Some cynics say you can't believe the published workouts for horses at Maryland tracks, especially those for first-time starters. This is not true.
At the current Laurel meeting, workout information has been very reliable. If a first-time starter or laid-off horse has slow workouts or no workouts at all, and money shows for him on the tote board, he's a potential winner. But if his workouts look decent on paper, he's a stiff.
Maryland horseplayers have been moaning for years -- no, make that decades -- about the inadequacy of workout information in the state. For the last couple of years, the situation improved slightly, when the upstart newspaper Sports Eye was competing with the Daily Racing Form, the source of official times for workouts.
The Form made workouts one of its big selling points in the battle with its publishing rival, and the data given to horseplayers wasn't too bad.
But when Sports Eye went out of the thoroughbred business, the clockers returned to business as usual. In fact, if such a thing is possible, workout information on first-time starters is worse than ever.
Since the start of the Laurel season, 13 2-year-old first-time starters have won maiden-special-weight or high-priced maiden claiming races. Two were trained by Bernie Bond, whose young horses almost always show lightning-fast workouts and get bet by the public, anyway, and thus are not suitable vehicles for insiders' chicanery.
But of the other first-time starter winners, not a single horse showed a single workout that would indicate he had special ability. Yet these horses didn't surprise everybody when they won. Five of them went to the post at 9 to 2 or less, and all were shorter than 11 to 1.
The maiden race run at Laurel Sept. 24 was the sort that makes a disgruntled horseplayer want to stomp out of the track in disgust.
Dusky Prospect was a filly with undistinguished breeding, and her two published workouts -- a half-mile in :48 4/5, three furlongs in :38 3/5 -- were ones that any ambulatory thoroughbred could have accomplished. She was listed at 10 to 1 in the morning line. But if the public couldn't possibly know that Dusky Prospect had special talent, somebody did. Money poured onto her and sent her to the post as the even-money favorite, and even that short price was a bargain. The filly led all the way and won by eight lengths.
That's the way it's been all season at Laurel. Bardip showed two undistinguished workouts (five furlongs in 1:02, four furlongs in :50 1/5) and won her debut by eight lengths. Azarbaijani had no workout in the paper at all, but was bet down to 8 to 1 and won by five. Eye Que had two half-mile works in 50 seconds, but proceeded to run her first half-mile in :46 on the way to an impressive victory. Hail the Truth recorded one five-furlong workout, in a slow 1:03, but was bet down to 9 to 2 and won his debut.
"There's no question that there is a problem in providing bettors with certified information on works," acknowledged Laurel's president, Frank DeFrancis. "Our ultimate objective is to adopt a system ensuring the credibility of workouts along the lines of California; whether we can do that is something that we've been studying."
California's workout rules prove that the game doesn't have to be played the way it is in Maryland. Handicappers in California can evaluate first-time starters almost as accurately as they can horses with established form. The state's rules send a message to its horseplayers that the game is being played with their interests in mind -- and not just for the benefit of insiders.
In Maryland, phony workouts keep on fostering public cynicism. The state government has turned back millions of dollars in tax revenue to the thoroughbred industry; Pimlico spent an unprecedented sum on advertising and promotion this year; Laurel spent $2 million building its glitzy new Sports Palace. And yet nobody will invest the relatively small amount of time and money needed to ensure the integrity of the game as far as workouts are concerned. Laurel loves to advertise that "a new day is dawning" in Maryland racing, but it hasn't dawned yet.