For a year, I prepared for the Santa Anita racing season, studying old racing forms, compiling speed figures, analyzing trainers and dreaming of the fortune I was going to make in the West.
For the last three months, I devoted all of my energy to handicapping and betting there, watching every race intently, poring over the past performances for hours every night.
It was all in vain. When I came home this week, I had lost a few thousand dollars and gained a measure of humility.
I had not suffered through a losing race meeting since Saratoga in 1977, but Santa Anita was too tough for me.
Despite all my advance study, I had not imagined how different handicapping in the West would be from handicapping in the East. After all, a horseplayer can go from Maryland to New York or Pennsylvania or Florida without making any significant adjustments in his methods. But in California there are differences that are at once crucial and subtle.
In the East, for example, good handicappers know that a horse who finishes fast in a sprint and then is entered in a route race is usually a bad bet, a sucker bet. But in California, where the hard tracks make it easier for sprinters to go a longer distance, such horses win all the time.
In New York, handicappers can safely throw out almost any first-time starter entered in a maiden-claiming race. In California, they win all the time.
I paid a sizable tuition before I had learned to think and handicap like the locals at Santa Anita. But even after adapting, I never found an edge--some skill or insight that would enable me to make money with consistency.
Most good horseplayers in the East get this edge by detecting biases in a racing surface; Pimlico's tendency to favor speed horses on the rail has been a dependable source of profit for Maryland bettors for many years.
But I saw only one pronounced bias--a disadvantageous rail--at Santa Anita all winter. On the other 57 racing days, the track was uniform.
As a speed handicapper, I have another edge in the East. My figures enable me to evaluate horses who are shipped from one racing circuit to another, and to collect big prices on standouts the public overlooks. The Southern California racing circuit is so self-contained that there are very few shippers from anywhere.
But from the standpoint of any Eastern visitor the most regrettable feature of California racing is its relative lack of exotic wagering. Although its Pick Six does offer the chance for a blockbuster payoff, Santa Anita offers only three exactas a day, and no triples.
I missed them desperately, and realized how important they are.
In the East, a bettor with a strong opinion has abundant opportunities to make big scores because of the leverage that exactas and triples provide.
Unless he gets lucky and hits a Pick Six at Santa Anita, the only way to win is to grind out moderate profits day by day. And that is tough to do.
For me, it was impossible.
Since returning to Pimlico, I already miss many of the great features of Santa Anita: the superb physical facilities, the spectacular physical setting, the excellence of the jockeys.
But from the betting standpoint, there's no place like home.