In the climactic pool match in "The Hustler," Paul Newman (as Fast Eddie) brandishes his cue and says to Jackie Gleason, "Fats, you ever get the feeling that you just can't miss? Well, I've got that feeling." He proceeds to shoot like a magician, until the legendary Minnesota Fats is forced to concede, "You're too good for me, Eddie."
All gamblers occasionally get that feeling of sublime self-confidence, the sense that they can control their destiny even in a game of chance. The feeling is based not on hunches but self-knowledge, a gambler's awareness that he is on top of his game. I have that feeling today, on the eve of the opening of Saratoga Race Track.
Admittedly, I have felt this way before, only to be subjected to such humiliating defeat that even this town's legendary charm and beauty provided no consolation. I've had to wire home for money, sneak out of town inconspicuously aboard an Adirondack Trailways bus. In 1977 I came here in the midst of such a great winning streak that I dared to think I could never lose at the track again. After being separated from $8,000 in 22 days, I was forced to revise that opinion.
Even when it is costly, though, Saratoga usually offers horseplayers a valuable learning experience, and that year I became acutely aware of my own shortcomings. At other tracks a bettor can prosper with limited skills. But Saratoga presents such a wide variety of races (stakes, steeplechases, 2-year-old races, grass races) that a handicapper must have a wide range of skills to deal with them.
I was good at computing speed figures, but here it was not enough to be adept at just one phase of the game.
Saratoga is also a learning experience because a horseplayer can observe and converse with so many astute handicappers who spend the season here. During my disastrous 1977 meeting, I saw that most successful bettors were using techniques that they described as "trip handicapping," which involved making visual judgments of the way races were run.
Soon I started trying to incorporate some of their methods with my own. I attempted to watch races intelligently; to note how wide horses ran on the turns; to judge how pace, racing luck and track biases may have affected the animals. The result of my effort was, for a long time, confusion, because the neat mathematics of speed figures and the subjectivity of trip handicapping were so hard to reconcile.
It was here last summer that I finally reconciled them in my mind. I had realized that it was not enough to look at my beloved speed figures and accept them as unequivocal expressions of horses' ability. I had to ask, "How did the horse earn his figure?"
A horse who earned a rating of 85 while running alone on the rail was clearly inferior to one who had earned an 85 circling the field five-wide. And what if a horse who had earned a 90 with a perfect trip was facing a rival who had run an 80 with a difficult trip? There was no pat answer, but I was learning how to handle such situations.
I had found the answer that I had been seeking for a quarter of a century: that the ultimate way to evaluate horses' past performances was by learning to relate their trips to their speed figures. With this understanding, I proceeded to have the best Saratoga meeting of my life. And this year, I think it is possible to have a season that lives up to my wildest dreams of the last quarter-century.
More than any other race meeting, Saratoga fosters such grand ambitions. Almost every horseplayer who comes here for the month views these four weeks not only as a special pleasure but a special test. He will have few distractions from his primary pursuit, and he will be able to pour his total energy into the handicapping process.
The results of four weeks of betting activity will prove an unambigious measurement of a handicapper's skills. Usually Saratoga's message to a horseplayer will be, "You've got a lot to learn."
This year I hope it will be: "You're too good for me, Andy."