SYDNEY -- Obsessions usually creep up on us gradually, but I can remember the exact moment when I was seized by the idea that has preoccupied me for months and has now brought me to the other side of the world. It was in a sleazy barroom in Alice Springs that I dreamed of becoming Australia's greatest horseplayer.
Two years ago, I was vacationing here and, like most of my vacations, the trip included visits to a few racetracks. I have played the horses in many countries, including England, France, Germany and Spain, but the European version of the game (with its deemphasis of early speed and its undulating courses) is utterly alien to an American. But here the sport was not only a delightful spectacle -- with modern facilities, enthusiastic crowds and a high quality of racing -- it seemed understandable.
I was at a track in Melbourne on a day when two fillies ran one-two in a stakes race, beating 15 male rivals. The two of them had recently finished one-two in a prep race against members of their own sex and I noted, with the benefit of hindsight, that the time of that race had appeared to be very fast.
Typical American handicapping logic would suggest that this prep had been a very strong race, and I made note of the third-place finisher in that field: Papal Princess. She might be worth a bet the next time she ran.
On the day she was entered, my travels had taken me to the barren heart of the continent, but in Australia even outposts of civilization such as Alice Springs have off-track betting outlets. The one I found in the town consisted of a single ticket-selling machine in the corner of a barroom, but I got down my bet on Papal Princess, and watched excitedly on a big-screen television as she led all the way to win -- at odds of 15 to 1.
When I presented my winning tickets, the seller did a double-take, excused herself and disappeared for a half-hour. When she reappeared, she counted out a large stack of crumbled 20s, 10s and 5s. I had evidently broken the bank. Today, Alice Springs, I thought. One day, Sydney.
Could American handicapping techniques really be used to beat the races in Australia? I was intrigued by the possibility. Handicapping methods in the United States have become extraordinarily sophisticated in the past decade as bettors have come to appreciate the usefulness of speed figures.
Years ago, most racing fans believed that class, not time, was the best measurement of horses' ability. It was a popular cliche that "time is only important when you're in jail." But as speed handicapping came into vogue, more and more bettors learned that a sophisticated analysis of final times could yield amazingly precise gauges of horses' abilities.
The technique became almost too popular. So many bettors are armed with speed figures now that "figure horses" rarely pay the big prices they did in the 1970s. The whole betting game has become tougher and more competitive than ever. More than once I've wished I could go back 20 years knowing what I know now.
Maybe this would indeed be possible -- by going to Australia. I read the most influential book on form analysis in Australia, and the author stated flatly: "I see no value in times at all." I read analyses of newspaper selectors and they all seemed largely preoccupied by class and weight -- just like American bettors of 20 years ago.
This summer, I began to assemble a mountain of data on Australian racing -- not easy to come by, for the country doesn't have one centralized source of data like the Daily Racing Form -- and began to make the calculations that would be the basis of a speed-handicapping system.
Some of the obvious differences from American racing -- all races are on the turf and distances are in meters rather than furlongs -- turned out to be superficial. But unlike American tracks, which tend to be reasonably uniform one-mile ovals, Australian tracks come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and these varying contours create myriad problems.
I would work all day and wake up in the middle of the night pondering questions like these: If a horse runs 1,400 meters in 1:24, what is the equivalent performance at 1,500 meters? If a horse runs 1,400 meters in 1:24 at Warwick Farm, what is the equivalent time at the same distance at Kembla Grange?
But as I labored over my figures, week after week, they started making logical sense. In Australia, as in the United States, the final times of races are almost always an accurate gauge of the abilities of the horses in those races.
The figures were enabling me to compare horses in Sydney with those in Melbourne, horses in the metropolitan areas with those in the provinces. One day, when I saw that a standout top-figure horse had won at odds of 20 to 1, I announced somberly to my wife that this scheduled 3 1/2-month trip to Australia might turn out to be a permanent one. We might be winning so much money that we couldn't afford to leave.
Of course, in my lucid moments, I recognize how difficult it is for a horseplayer to survive in a place where he doesn't understand all of the nuances of the game. I have never been able to break even on trips to California, so my chances of winning in a country where I barely know the names of the leading jockeys and trainers, and where I can never remember just how much a kilogram weighs, might seem remote.
But with the indulgence of The Washington Post, as well as readers who are about to learn more than they ever wanted to know about Australian racing, I am going to try. And I hope that at some time in the coming months, startled Aussie racegoers at Randwick or Rosehill will hear a crazed horseplayer yelling in an American accent: "I'm king of the world!"