A horse named Olympic Skies showed speed in a race at Santa Anita the other day, tired in the stretch and barely made it past the finish line. He stood still in the middle of the track as a horse ambulance rushed to him and a veterinarian ministered to him. After a few minutes Olympic Skies trotted back toward his barn as the crowd politely applauded.
I had never seen anything like this happen on a track before, and looked quizzically at a fellow horseplayer. "Smog attack," he said. "They just had to give him some oxygen. Happens here all the time."
Yes, California racing is a different game.
Whenever a horseplayer moves to a new track, he will find himself dealing with some special and unfamiliar conditions. If a bettor were to go to Gulfstream Park this winter, he would have to learn to compare the year-round Florida horse population with shippers from the north. If he were betting at Bowie, he would have to understand that trainers play an unusually important role in Maryland racing. Even when a handicapper moves the short distance from Bowie to Pimlico he must make some adjustments.
But when a handicapper reared on Eastern racing comes to California, he may feel as alien as if he has arrived at a track on the moon. Even after a year of study, I wasn't quite prepared for the different nature of the game here.
The great difference is not due to the pollutants in the air, but to what's in the soil. "In the East," said Ron Moore, Santa Anita's track superintendent, "the tracks have a lot of sand in them. Here the soil has silt and clay and organic content that binds the track together." That may seem like a small difference--unless you're a horse, or a jogger who knows that running on the rock-hard C&O Canal towpath is a lot easier than running on a sandy beach.
Because of the firmer footing, horses naturally run much faster here. On opening day Chinook Pass, a good but hardly legendary sprinter, zipped six furlongs in 1:07 3/5--faster than any thoroughbred has ever run east of the Mississippi. And because the tracks are so firm, horses don't get tired so easily. Speed, not stamina, wins races here.
Knowing this, I came to Santa Anita expecting to bet almost exclusively on speed horses. I was wrong. Everybody knows the tracks here favor speed, particularly the jockeys, and they ride in a style that is distinctly Californian.
When the gate opens for a sprint, at least half of the riders will be putting their horses to a drive, trying to get the lead. Even in the rock-bottom races here, the first quarter may be run as fast as 21 2/5 seconds--as fast as stakes horses may run in the East. This extraordinary pace often takes a toll on speed horses. So while it's dangerous to bet on stretch-runners, it can be dangerous to bet on front-runners, too. The best bets here seem to be animals who have enough speed to stay close to the leaders and who can save ground on the turns.
The fast pace and the competitiveness of the races here seems to affect horses' form cycles. Last Sunday, when Chinook Pass returned to action after his 1:07 3/5 performance, ace handicapper Jeff Siegel told me, "He's going to bounce today."
Bounce? In local parlance, a horse bounces when he runs a good race, comes back after a few days' rest and runs poorly. The regulars here look with a jaundiced eye on animals who have raced only a few days earlier--in contrast with the textbook precept that a recent race is an extremely positive sign. Here the races are so tough that they need time to recover. Indeed, Chinook Pass bounced and finished out of the money.
Because horses' conditions are so important, what they do between races is important. In California--as in no other racing state--workouts are accurately reported, and they are vitally important.
"With purses so high and the attrition rate here so great," Siegel said, "trainers don't race their horses into shape. Everybody wants to win the first time out." So a handicapper who ignored published workouts in the East--on the correct assumption that they can't be believed--has to learn a whole new skill here.
There are plenty of other esoteric aspects to handicapping here, too, such as the inscrutable turf races that start in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and proceed downhill. But the game is very much worth learning, because the horses are formful, the jockeys are largely honest and the betting public has certain blind spots that create the possibility for big payoffs on superior animals.
I hope to return home with some California gold after I have learned the basics here, but even if I fail I still will have the distinction of being the only horseplayer in my crowd who can say he has bet on a horse who has bounced in the smog.