As the World's Greatest Handicapper, I have the optimism and hubris to believe I can make money wherever horses are running.
Last Saturday and Sunday I put this conviction to an ultimate test. It was going to be tough enough reading past-performance charts written in Thai. And I was going to have to cope with some handicapping questions that don't arise too often at Bowie: How do you evaluate a jockey switch from Thanongsak to Thanongchai? And how do you judge a horse whose past performances say: "Reported to have raced in Chiang Mai?"
I was visiting the two racetracks in Bangkok, the Royal Turf Club and the Royal Bangkok Sports Club. They came into existence about 90 years ago, when the king of Thailand granted them charters with an underlying military purpose: In time of war, the horses might be conscripted for service.
The horses who compete at the two tracks are not purely thoroughbred. Their bloodlines are a mixture of native Thai stock with imported New Zealand and Australian thoroughbreds. They look like well-proportioned but miniature racehorses.
The animals are the only part of Thai racing that is small-scale. The tracks, which operate one day a week each, regularly draw crowds of 40,000 wagering $1 million on a 15-race program. Both have well-manicured one-mile turf courses, with golf courses in the infield (a ball landing on the track entitles the golfer to a free drop).
On the way to attack the Royal Turf Club on Saturday, I picked up the racing page of the English language Bangkok Post and realized that Thai racing was not totally foreign. Owners and trainers were complaining that the purses were too small and were not keeping pace with inflation. The paper's racing columnist, Davi Kunjara, suggested that one reason for the stables' rising costs might be their ever-increasing bills for drugs.
Kunjara's handicapping of the races suggested that larceny was as rampant at the Thai tracks as at any in America: "This tipster is not fully convinced that Suphawan has really been tried since its maiden effort . . . Kwan Duang Jai should win if heavy money is bet on it at the last minute."
At the track I sought out Kunjara, who told me he had grown up in Washington and had once worked as a Washington Post Delivery boy. He explained that one of the fundamental differences between Thai and American racing is the system of classifying horses. In Thailand, horses are grouped according to their height instead of their age. They move from one class to another as they grow up - not as they grow older.
Kunjara said that while normal handicapping fundamentals did apply to these animals, he always tried to take the stables' intentions into account. Larceny was indeed rampant. The purse for a higher-class race might be $2,000, but a stable could orchestrate a coup and bet enough through the tote and illegal bookmakers to win tens of thousands of dollars. He recommended that I exercise caution.
But it was hard to be cautions when I saw the incredible opportunity staring at me in the first race on Saturday. The four-horse field pitted a 5-year-old male against three 2-year-old fillies. The 5-year-old was getting weight concessions from all his young rivals. And he was 3 to 1.
Even 10,000 miles from home, a 5-year-old should be a cinch to beat a 2-year-old, and so I ventured a cautious 100 baht (about $5) on the race. My 5-year-old was trounced. Maybe Thai racing was a different game.
As the day progressed, I saw some evidence of the larceny Kunjara had talked about. In one race, a logical horse was going off at 10 to 1 and a horse with little form was the even-money favorite. I couldn't understand it, until Kunjara told me that the owners of the two horses, the Dao Kanong Stable and the Bang Khun Tien Stable, were one and the same. Larceny was afoot - and the illogical even-money horse did win.
Despite the dishonesty, there was a semblance of logical form in Bangkok. Both tracks have electric timers, and so it is possible to do some rudimentary speed handicapping and compare the times of different races that were run on the same day.
The names of horses in the past performances, however, were printed only in Thai, so I had to recognize the Thai characters in order to spot the name of a horse I was looking for.
In my mind, a horse might be identified as the one whose name starts with something that looks like a funny w and ends with a letter that has a squiggly line over it. This work was a bit laborious but it enabled me to pick a few winners and finally spot a golden opportunity in the 15th race at the Royal Turf club.
A filly named Petch Manee had run two weeks earlier and had led all the way to cover six furlongs in 1:15.1, while on the same afternoon four higher-class races were all run in 1:16 or slower. Now Petch Manee was entered at five-eighths of a mile against a field that seemed to be devoid of any other early speed.
Petch Manee was 3 to 1, and I decided that this was the time to make my one serious gambling move in Thailand. I bet 2,000 baht (about $100) and watched with pride as my selection burst from the gate, opended a clear lead and turned into the stretch five lengths on top.
"Mark her up!" I shouted, just as a horse named Siri Rat began to move up on the outside and accelerate through the stretch. He nailed Petch Manee a few strides from the wire. For this I traveled 10,000 miles? CAPTION: Chart, A Thai racing chart.