A filly named Coastal Fog came into a recent race at Del Mar after losing her career debut by nearly 30 lengths at odds of 69 to 1. Even though she was facing a weaker field, many handicappers couldn't have bet her after such a dismal performance. Nevertheless, somebody was betting: Coastal Fog went off an odds of 3 to 1, and proceeded to score a runaway victory.
If horseplayers in other states were watching by simulcast, they probably suspected that the action on Coastal Fog was the result of inside information. If such a scenario had occurred at a track in the East, the conclusion probably would be correct. But Coastal Fog was bet so heavily because California fans have access to detailed information about horses' workouts.
There is a thriving industry here of services selling clockers' commentaries on morning workouts, most distributing their information via the Internet. Among them: The Handicapper's Report (www.hreport.com), Today's Racing Digest (www.todaysracing
digest.com) and National Turf (www.nationalturf.com).
Coastal Fog had worked since her 30-length loss, and clocker Bruno De Julio made this comment in Today's Racing Digest: "Worked with Rugger from the gate and showed good speed [with blinkers on.] Splits of 24, 35.4 and 48 flat and finished in 100.2. Not a bad drill." Andy Harrington gave National Turf subscribers a similarly positive observation.
Harrington said that Coastal Fog's ability to stay head-and-head with Rugger, an older, higher-priced maiden claimer, tipped off the filly's likely improvement; so too did the fact that she was putting on blinkers for the race after wearing them for the workout. Jockey Martin Pedroza worked her in the morning and was now riding her in the race -- also a positive sign. Plenty of horseplayers were able to put this information together and conclude that Coastal Fog was ready to win, despite that 30-length defeat blemishing her record. But only in California could bettors draw such conclusions; this is the only state where so much information on workouts is made public, and its availability changes the nature of the handicapping process.
And nowhere are workouts so important. Unlike their counterparts in the East, trainers here rarely let their horses race themselves into shape. They rev up first-time starters and horses who have been idle for months to win at first asking. Horses with no recent form win races at Del Mar almost every day. As a result, bettors need information about workouts -- and are willing to pay for it.
The "official" clockers hired by racetracks publish a list of each day's workouts; their job is aided by a California rule requiring horses to be identified when they come onto the track to work. But knowing how fast a horse worked isn't enough. "Every horse here can work [five-eighths of a mile] in :59 if you drive him hard enough and have him on enough medication," Harrington said. Accordingly, clockers must make qualitative judgments while snapping their stopwatches.
Theirs is an extraordinarily difficult job. At a busy time of the morning there may be as many as 200 horses on the Del Mar track, and, they don't come wearing nametags. The clockers' first task is to identify the animals. Since most stables use a distinctive saddlecloth, clockers usually will know who trains a horse. DeJulio maintains a thick book with a list of each trainer's horses and a code describing the animal's markings. (Bob Baffert's horse Joe Who is designated MB# N ST AB SN RFU RHA. The code starts by indicating that Joe Who has a medium-big star on his forehead and ends indicating a mark on the right hind ankle.)
As he is trying to identify horses and clocking as many as four workouts simultaneously, De Julio doesn't have the luxury of scrutinizing any workout at length. "I basically have six to eight seconds to look at a horse when he comes down the lane," De Julio said. The other clockers work the same way. Inevitably, they will miss seeing many workouts, but they concentrate on the youngsters and unraced horses for whom the works are so crucial.
"You look for athleticism and the ability to finish," Harrington said. "I love to see a horse bounce out of the gate, let other horses come to him -- and then kick away." All clockers pay close attention to stablemates who work in company with each other for clues to their relative ability. Harrington said, "The good trainers match their horses up; if you see Neil Drysdale match up a 2-year-old against a 4-year-old, that's telling you something about the 2-year-old already."
Earlier this summer, an unraced 2-year-old named Dixie Union recorded a slow workout of five furlongs in 1 minute 3.2 seconds, but he did it in company with Infantry, a well-regarded youngster. De Julio wrote: "Worked with Infantry from the gate and was much the best in that drill. . . . [He] showed great speed and looked to be breezing throughout. He looks like a runner."
After Dixie Union won three straight races and established himself as the leading 2-year-old in California, De Julio was proud that he had uncovered a diamond in the rough. Yet neither he nor the readers of Today's Racing Digest reaped a financial windfall. Dixie Union paid $6.80 when he won his racing debut, suggesting the drawback of all the information in California.
Japhet Ward, the astute veteran who wields a stopwatch for the Handicapper's Report, remembers the good old days when he was a private clocker. "When I started in 1962," he recalled, "nobody believed you could do it [i.e., pick winners from workouts]. Nobody even asked me for horses. We used to get horses who'd win by five lengths and paid $12. Now if something's really good everybody will know. That's why I went to work. I hardly play any more. Everybody knows everything."