In California, Bettor Beware
DEL MAR, Calif. A horseplayer who visits major tracks across the country will find the game to be fairly homogeneous. The handicapping process is pretty much the same in New York, Florida, Kentucky or Illinois. But thoroughbred racing in California remains unique.
While spending the last three weeks at Del Mar, I felt I was watching a version of the sport I have never seen anywhere else. Some of California's distinguishing qualities make the game exciting, and some make it distasteful.
Del Mar, of course, is a track with irresistible charm. Its beautiful seaside setting, its near-perfect weather and its relaxed ambience make a day at the races feel like a day at the beach. But for a serious horseplayer, the uniqueness of Del Mar and the other California tracks lies in the pages of past performances, and in the records of horses such as Miura Bull. In the month before he raced here last week, trainer Bruce Headley's 3-year-old recorded the following workouts over the Del Mar track: five-eighths of a mile in a sizzling 58 2/5 seconds; five-eighths in :58 1/5 ; six furlongs in 1:11 4/5 ; and then four furlongs in an amazing :45 1/5 . This is the kind of workout line that Seattle Slew might have compiled in his prime.
Miura Bull, however, is no Seattle Slew. He is a maiden who had lost his two prior starts and, after this ultra-fast training, lost badly again.
Nowhere on earth do thoroughbreds train as fast and as hard as they do in California. Because the racing here has always been speed-oriented, trainers know their horses must be quick and sharp to cope with a swift early pace. Thus they hone horses' speed in the mornings. Because of the tough training regimen, horses here have a high attrition rate. Paradoxically, this encourages trainers to drill their horses even harder. Jeff Siegel, an ace handicapper and a partner of the Team Valor Racing Stable, explained: "In the back of trainers' minds is the thought: 'My horse could break down at any time so I'd better get him ready to win now.' No one thinks ahead; it's 'Now, now, now!' "
Because horses reveal their condition in fast workouts, these workouts become a crucial part of the handicapping equation. (When I bet in California, I always consult publications such as National Turf, Handicapper's Report and Today's Racing Digest, which provide invaluable commentaries on the workouts.)
But while the fast-paced style of training and racing makes the game intriguing, it clearly takes a toll on the horse population. Florida-based clocker Toby Callet spent the summer at Del Mar, and in the morning workout hours he observed, "I have never in my life seen so many horses that appear to be sore." In a three-week period I have never bet on so many horses who broke down or finished a race in distress. While the distinct style of training is a defining part of the game here, so too is the strength of certain trainers. At most U.S. tracks there are one or two dominant trainers whose horses deserve special respect, but nowhere is the identity of the trainer so important as in California.
One statistic best measures the potency of a trainer: his rate of success when he acquires a horse from another stable. Numerous California trainers have achieved success that defies all historical norms. Over the past five years, according to statistics from the Daily Racing Form's Formulator software, Ted West has won with an amazing 35 percent of the horses he claimed in his last start. During the same period, Art Sherman won with 34 percent, Jeff Mullins with 33 percent and Mike Mitchell and Bill Spawr with 27 percent. When horses leave these trainers' care, their form often declines immediately. Horses claimed from Mullins win only 13 percent of the time in their first start for a new trainer. In July, Mullins claimed a filly named Second Look, who had a mediocre record and a lifetime-best Beyer Speed Figure of 57. The trainer ran her at Hollywood Park, and she won, improving markedly, earning a figure of 76. A low-profile trainer, Felix Gonzalez, claimed her from that race. When she ran for Gonzalez, Second Look tired to finish seventh, earning a speed figure of 46.
Her form explains why bettors here make so many of their judgments based on the record of the trainer. Any player in California would feel like an idiot if he missed a pick six by omitting a horse recently claimed by Mullins, West, Sherman or any of the other magicians. Horseplayers can readily adapt to the California version of the game, but it is a version that spoils much of the subtlety, the challenge and the exhilaration of handicapping. Here, the focus of the sport is the trainer, not the horse.