Everyone who goes to Pimlico today can entertain a grand dream: winning the largest parimutuel payoff in Maryland history.
When the Pick Six eluded bettors again yesterday, the carryover jackpot swelled to $184,841. With a Saturday crowd, and with Pick Six fever growing more contagious here every day, the total pot should be worth more than $300,000.
"Everybody's talking about it," said Pimlico General Manager Chick Lang. "You can feel the excitement. One of the best barometers of people's interest is the sale of Racing Forms at the track. For the last four days, the guy has completely sold out of the advanced edition."
Presumably, those horseplayers have gone home to spend long hours poring over past performances. But they might be better off reading tea leaves, consulting a Ouija board or picking their favorite lucky numbers. While handicapping is ordinarily a rational game, a consummate test of skill and judgment, results at Pimlico for the last week have defied comprehension.
This is usually one of the most formful tracks in America -- or at least it is when it operates during the temperate months of the year. But the newly structured Maryland racing schedule forced Pimlico to open during the foul weather of February. Track superintendent Buddy Kreitzer has been forced to use special measures to keep the racing surface from freezing.
Day after day, sand has been added to the track, changing not only the composition of the surface but the very nature of racing at Pimlico. Traditionally, the track has favored frontrunners who save ground along the rail, but now those horses are bogging down and tiring in the deep, sandy going.
The majority of races are now being won by horses who rally on the far outside. But given the vagaries of racing luck and the unpredictable nature of the typical jockey, it's usually hard to predict which horse will maneuver his way into the optimal place on the track.
Moreover, some horses simply won't like the unfamiliar sandy surface, while others will. So normal handicapping precepts frequently don't seem to work at all.
For the last few days, certainly, very little has made sense at Pimlico. On Thursday, a gambler who will remain nameless but had considered himself the World's Greatest Handicapper made a $2,416 investment in the Pick Six and wound up with one winner.
Plenty of bettors suffered his fate in the first race of the Pick Six; he used five horses in a six-horse field, and was blown out by the victory of Tanner's Girl, which contradicted every handicapping precept.
If Thursday's races seemed tough, they were child's play compared to what happened yesterday. The first winner in the Pick Six, Cape Henry ($20.60), hadn't raced since finishing dead last in April 1985. The next two, Exclusive Courage ($18) and Strong Support ($76.80) had never finished in the money. And the next winner, Gentry's Image ($22.60), hadn't even finished his last start.
The bettors who collected a consolation payoff of $9,840.50 for picking five winners should have been given a medal, too.
Given the inscrutability of these results, a rational bettor ought to approach today's card with some trepidation. But what true horseplayer could resist the challenge, knowing he might become instantly wealthy if he can pick six winners in a row?