One day last winter, a severe ice storm hit New York, paralyzing the city, closing roads, prompting officials to tell citizens they should stay home except in cases of dire emergency.
That afternoon, Aqueduct Race Track stayed open, principally to provide action for customers at Off-Track Betting parlors. Incredibly, 6,200 people braved the elements and showed up at Aqueduct. It was a good measure of the size (as well as the dedication) of New York's hard-core horseplaying population.
Outsiders might imagine these bettors to be a bunch of degenerates and Runyonesque weirdos. While such descriptions may be accurate in some cases, they still are inadequate. After spending the last four weeks at Saratoga, I have come home with a tremendous admiration for the New York regulars, they are surely the most astute and dedicated group of bettors in the world.
The odds board testified to the sharpness of the New York handicappers every day of the Saratoga season, but never so clearly as it did on Monday. One of the entrants in the seventh race, Josies Anchor, had finished second in her last two starts, and now was meeting the two fillies that had beaten her on those occasions.
On paper she did not look superior, but Josies Anchor had some hidden virtues. On both the days she had run second, the inside part of the track had been deep and tiring, much less favorable than the outside. Josies Anchor had been pinned against the rail on both those occasions, seriously compromising her chances.
At just about any other track in America, the handful of bettors attuned to the track bias would have received odds of 4 to 1 or so for their perception. But not at Saratoga. So many New York horseplayers were attuned to the significance of the fill's "dead rail trip" that she opened as the 8-to-5 favorite and went to the post at an astonishingly short 2 to 1. She romped by nine lengths.
The betting crowd in New York is hard to fool because it contains so many specialists, horseplayers who have chosen to concentrate on one narrow facet of the game. If a horse does have a significant hidden virtue, at least one of the blocs of handicappers will detect it and bet accordingly.
There are legions of speed handicappers in New York, using an array of sophisticated techniques to determine which horse in a field is the fastest.
There are growing numbers of so-called trip handicappers, who stand galvanized by the closed-circuit televisions noting precisely how wide each horse is at each stage of each race. (Typical trip handicapper talk: "I like the six horse. He was three on the backstretch, four on the turn, six entering, no push late on a strong rail day!")
And there are handicappers who quantify their trip data and incorporate them into speed figures.
There are large numbers of chartists, who stand with clipboards in hand noting all the fluctuations of probable exacta payoffs, looking for horses being backed by "smart money."
There are students of trainers who know all the behavior patterns of all the important New York stables. (After one implausible upset last week, a trainer-oriented handicapper told me, "That horse was a cinch. Dominick Imperio hasn't lost a seven-furlong race at Saratoga in three years.")
All these smart handicappers are competing against each other; a race track is not unlike a gigantic poker game where the house cuts every pot 14 percent or more. And yet most of them manage to weather the competition.
"The amazing thing about our players is their survival rate," said the New York Racing Association's Harvey Pack. "And a number of them show a profit, at least enough to buy the groceries at the end of a six-day week. This is only possible because of OTB."
The customers at the Off-Track Betting shops are much less knowledgeable than their on-track counterparts, but they account for 50 percent of the money in the New York betting pools.
"There will be days when we have $200,000 bet on-track in the daily double," Pack said, "and more than $200,000 paid out. OTB has changed the game in New York. But one week here when OTB was on strike, there was no hope. You just couldn't win."
Even with the largesse of OTB, New York still is a difficult place to beat the races. It is much easier to make a large profit at a track like Hialeah, where most of the betting is done by dunderhead tourists; or at Santa Anita, where the general level of handicapping sophistication is not high; or even at a bush track like Commodore Downs, where most of the customers seem to be members of ladies' garden clubs.
Poker players don't go out of their way to find the toughest game in town. Horseplayers shouldn't, either. And the hard-core souls at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga make New York racing the toughest game in any town.