I bought a winter coat the other day. It's a snappy turquoise number, filled with down, and very warm.
This may not sound like a dramatic development in anyone's life, but it is for me, since I haven't owned a winter coat for 10 years. I haven't had to.
Because I have the best job in the world, I am permitted to spend the winter at the track of my choosing, which always turns out to be one in a warm-weather location -- either Florida or California. This year I pondered the choice of spending January and February underneath the palm trees at Gulfstream Park, or in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, at Santa Anita. I weighed the pros and cons, trying to decide where I could play the horses most productively, and finally made the decision that has required the purchase of the new coat.
I am spending the winter in Laurel, Md., where there are no palm trees.
For most of the years that I have lived in this area, I have hated the idea of playing the horses seriously at the Maryland tracks. Their physical plants were abysmal and depressing, and the people who ran them seemed to view their customers with utter contempt. But since Frank De Francis and his partners took over the tracks here, the whole atmosphere has changed -- to the point where Laurel is just about as good a place as any in America to play the game.
Certainly, no track does a better job in giving horseplayers the information they need to bet intelligently. Racing fans around the country would look with envy at the replay centers that allow them to view any race in recent months, and the computers in the Sports Palace that make available a great mass of statistical data. Laurel always informs its fans which horses are being equipped with stickers on muddy tracks (a vital factor); its program is the only one in the country that tells when a horse was treated with Lasix for the first time.
The only area where Maryland falls short is its lack of a system to ensure the adequate reporting of workouts. It is surprising (and, indeed, disgraceful) that Laurel President De Francis has not tried to duplicate California's enlightened workout system.
For anyone who wants to play the horses seriously, nothing is more important than the racing surface itself. If a track is not consistent or well-maintained, the game doesn't make sense. When rain falls on Santa Anita, the track can be turned into a sea of glop for days or weeks, and the form of horses will be utterly unpredictable and inscutable. Gulfstream's track is crazy even when the weather is perfect. (Sometimes speed horses on the rail will win the first five races, and closers circling eight-wide will win the last five.)
From the standpoint of a bettor, Laurel's track is an excellent one. Thanks to the work of superintendent John Passero, it has held up well in severe weather. (Wednesday's part-frozen, part-sloppy mess was the first bad track of the season.) When it isn't perfectly uniform -- such as last weekend, when speed horses on the rail dominated -- it at least will have a recognizable bias rather than results that seem to be random.
Moreover, Laurel's physical plant is a pleasant, comfortable one. Of course, it's not Gulfstream or Santa Anita; I haven't lost my mind entirely. But if I can't be sitting under a palm tree, Laurel's Sports Palace is one of most enjoyable places I know to spend a day at the races.
Despite the wondrous transformation of Maryland racing in the last few years, the sport here is still deficient in a couple of respects. The quality of racing has not improved proportionately with the increase in purses. There are too many rock-bottom maiden races for 2- and 3-year-olds, races where there is no form that a bettor can depend on.
The caliber of the riding colony is also much worse than a track of Laurel's quality deserves. Although young Kent Desormeaux is an authentic star, there are too many riders here who are utterly undependable, incompetent and indifferent, or all of the above.
But I'll take Laurel for better and worse, and I will be battling its mutuel windows every day until the meeting ends on March 3. I just hope I'll enjoy the winter as much as the boss to whom I used to submit expense accounts for a house with a swimming pool and a few palm trees.