Nothing can frustrate and madden a horseplayer more than the experience of trying to bet a maiden race filled with first-time starters. He knows he might be at the mercy of conniving trainers, dishonest clockers and a system that can't guarantee the accuracy of information on workouts.
Most Marylanders assume this is the way the game has to be played. They would be amazed if they came to California. Here a bettor has access to almost all of the important data about first-time starters and other horses who haven't raced recently. He can handicap a maiden race as rationally as any other type of event -- without depending on tips and inside information.
The victory of a first-time starter named Copper Chain at Santa Anita last month epitomized the way the California system works. The maiden race for 3-year-old fillies was the type that would defy analysis anywhere else. Two of the entrants had recently finished second in slowly run races. Another showed fair form but had been laid off for six months. The other six were first-time starters.
Of these first-timers, a filly named Copper Chain showed a series of workouts clearly superior to all of her rivals: six furlongs in 1:12 2/5, five furlongs in :58 3/5, five furlongs in 1:00 1/5, five furlongs in :59 4/5.
There was plenty of further information about Copper Chain. One southern California publication, the Daily Racing Digest, wrote this about the filly: "Half-sister to stakes-placed Pappadopolous, this one . . . has a string of solid a.m. moves: 24 works starting Aug. l3, with two exceptional, a :58 3/5 Dec. 31 and a 1:12 2/5 on Oct. 21."
Another local racing publication, The Handicapper's Report, provides commentary on all of the more significant workouts, and had this to say about the filly's recent six-furlong work: "Copper Chain was even while working in company with Simply Fantastic, finishing under mild pressure, with both looking quite good, final quarter in :24 and change. Both look fit."
Of her previous work, The Handicapper's Report wrote: "Copper Chain showed speed while doing her best, finishing under some coaxing following half in :46 2/5. Looks fit, seeking a spot, barn's been red hot lately."
The way the filly had trained left little doubt that she was the superior horse in an otherwise mediocre field. Most public handicappers picked her to win, and the crowd confidently established her as an even-money favorite. Copper Chain justified their confidence, leading all the way to win by 3 1/2 lengths.
This is the way the game ought to be played everywhere -- crucial betting information available to the public, instead of being the private property of insiders. But only California has a system to make it happen.
Whenever a horse comes onto the track for a workout here, the exercise rider will identify it and state the distance of the work. A person stationed at the gap where horses enter the racing strip will relay this information to the clockers in the grandstand by walkie-talkie. There aren't many mistakes.
So why don't Maryland and other states have similar systems? The answer is depressingly simple: They don't care enough about the interests of racing fans.
Last year the state of Maryland approved a tax-relief measure that turned millions of dollars a year in revenue back to the thoroughbred industry. It would take no more than 1 percent of this money to create a system for reporting workouts that would rank with California's as the finest in the nation; most of the money would go to pay an adequate salary to clockers, who would be reponsible to the track or racing commission.
But even with enlightened leaders in the Maryland thoroughbred industry such as Laurel President Frank DeFrancis and Racing Commission Chairman E. William Furey, no changes have been made in the system, partly because of inertia, partly because of opposition from horsemen, who want workout information to remain their private property.
It's a pity. As Californians know, accurate workout information adds a whole new dimension to handicapping. Moreover, it is the clearest possible signal of the racing industry's concern for the well-being of its customers and the integrity of the sport.