I have been going to Saratoga for the last 14 years, and while I have sometimes come home richer and sometimes come home poorer, I have always returned feeling a bit wiser. The racing season there is a great learning experience, one as intense as a Berlitz course.
In other places, one's normal life sometimes gets in the way of total concentration on equine matters. But at Saratoga, racing people are thrown together for four weeks with nothing else to do but watch horses, bet horses and talk about horses. The house I share with two astute bettors from New York is the site of a virtually nonstop four-week seminar.
It was at Saratoga that these same roommates, Joe Cardello and Paul Cornman, had first acquainted me with the techniques of "trip handicapping," which involve watching races carefully and forming judgments of horses based on what they actually do on the track. And this Saratoga meeting was a clinic on the efficacy of some of these techniques.
Until this summer, I had never felt much confidence handicapping grass races. My beloved speed figures aren't very useful on the turf, and evaluating horses according to their class doesn't work particularly well, either. During the last four weeks, I finally came to understand the reason why. A horse's trip--what happens to him during the running of a race--means everything. All the other traditional factors of handicapping are relatively meaningless.
One type of trip on the grass was as reliable as any handicapping angle I have ever seen. When a horse was forced to run very wide on the turn (outside three or four other horses) but accelerated strongly and managed to finish at least close, he merited an automatic bet in his next start. It was like magic.
On July 18 at Belmont, Chaudiere accelerated five wide on the turn and finished second. He next ran at Saratoga Aug. 3, saved ground this time and paid $9 to win. He was lucky to win because one of his rivals, So Intent, was forced to race four wide, closed powerfully and just missed.
On Aug. 15, So Intent came back in the same company, enjoyed an easy ground-saving trip and won to pay $6.40.
Then, on Aug. 21, So Intent and Chaudiere faced each other again, both coming into the race after wins they had scored with the aid of easy trips. Now they were meeting a rival named Monkey Bread, who had accelerated seven wide on the turn to finish second in his last start. Monkey Bread won and paid $11.
Horses' trips in their last start were so indicative of what they were going to do in their next race that I generally adhered to this guideline: if a horse had everything in his favor last time, if he saved ground all the way on the turf, if he led all the way on the speed-favoring main track, don't bet him in his next start, no matter how impressive that previous performance might look. That dictum, too, worked like magic during the month of August.
Trip handicapping was so effective that every serious player I know, every one, went home a winner for the meeting. Plenty of people who would have been happy to survive the Saratoga season went home winning thousands of dollars. Others who went to Saratoga feeling optimistic exceeded their wildest expectations.
The game seemed so easy that people in my circle of friends who picked a winner weren't necessarily congratulated; they got good-natured abuse if the winner had been too easy, too obvious. "This is getting to be like gymnastics," Paul Cornman said. "We'll have to give points for style as well as picking winners."
Of course, there is not really such a thing as an "easy" or a "difficult" race meeting. At all of them, the state extracts 17 cents or so from every dollar bet. The public collects the remaining 83, which insures that only a few people can possibly be winners in the long run. But this season it became clearer than ever to me that the horseplayers who are the winners are almost exclusively the ones who recognize how important it is to watch races intelligently.