For the last 11 Augusts I have been playing the horses at Saratoga, with widely varying results. But even in the years when I came home poorer, I felt that I came home a better handicapper.

Saratoga is an intense learning experience. Because there are relatively few nonequine distractions in the town, a horse player spends most of his waking hours studying and talking about races (and the rest of his time dreaming of them). He is thrown into contact with the most astute population of race track gamblers in the country, and he may get to observe the methods which they use most productively.

At the meeting that ended Monday, I had my second-most profitable Saratoga season, one that would have been a smashing personal record-breaker if my jockeys had ridden half as well as I handicapped. Even so, my main gains from this meeting were intellectual, rather than financial. I learned a fundamental lesson about handicapping that was largely responsible for my success and will alter my future life as a horseplayer.

I learned that watching races to formulate visual (as opposed to analytical) judgments of horses is in many cases the single most important handicapping skill.

Having long believed that speed is the supremely important fact in handicapping, and having wrtten two books based on that thesis, I did not come to this conclusion lightly. But horse racing is a constantly changing game, and this is one respect in which it has changed most dramatically.

Only a few years ago speed handicapping was something of an arcane art, and its practitioners frequently collected big payoffs on outstanding horses. The great New York gamblers of the past -- men such as Al (The Brain) Windeman and Jules Fink -- use speed figures and guarded their secrets closely.

But this season at Saratoga, almost every semiserious horseplayer I knew was using some type of speed figures. A cadre of the biggest bettors at the track was buying sophisticated figures from a New York handicapper, Len Ragozin. As a result, the standout figure horses were usually going to the post at odds that made them unappealing or utterly unbettable.

The successful professionals at Saratoga were almost all men who rely heavily on their race-watching skills.

There was a time when watching races meant looking for horses who were blocked or checked or encountered some form of trouble. But the new breed of so-called "trip handicappers" looks for things that are much more subtle. They believe that winners are determined by the way races develop: by the early pace and by the fact that certain horses save ground while others are forced to race wide on the turns. They discount performances that a horse makes under optimal conditions -- an easy trip -- and upgrade horses who have had difficult trips.

For a couple of years, I have understood in theory what the trip handicappers where doing. But for the first time I tried to look at races in their terms and the results were a revelation -- particularly in races on the grass.

One textbook example arose in the last week of the season. Cauthemoc was the 7-to-5 favorite in a six-horse turf race, having just whipped a decent field in his last start. On paper the performance looked impressive. In fact, though, Cauthemoc had sat on the rail in third place behind two dueling leaders, and when they had battled each other into defeat he swooped by them effortlessly. This was the quintessentially easy trip.

Cauthemoc's principle rival was Audacious Fool, who had rallied unsuccessfully and finished fourth as the odds on favorite in his last start. The performance looked mediocre on paper. But in that race the frontrunner had taken a five-length lead while setting a slow pace, and even though Audacious fool made a strong wide move on the final turn, he was coming from too far behind to have a chance. His loss was excusable. And when he met Cauthemoc, he figured to be clearly superior.

For the experienced visual handicappers, this was a kindergarten-level judgment. But when Audacious Fool won and Cauthemoc finished out of the money, I felt as proud as if I had discovered relativity.

I made a few other profitable visual observations during the season. Just as I learned by trial and error which types of superior speed figures are most productive, I will someday learn the situations in which certain types of trips will most reliably produce winners.

The best horse player at Saratoga, a man who relies almost exclusively on his race-watching skills and scarcely bothers with The Racing Form, says it takes about 20 years to master the art. Now I've got only 19 years and 11 months to go.