Horseplayers are accustomed to suffering. We learn to be stoical even when we miss winning thousands of dollars by margins measured in fractions of an inch. But few of us who drove to Laurel Race Course yesterday could suppress a stab of pain when we turned into the parking area and were greeted by a sign that announced coldly, "RACES CANCELLED TODAY."
Nongamblers might have trouble understanding the depth of depression that a horseplayer feels when a racing program is called off. After all, one day in the endless continuum of year-round racing shouldn't matter much. But every horseplayer goes to the track with a genuine feeling of optimism that goes beyond the hope of winning a few dollars for the afternoon: "This could be the day at the track that changes my life." Now we'll never know if Dec. 28, 1987, was that day.
Many Washingtonians didn't even bother to check if the track was operating because it seemed inconceivable that freezing rain and an ominous forecast would be sufficient to warrant a cancellation. But Laurel President Frank De Francis had made the decision to cancel the card at 10:15 a.m. "At that time," he said, "it was snowing like hell here and the state police said that bridges were starting to freeze. Everybody else wanted to race. The jockeys were ready to ride. My partners looked at me as if I were insane. But I thought I had to weigh my business greed against the public interest. We've got to get some consistency, so if by 10:30 it's snowing and it's sticking to the ground, we're going to call the races."
(De Francis was remembering the criticism he took on Nov. 11 when he waited until after 11:30 a.m. to cancel the card because of snow.)
Certainly, yesterday's cancellation was an annoyance for anybody who drove to Laurel in vain. But after I made my U-turn and headed back home, disgruntled, I began to think that it was also an insult to the hardy breed of Maryland bettors. Does De Francis think we're a bunch of wimps who will be stopped by a little freezing rain?
It takes a lot more than that to deter a real horseplayer. When Maryland pioneered winter racing in the East, the "Bowie breed" became legend. The track's customers would brave any elements and endure any indignities for the opportunity to bet; players from as far away as Philadelphia and New York would take the special train to get to Bowie.
Once there was a wreck about a mile from the race track, and a steady stream of horseplayers -- some bleeding but spurning medical attention -- tromped from the crash site through the snow to get their bets down for the daily double. None of them had said, "It looks like freezing rain today. I guess I'll stay home."
De Francis wants to be consistent about his cancellation policy during the winter, so I have a suggestion: Never cancel the races.
Two reasons are usually cited for calling off the races: the condition of the racing strip and concern for the safety of the jockeys; the accessibility of roads leading to the track and concern for the safety of the customers. None of these considerations is relevant. Laurel's new track superintendent, John Passero, is the best in the business; if he'd been the superintendent at Pompeii Downs in 79 A.D., the track wouldn't have lost a day. The Laurel racing surface is going to be in good shape this winter.
As for horseplayers, they will always find a way to get to the track. This theory was put to the ultimate test at Aqueduct in 1974, and the New York Racing Association's Harvey Pack remembers it vividly: "There was a blizzard and an ice storm and the city was paralyzed. People were told not to leave their homes unless it was urgent. But Aqueduct stayed open to run the races for off-track betting, and we wondered if anybody would show up.
"We had a crowd of 6,500. And I had the feeling they would have been there if we'd had people with guns at the gates trying to keep them away."
Horseplayers aren't easily deterred. If Laurel's management is so fastidious about the conditions under which they operate, maybe they should shut down the track and open some badminton courts instead.