For a horseplayer who has just spent a season in Saratoga, the mere sight of Bowie Race Course can jolt all of his sensibilities.
At Saratoga, a visitor pays $1.50 to park his car and $4 for clubhouse admission and enters a place of storied charm and beauty. He may even get the feeling that the management is very happy to have him for a customer.
At Bowie, the visitor pays $3 to park and $5 to enter a clubhouse where he is immediately engulfed by the track's legendary cavernous gloom. In fact, the place seemed even darker than usual when it opened its fall meeting this week, as if management decided to save a few more dollars by cutting down the wattage of the light bulbs.
Of course, a horseplayer who buries his nose in the Racing Form all day will be oblivious to these esthetic deficiencies (except for the fact that he may have to squint a little bit to read the paper at Bowie). The intellectual stimulation and challenge of handicapping is much the same under Saratoga's elm trees or Bowie's black rafters. And during the first week at Bowie this week, I was strongly reminded in one way of my betting experience at Saratoga.
In my first three days at the Spa, I lost my shirt without comprehending why. When I did finally understand, my fortunes reversed. The key was to understand the nature of the racing surface.
Track biases -- the tendency of a track to favor certain post positions or running styles -- seem to be more prevalent and a more crucial handicapping factor every year. Honest, uniform race tracks have become almost a rarity in America. At Saratoga, the track sometimes became so speed-favoring that not a single stretch-runner would run creditably all day.
At Bowie, the track bias factor is a bit more subtle. The Bowie strip seems to give a slight edge to speed horses on the inside, but it's only an edge. However, a large part of the Bowie horse population has been running at Timonium, where the inside-speed bias was often insuperable.
Handicappers at Bowie should dismiss -- or at least view with considerable skepticism -- horses who ran well at Timonium because they got a clear early lead and got to the rail. Conversely, horses who lost ground on Timonium's sharp turns but still managed to run creditably will offer attractive opportunities at Bowie. The wise guys all made a score on opening day on a filly named Jump, who was almost carried out into the parking lot in her last start at Timonium, then came back to beat supposedly classier horses and pay $11.20 at Bowie.
That suggests another reason why the horses from Timonium deserve careful scrutiny at Bowie. The typical handicapper will look at animals from Timonium and Delaware Park and prefer the latter, because he perceives Delaware as a "major" racetrack and Timonium as the minor leagues. In fact, aside from its big stakes events, the racing at Delaware was often pathetically uncompetitive. The fields for cheaper claiming events were much tougher at Timonium. Furthermore, the more liberal medication rules in force at Delaware makes shippers from that track a doubly risky proposition.
The opportunities at Bowie appear to be abundant, as well they should be. Once a horseplayer has spent $3 for parking, $5 for admission, 50 cents for a program and $2.40 for a hot dog, he had better pick some winners fast.