Many horseplayers rhapsodize about the grandeur of Saratoga in the summer, or the charm of Keeneland in the springtime, or the beauty of Santa Anita. A few diehards even maintain their allegiance to Bowie.
But if I could choose any place in the world and any time of the year to play the horses, it would be here and now. The midwinter racing at Gulfstream Park and Hialeah is my idea of paradise.
When I was a hotblooded young gambler, I was utterly indifferent to the environement in which I did my betting. I was happy to spend the winter at Bowie. I was even content in old hellholes like Narragansett Park. It would not have occurred to me that I never saw a flower, a blade of green grass or a patch of blue sky in these places.
Not until 1977, when I spent my first season in Florida, did I realize what I had been missing. Gulfstream Park is comfortable, immaculate and beautiful, its grounds decorated by some 60,000 flowers and hundreds of royal palms. Hialeah -- with its grand architecture, its flamingos, its bougainvillea -- is even more spectacular. I will concede that if I had been losing, the flora might not have looked so lovely to me. But that first year in Florida, I won more than I had ever won at a race meeting before, thus establishing in my mind a connection between esthetics and money.
This is not so far-fetched as it may seem. successful handicapping requires weeks or months of unrelieved hard work, and a gambler needs enthusiasm to muster that kind of effort. Try as I might, I could not emulate my colleague, Shirley Povich, who waked each day with a burning passion to drive to Bowie and dope out $3,000 claiming races under a 50-watt bulb in the cavernous gloom of its grandstand. I am not made of such stern stuff.
But playing the horses is a daily joy. Bettors routinely arrive at Gulfstream Park two hours before post time to soak up the atmosphere, sit under a palm tree and study the Racing Form.
And there is almost no place in America where such study can be so fruitful. To a serious handicapper, the real beauty of the Florida tracks is not their physical environment. The beauty lies in the Racing Form past performances for each day's 10-race program.
In most other areas, bettors are becoming unhappily accustomed to the shortage of horses caused by ever-lengthening racing seasons. Even the best of tracks are forced to present many small fields and uncompetitive races.
But in Florida during the winter, there is such a large thoroughbred population that a handicapper is confronted every day with 10 large, competitive, potentially bettable fields. The races are varied and challenging, as horses from the North and Midwest invade the ranks of the year-round Florida horses.
About the time that the first leaf falls in Washington, I start getting the fever. I closet myself in my handicapping room, calculating speed figures for all the tracks that will supply horses at Gulfstream. I maintain an index card for all the traniers who compete here, trying to understand their methodology.
Now that the Gulfstream season has begun, I will be totally immersed in handicapping and gambling for the next three months. The racing here is so compelling that my concentration won't be broken by women, strong drink or any other temptation. I won't even allow myself to be distracted by nostalgia for Bowie.