I have measured my life as a horseplayer by Saratoga seasons.
It was here, as a fledgling handicapper, that I had the earliest and most painful realizations of my own inadequacies. One year I managed to bet 99 straight races without cashing a ticket. Often I failed to survive the 24-hour meeting and was forced to make a premature, unceremonious departure. I learned that I had a lot to learn before I would be ready for the major leagues of betting.
It was here, on a bench under an elm tree in the paddock, that I struck up a conversation -- and eventual friendship -- with the first true professional bettor I ever had known. Watching him operate so brilliantly showed me the possibilities inherent in this game. Under this expert's tutelage, I emerged from Saratoga in 1973 with a profit for the first time and felt I had come of age as a horseplayer.
In the last two seasons here I have simultaneously made money and een reminded of my limitations as a handicapper. All the professionals I know here have achieved their success by watching races intelligently and basing their future bets on what they see. I came home last year knowing that I had to learn their methods and incorporate them into my handicapping.
This is what makes Saratoga special. Although visitors here first are struck by the beauty of the track, the charming ambience of the town and the proximity to so much high society and old money, it is the intellectual life of this community that leaves its mark on a horseplayer.
For the bettors who spend the season here, these are four weeks of total absorption. An early riser can start the day eating breakfast at trackside, watching the morning workouts. Everybody arrives at the track early, a couple hours before post time, to swap information and soak up the atmosphere. When the races are over the postmortems begin at the Turf Bar, at Lillian's Restaurant, at practically every street corner.
At night the serious students retire to study the Racing Form for the next day, and there always is much to study because the Saratoga programs are rich, varied and challenging. A handicapper here has to deal with the special requirements of 2-year-old races, turf races, steeplechase races and the many high-grade stakes races that are the track's showpieces.
Because there are virtually no dis tractions from equine matters, Saratoga is as intensive a learning experience as a Berlitz course. Even in the years when I have come home with my pockets empty, I felt I came back as a better horseplayer.
This year I hope I can blend the handicapping factors that I have largely mastered -- speed figures, track biases, trainer patterns -- with the visual aspects of the game that I have been trying to learn. I hope I will be able to find one or two ironclad betting situations that I can promulgate in this column. And I hope my rewards during the next 24 days will be very tangible ones.