For some racing fans, the opening of Pimlico's 60-day meeting Saturday afternoon will evoke memories of the track's storied past.
For others, it will stimulate anticipation of the 107th running of the Preakness Stakes on May 15.
For others, who have spent the winter in the dreary confines of Bowie, it will make going to the track a pleasurable experience again; Pimlico's location in the midst of a bustling urban area infuses it with excitement.
But for most horse players, Pimlico has one special meaning:
Speed on the rail!
This is the place where many of us got a great education in handicapping, learning the profound importance of track biases. Elsewhere a bettor might overlook the existence of a bias; at Pimlico during certain years of the 1970s, a horse player had to recognize it or go broke quickly.
My colleague Clem Florio had once been a member of the old school, which believed that the best horse wins most races; he had to alter his philosophy. I had been slavishly devoted to my speed figures; I learned how irrelevant they can be. Other Maryland bettors experienced similar revelations.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, track biases can have two causes. The shape and contour of the racing strip can favor certain types of horses. Or inconsistencies in the textures of the dirt can affect the results. At Pimlico, both these conditions can exist.
The track's general manager, Chick Lang, maintains every year at Preakness time that journalists who write about Pimlico's "sharp turns" are perpetuating a myth. Whether the turns are sharp or inadequately banked, horses have difficulty accelerating on them; they lose their momentum when they run wide. Horses rarely win when they are parked four- or five-wide around the stretch turn. They have even less of a chance when they are parked wide around both turns in a route race.
The inside posts are so advantageous at 1-1/16 miles that a bettor could blindly box 1-2-3 in every exacta at this distance and stand a reasonable chance of making a profit for the season. (I picked up several 1980 chart books at random to test this thesis, and boxing 1-2-3 in the routes without any regard to the ability of the horses produced a 5 percent profit).
Horses racing on the inside almost always have an edge at Pimlico, but there are times when their advantage is insuperable. For reasons I have never comprehended, the inside part of the track can sometimes become so hard and fast that virtually every race is won by the horse who gets the lead on the rail. Last year the powerful bias appeared on only three days of the meeting--all during the first week of July. In 1977, by contrast, the same bias existed on all but one day of the meeting. How sweet it was!
This bias taught Maryland horse players several great truths about the game. One, of course, is that horse players who want to be successful must be flexible. Even if their ordinary methods indicate to them that a stretch runner from post position 10 is a cinch, a bettor has to be willing to disregard that horse entirely and handicap a race to determine who will show speed on the rail. Dogmatists don't win at Pimlico.
And neither, for the most part, do stable insiders. Every horse player has occasionally harbored the notion that the game cannot be beaten without inside information; that a mere handicapper cannot win in the long run. But Pimlico revealed the fallacy of this idea. When the bias existed, the people who ignored it and were betting on the basis of inside information were the suckers. Horse players who recognized the bias had all the information they needed, and for them beating the game was as easy as one, two, three.