A new recruit was hired here last week as a clocker for the Daily Racing Form. After he had gone through his initial on-the-job training, learning how to wield a stopwatch and identify horses, a cynical vetern of the profession asked him, "Have they taught you clockers' arithmetic yet?"
"What's that?" the kid wanted to know.
"It means that 46 and four equals 50," the veteran said, and everybody within earshot laughed. Outside the profession, it is widely believed believed that if a promising young horse works sensationally -- say, a half-mile in 46 seconds flat -- that workout would appear in print as a mediocre 50 seconds, with clockers reserving the correct information for themselves and their clients.
No occupational group, not even used car salesmen, has such a reputation for chicanery. "Everybody hates us -- owners, trainers and players," said Dick Rosen, the clocker at Gulfstream Park. "You have to get used to it."
Even the clockers share this assessment of their profession. When Jim Milner was a teen-ager, he hung around the clockers at Belmont Park until an old-timer welcomed him to the fraternity by presenting him a stopwatch. "Son," the old clocker said, "as long as you have this you'll never need a .45 automatic."
Pittsburgh Phil, a legendary horseplayer at the turn of the century, likened the role of the clocker to that of a scout in the army. The reports of workouts should give handicappers a way to access horses who have not raced recently, and should also indicate how horses are maintaining their condition from race to race. But published workouts are rarely so illuminating: often they are inaccurate and deceptive.
One of the reasons is that clocking horses is a very difficult job. "Anybody can learn to use a stopwatch," Rosen said, "but identification is the really hard part." More than 1,000 horses may be stabled at a track and when they come out for a workout, they don't wear name tags.
Clockers first try to identify the stable from which a horse comes, according to the color of the blanket or saddlecloth he is wearing. They rely on descriptions of horses on the foal papers that a trainer is supposed to file with the racing secretary, and also on their own prior observations.
Rosen maintains a thick book full of inscrutable descriptions of the horses at Gulfstream. A typical entry: BF 78 Bolshoi Melody (symbol for a number) WHPA LOuts? RHPAB 2HB (1/2st). This indicates to him that the bay filly Bolshoi Melody has white hairs on her pastern, two hind bandages and what he describes as a half-short tail. But if she is working at the same time that a half-dozen horses are on the track, some of whom may be unfamiliar to the clockers, Rosen will be hard pressed to get everything right.
"To identify horses, clockers have to depend a lot on trainers' good will," said Milner, a veteran of the profession who is now a handicapper for the Miami News. "Say a trainer has two horses who resemble each other: one horse was injured in his last race and the trainer is praying to get it claimed. The other is a first-time starter on the verge of a big race. The first-time starter comes out and works in 47 seconds flat, and the clocker hollers down, 'Hey, trainer! Who did you work?' So the trainer gives him the name of the horse who's about to break down.
"This is a common situation," Milner said, "And the clocker is in a no-win position. If he takes the trainer's word, there are no repercussions and he may be in a position to cash a bet later. If he challenges the trainer, the Racing Form will never back him up. They'll probably transfer him somewhere else because he's a troublemaker."
Only California has a system that requires accurate identification of horses when they come onto the track. In Florida, Maryland and elsewhere, the clockers get no official support if they are trying to do their jobs well. Nobody even wants to pay them. The Racing Form would like to pass onto the tracks the expense of hiring clockers. The tracks want the Form to pay. Almost everywhere members of the profession are overworked and underpaid.
So there is ample incentive for them to cash a bet, more often than not by employing O.P.: other people's money, bet by clients whom they tout. Last year at Hialeah, a foreign horse named Ziad showed up in a maiden race with a string of dismal workouts.
But an avalanche of money poured onto the horse and knocked the odds down to 6 to 5. When Ziad won by the length of the stretch, a particularly odious clocker was almost dancing in the aisles of the press box, slapping the palms of his confederates, exuberant that they had fooled the public to collect a $4.60 payoff for themselves.
Most members of the profession are not so venal and certainly not so blatant, but their job does offer some opportunities that are irresistable. A clocker here used to work at a track in the Midwest that had no Teletimer, and so he doubled in the afternoon as the official timer. Once, a horse shipped in from the West from a stakes race, having set track records in each of his last three starts. The horse's trainer approached the clocker. i
"You know," he said, "my horse is going to stud after this race and it would sure look good on his record if he had track records in his last four starts." The trainer paused. "By the way," he asked, "are you a betting man?"
The clocker nodded.
"Well, I'll make you a bet," the trainer said. "I'll bet you $300 that my horse doesn't set a track record in this race."
"As I recall," the clocker related, "his horse did set the track record that day."