According to traditional race-track wisdom, horseplayers ought to exercise caution at the outset of a new racing season. But you might as well tell a sailor on a 24-hour pass to show restraint as tell it to the action-starved bettors who will flock to Laurel Monday.
There has been no thoroughbred racing within an hour's drive of Washington since March 30 (and that was at Bowie, where a man of refined sensibilities wouldn't be caught dead, anyway). So when Laurel Race Course opens its 76-day meeting at 1 p.m., gamblers are going to be panting to put their fresh bankrolls into action.
Many of them will be separated from their bankrolls quickly because picking winners will be very difficult for the next week or two. A handicapper will have to evaluate horses converging on Laurel from many different tracks, for which there are no easy lines of comparison. He will have to assess the nature of the Laurel racing strip. He will have to judge which trainers have their horses primed, especially for this meeting.
Because of the complexity of these problems, the sages advise early season restraint. But this complexity can also create some golden betting opportunities. A horseplayer who does penetrate the mysteries of the form at Laurel this week can get substantial odds on superior animals, because the public at large is so befuddled.
So, for the past two weeks, I have immersed myself in a sea of old racing forms from previous Laurel meetings, recent Delaware and Timonium charts, speed figures, post position statistics and trainers' records. While my horseplaying brethren are struggling, I plan to start amassing a fortune. By the time of the Washington, D.C. International, I figure I should be ready to retire to Aruba.
The majority of horses at Laurel will be coming from Timonium and Delaware. Bettors will probably gravitate toward the invaders from Delaware, because that is perceived as a "major" track while Timonium is "minor." In fact, the purse structure at the two places is fairly similar: a $5,000 claimer at Delaware is no better than one from Timonium.
The difference between the two tracks is the running styles they favor. While Delaware gives stretch-runners a fair chance to win, Timonium is a front-runners' paradise.There were days this season when eight out of nine winners would lead from wire to wire. Good performances by any speed horse at Timonium should be viewed with skepticism. Conversely, a stretch-runner who could not succeed at Timonium will probably fare much better at Laurel.
There is no way to judge yet what type of horse -- if any -- will do best at Laurel. That racing strip has been the object of frequent criticism over the years and it has been rebuilt again this year. In the past, however, Laurel has been an honest track, giving no great advantage to particular post positions or running styles. The only hint of a track bias has occurred in the one-mile races that start with a half-turn in the parking lot. These were the statistics for the first 100 mile races of last season: [CHART OMITTED]
Clearly, horses breaking from inside posts have a distinct advantage at one mile. Post positions on the far outside are death.
At the start of race meetings in other states, horseplayers might have to guess who the leading trainers will be. In Maryland, this is a foregone conclusion: Bud Delp, Dick Dutrow and King Leatherbury will be the three leading trainers at Laurel. Each of them has stalls for 70 or 75 horses; no other trainer in the state has more than 38. The Big Three will crush their opposition by sheer force of numbers.
Unfortunately, betting on Delp, Dutrow and Leatherbury is a losing proposition. The trainers are all so well-known and popular that their horses seldom pay generous prices. Instead, a handicapper must try to identify lesser-known horsemen who have high batting averages, who win frequently with certain types of horses or certain training maneuvers, or who occasionally perpetrate a successful betting coup. These are some of them:
James W. Murphy is one of the most successful trainers of first-time starters in the country, and he usually fares well at Laurel. The published workouts are irrevelant. If an unraced Murphy horse is getting a reasonable amount of betting action, he is worth an automatic wager.
Melvin (Sunshine) Calvert came from New Jersey to Maryland last fall and won with practically everything he saddled. He has evidently pointed his 11-horse stable for the Laurel meetings. He, too, merits an automatic bet.
Budd Lepman is coming to Maryland for the first time since 1961, but I have observed him in Florida and I know his principal modus operandi. Subtle it is not. If you see a Lepman horse who has lost his last few races by about 50 lengths each, and is now being bet as if he's a sure thing, he probably is.
Marlene Croy is based in West Virginia, but she occasionally ships horses to Maryland. Last year, she had tremendous success with this sort of hit-and-run operation at Laurel.
By playing horses from these sharp outfits, horses who have been making moves in the stretch at Timonium, horses who draw inside posts at one mile at Laurel, a handicapper should be able to prosper in the early days of the season. There will be no restraint shown from this corner.