Some day, perhaps, a great flash of inspiration will strike the people who run Maryland racing, and they will understand just why thousands of horse players come to their tracks every afternoon.
But since that awareness has evidently not dawned on officials of Laurel (or Bowie, or Pimlico or the Maryland Racing Commission) I will drop a small hint. We are not coming for the esthetics of the track, the grandeur of the sport or idle entertainment. We are coming to bet.We are trying to handicap intelligently in order to make money.
So, while it is nice if a track offers its customers some comforts and amenities, the most valuable commodity it can provide is information.
But Maryland's racing officials act as if they don't know what horseplayers do, and their obliviousness to bettors was never quite so clear as it was at Laurel last week. During the track's first week of operation this season, horseplayers did not know the distance of a number of the races, nor what the published times of the races meant. And it apparently never occurred to anyone in Laurel's management that the bettors might like to know.
The track presented some turf races at "about a mile and one-sixteenth," differing somewhat from the regular races at the distance because temporary railings were in place on the grass course. On Wednesday, a $10,000 claimer named Fully Loaded ran the "about" distance in 1:44 flat, equaling an 11-year-old track record. Some handicappers might consider this feat mildly significant.
A couple of days later, however, Laurel decided that those "about" distances were exactly 1 1/16 miles. Now Fully Loaded's effort was 17 lengths slower than the track record, or thereabouts.
If this weren't confusing enough, Laurel also started running races on the main track at "about one mile and one-sixteenth." There was logic behind this decision. Most fans like races that start in front of the grandstand, but trainers, for some reason, balk at sending their horses a mile and one-eighth. Laurel cannot run 1 1/16-mile races because the starting gate would have to be positioned on the turn. So, after some experimentation, officials compromised on a distance that would be 40 feet longer than 1 1/16 miles, giving the horses a fair run to the first turn. Of course, nowhere in its racing program did Laurel bother to tell its clientele what the distance meant.
Nor did Laurel announce how it was timing the races at this odd distance. One might suppose that the published time would be for 1 1/16 miles and 40 feet, but this was not the case. Instead, Laurel was letting the horses get their normal 300 foot running start, then letting them run another 40 feet and finally starting the Teletimer when the race was already in progress.
I am not sure how this will affect times and speed figures. Lou Raffetto Jr., racing secretary, guesses, "I think it will make them run a little bit faster." But in a game where tiny fractions of a second are the difference between success and failure, any rational man should be wary of betting large sums of money on the basis of mystery times at mystery distances.
Betting in the dark is, of course, no new experience for Maryland racing fans. We are accustomed to dealing with misinformation and lack of information.
After the Laurel Futurity on Saturday, trainer Bernie Bond indicated that one of the reasons Cure The Blues handled the sloppy track so efficiently was that he was equipped with mud caulks, the special shoes that give horses better traction. (It will be remembered that Temperence Hill won the Belmont Stakes in the mud at 53-1 when he was equipped with caulks and his rivals weren't.) This can be a crucial handicapping factor, but, of course, bettors at Laurel could only guess which horses were wearing caulks in Saturday's quagmire.
Most other tracks in the civilized world announce this information to their customers. Maryland horseplayers, however, are not entitled to it.
Some civilized racing states also have rules that try to ensure that fans get accurate information on horses who have not competed recently. In California, horses must be identified to the clockers before they come onto the track for workouts.
In Maryland, the reporting of workouts is so unreliable that experienced bettors have learned to ignore them entirely. But innocent lambs can still get fleeced, as they did on Friday at Laurel.
A first-time starter named Wise's Gambit was entered in the ninth race on Friday, and her past performances showed a sizzling five furlong workout in 1:00 flat plus a three-furlong move in 35 4/5 seconds. Such speed would have made her an absolute cinch in the $12,500 claiming race in which she was entered.
Cognoscenti might have deduced that any filly who could have worked so fast would never have been entered for such a cheap price tag, but the workouts suckered enough people to make Wise's Gambit a 2-to-1 favorite. She never raised a gallop and finished sixth.
Before that race I bumped into a horseplayer who exchanged a few pleasantries with me and said that he was winning $80 for the day. He looked as if that $80 might have meant a lot to him.Then he said he was taking a shot and betting it all on Wise's Gambit on the strength of those fast workouts. I didn't have the heart to tell him he was being robbed.
Maryland horseplayers are victimized in such ways all the time. That is one of the reasons I do not do much serious gambling in the state. This game is tough enough without race tracks trying to confound it further.