll embarrass yourself. That’s probably right. So we probably will have to come up with something else for me to do.”