Because of the nature of the parimutuel system, bettors at a race track are competing against each other, not against the house. A day at the races is like a giant poker game, with 10,000 people sitting at the table and the track management cutting the pot.

So there should be some race track applications for the great secret of success in poker: get into games with inferior players. Anyone with moderate card-playing skills can make a profit if he picks his spots judiciously, if he steers clear of the sharks and sits down at tables populated by lesser varieties of fish.

Just as the quality of play will vary greatly in different poker games, so will the quality of betting at different tracks. Of course, the sophistication of the crowd at a big race like the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness figures to be less than that of the hard core that shows up at Aqueduct in the midst of a blizzard. But even on ordinary days, there are remarkable differences in the sophistication of race crowds in different parts of the country.

Who are the best and the worst? This is something that cannot be measured objectively, but having played the horses seriously in most major racing centers I feel qualified to venture a subjective opinion:

The dumbest horseplayers in America are those who populate the race tracks in the San Francisco/Oakland area.

The sharpest crowds--the race track equivalent of a poker table full of sharks--can be found in Maryland.

Gordon Jones, the handicapper for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, posed this hypothetical question this winter: "If your life depended on showing a profit at a single race meeting, and you could pick any track you wanted, where would you go?" Jones didn't hestitate to make his choice: "Northern California." After observing the results at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields all winter, I agree wholeheartedly.

The crowds at these tracks are unique. At every other relatively minor track in America, horseplayers love to bet shippers from classier tracks; in fact, they usually overbet them. But apparently the folks in San Francisco believe that if they dislike the Southern California life style they have to dislike their horses, too. When vastly superior horses ship from Santa Anita to the north, the locals shun them, and standout winners regularly pay double what they ought to. The Northern California crowds show through their betting that they don't have the faintest comprehension of speed figures or track biases, either. In fact, it is usually hard to discern any rationale at all behind their betting.

By reputation, of course, New York has the smartest horseplayers in America. And it is true that there are more sharp individuals betting in New York than anywhere else. But their impact on the tote board is diluted by the money from the unsophisticated off-track bettors. Nowhere does the crowd as a whole bet more astutely than in Maryland.

Maryland crowds have a quality that characterizes the sharpest individual bettors: the ability to adapt quickly to changing conditions in the sport. During the years when three big stables dominated racing in the state, the crowds here bet accordingly. When any trainer hits a hot streak now, the crowd quickly jumps on the bandwagon. When a track bias appears, the crowd adjusts to it immediately--as at the current Pimlico meeting.

In any other racing area, the most lucrative opportunities for profit arise when the track suddenly starts to favor certain types of horses--such as speed horses on the rail. But when such conditions appeared at Pimlico on opening day, the crowd immediately adjusted its betting. In the third race that day, a horse who had lost his last start by 13 lengths went off the even-money favorite, because he figured to be the speed on the rail.

On the seond day of the Pimlico meeting, there was a track-bias play that would have returned a windfall profit anywhere else. Lucky Walt had beaten Pete's Toy by 10 1/2 lengths in their previous meeting. But with superior early speed and an inside post position, Pete's Toy figured to turn the tables with the aid of the bias. His virtues were sufficiently well hidden that he could easily have paid 10 to 1. At Bay Meadows or Golden Gate Fields, he would have. But when Pete's Toy won at Pimlico, the crowd had bet so astutely that he paid only 3 to 1.

Perhaps we could import some horseplayers from San Francisco to Baltimore to make the game a little easier here.