Millions of people go to race tracks, and most of them dream of finding a way to beat the races. Some become obsessed by the goal. But only a few achieve it.

The turn-of-the-century gambler known as Pittsburgh Phil amassed a fortune playing the horses. The group of New York bettors called the Speed Boys enjoyed spectacular success during the 1940s and 1950s. Nowadays the specter of the Internal Revenue Service forces professional horseplayers to keep a low profile, but a small subculture of them exists at most major race tracks.

Even though these winners demonstrate that beating the races is possible, the game still thwarts the vast majority of people who try to master it. Men equipped with formidable intellectual skills, financial acumen and dedication usually wind up frustrated by horse racing. And sometimes ruined.

The reason, I believe, is that most racing fans misunderstand the nature of the handicapping process. They aren't merely following the wrong paths; they are using the wrong map entirely.

In this series of articles I will propose an approach to handicapping substantially different from the standard textbook ideas. It is only an approach, a suggestion of some paths that a would-be serious handicapper might profitably follow. This may not sound as dramatic as some sure-fire miracle system, but an understanding of what paths to follow is far more important than most horseplayers realize. Most of them spend their lives wandering down blind alleys, employing methods which are doomed to failure.

Beginning horseplayers usually assume that their task is to discover the set of principles that determine the outcome of horse races. I once thought that there was a combination of factors that governed every race and was waiting to be discovered -- just as the law of gravity was always a principle of physics and was waiting for Newton to deduce it. But I was wrong. There are no absolute truths in racing. Everything is relative -- relative to odds.

Pittsburgh Phil once spent a season at the old Bay District track in California and perceived that the place was a hotbed of corruption. He found a way to win, anyway. Phil told a jockey named Tod Sloan that he would pay him a substantial bonus for every winner he rode, giving Sloan motivation to be honest. Armed with the knowledge that Sloan was always trying to win when the other jockeys often weren't, Phil bet his mounts when they figured and won $80,000 in a month. Eventually, though, the public and the bookmakers recognized Sloan's success, and drove down the odds on his mounts. Horses who would have been 3 to 1 were now going to the post at 6 to 5, and Phil realized that his system could no longer be profitable. He took his $80,000 and headed back East.

What happened to Pittsburgh Phil's system in California eventually happens to every workable handicapping method: the public learns it and renders it unprofitable. And this is what has happened to the fundamental textbook methods that most horseplayers employ; they have become common currency.

In the 1940s, author Robert S. Dowst taught a generation of han49cappers to assess the horses' class, consistency, weight, speed and present form to make a selection. In the 1960s, Tom Ainslie became the nation's handicapping guru, telling his readers to weigh such factors as distance, class, weight, pace, jockey and present form.

With the guidance of these experts, American horseplayers became wellversed in the fundamentals of handicapping. But that doesn't mean that many of them have become winners. The cruel mathematics of the game, which extracts at least 17 cents or so every time a dollar passes through the betting windows, dictates that most horseplayers will be losers. A man has to be 17 percent smarter than the crowd just to break even.

It is practically impossible for a horseplayer to show a profit with methods that everybody else uses, because his winners won't pay enough. If I hear a bettor say, "I like this horse because he ran a sharp race in his last start, he's entered at the right distance, he's being ridden by a top jockey and he's dropping in class slightly," I may not be able to criticize his logic. But I also know that he is a loser, because he is reasoning the way the crowd does. In order to beat the races, a man must march to the sound of a different drummer.

Thursday: Secrets to success