For veteran horseplayers, the scene at Pimilico evokes memories of racing's bad old days.
As the public address system blares, "It is now post time," the well-dressed man takes his position on the second floor of the grandstand and focuses his binoculars on the starting gate. The bell rings, the horses spring forward, and after they have taken the first two or three crucial strides the man thrusts a fist in the air.
Across the floor of the grandstand, another man is standing at a betting window, watching intently for this signal. He sees it and shouts out a number. The number is that of the horse who has already taken the early lead. The mutuel clerk punches out his ticket.
The well-dressed man rushes over.
"You get it?" he asks breathlessly.
"The four!" his confederate says.
No.4 in this case was a horse named O Peg, who led all the way to win Friday's third race at odds of 6 to 1. But this scene is repeated with slight variations every day, in every section of the Pimlico plant as different teams of gamblers bet on races that are already in progress.
Ever since the early days of parimutuel wagering the practice has been known as bell ringing. It was so patently unfair to people who had bet before the race had started, and it aroused so much hostility, that tracks eventually stopped it by doing what they could have done all along. They locked the betting windows at the instant the gate opened.
Bell ringing seemed to have become a relic of the past -- until it reappeared in Maryland and West Virginia this year. The nominal reason was the introduction of new, computerized ticket-selling machines at the states' tracks.
The equpiment is sophisticated and complex, and when it was installed at Bowie in January, mutuel clerks were making frequent costly mistakes. If a clerk intended to punch out a $10 ticket seconds before post time, inadvertently hit an extra 0 and made it a $100 ticket instead, he might not have time to cancel the transaction. If that happened, he would be responsible for the $100.
So that the clerks would have a chance to rectify their mistakes, the mutuel employes' union asked the track to keep betting windows open for seven seconds after the race had started. The track compromised and gave them five seconds.
In fact, this wasn't necessary at all. Tracks in Florida, New York and other states use the same equipment that Maryland does and shut off betting precisely at post time.
Initially their clerks had the same sort of problems that Maryland's did, but, as a spokesman for Gulfstream Park said, "They happened because the clerks didn't know yet how to operate the machines. Now they have experience, and the system works a thousand percent better."
If Pimlico feels that the clerks must have a brief grace period to correct errors, betting could be halted a few seconds before the race starts. But Bob Hancock, mutuels manager, said that Pimilico doesn't do this because "people are always rushing to get their bets down when the horses are at the gate." The track doesn't want to cost itself money by shutting out last-second bettors.
So when the gates open, the bell rings for three seconds, and the machines still sell tickets for an additional two seconds. This is when the bell-ringers operate, even though Hancock says, "My people have been told they are not supposed to put in a bet after the bell rings."
The bell ringers work in teams, and they bet fairly large sums. Typically, one of them will tell a clerk to punch out a particular size and type of ticket -- say, $250 to win -- and then will call out the horse's number at the last possible moment.
The gamblers usually work regularly with the same mutuel clerks. One disgrunted horseplayer reported that when he went to a window to place a last-minute bet, the clerk asked him to go to another window. He was holding the machine open for a bell ringer.
The bell ringers will frequently knock down the odds of horses who lead all the way to win, and sometimes the effects of their wagering can be very dramatic.
On March 20, a filly named Queen of the Green went to the post at odds of 11 to 1. She broke so swiftly that, in the parlance of the race track, she "beat the gate." After the race ws under way, her price plunged to 7 to 1. Queen of the Green paid $17.60 to win and $17 to place -- evidence that she received some unusual betting action in the win pool only.
The late drops in odds that the bell ringers cause are obviously unfair to horseplayers who have handicapped and bet in normal fashion.
A Charles Town horseplayer lamented, "Not long ago I doped out a horse named Mark The Route with a great research job. I went back on him three years and found he had always run big in his first start of the year. I bet him, and he was 16 to 1 when they sprung the gate. He broke on top and a minute later he was 10 to 1. As things turned out, he got beat a nose, but how can you even hope to beat the game when you're getting robbed like that?"
Yet there is something worse about bell ringing than its unfairness, and that is the image it creates of the whole racing game.
When I started going to the track regularly, 20 years ago in New England, the bell ringers were as conspicuous as they were seedy. And they gave me my first vivid impression about the realities of the sport. From them I assumed that the race track was populated by two classes of people: the public, the suckers like me; and the sharpies who got to take an unfair edge.
At the time I still was not cynical enough to comprehend the real significance of the bell ringers' activities. They existed only because the track management let them. And the track let them operate because it was more interested in the few extra dollars of revenue their betting would generate than it was in the integrity of the game and the well-being of its customers.
Now I am sufficiently cynical to draw the proper conclusion from the bell ringers' reappearance in Maryland.
If Pimlico is permitting its customers to be slightly cheated when it could stop the practice so easily, how will it handle the elusive, serious abuses in the game: illegal use of drugs, collusion among trainers, unreliable or fraudulent reporting of workouts.
I have spent enough time around Maryland's tracks to know that answer all too well.