Playing the horses has always been a challenge, but nowadays one of the toughest challenges is simply finding a track to play. Too much of American racing consists of small fields and boring races offering limited opportunities for a handicapper.

I tried to bet Calder Race Course during December, but the effort was largely a waste of time: In the five days preceding Christmas, Calder ran 30 races with seven or fewer starters, and half of the winners paid 2 to 1 or less. Scrutinizing these races to uncover future bets was a waste of time, too, because few horses have troubled trips in such small fields.

I used to consider Gulfstream Park the last bastion of wide-open, bettable racing, and the Hallandale, Fla., track has annually been the major focus of my gambling year. But last year Gulfstream's meeting was dismal, and I squandered too much of my time and money on races that held little promise.

After the Gulfstream debacle I made a vow: I will never again direct all my handicapping efforts toward a single track. Instead, I will take advantage of the opportunities presented by simulcasting, scan the nation's racetracks and concentrate on the ones that promise to be the most fruitful. Thus I have formulated my battle plan for the winter. I will direct half of my gambling efforts to Gulfstream, where I hope that a new stable area and an increased horse population may produce better racing.

The rest of my energy and my bankroll will be invested in Tampa Bay Downs.

This surely will strike my fellow horseplayers as a surprising choice, since Tampa Bay is considered a minor league track. I don't know another serious bettor who has Tampa on his radar screen. But it is a track with many virtues.

Tampa Bay Downs used to be known as Sunshine Park, and its charms attracted a cult following: legendary sportswriters such as Grantland Rice and Joe Palmer often wrote about their outings to Sunshine. But in the age of simulcasting, charm doesn't count for much; Tampa's strength is the makeup of its races.

For its December-to-May season, Tampa fills its 1,400 stalls and also draws from the many horse farms in Ocala. Last year the track averaged 9.2 starters per race -- one of the best such figures in the United States. A heterogeneous group populates the races. The entrants on Tampa's opening-day card on Dec. 17 had made their most recent starts at 26 different tracks. To prepare for this meeting, I studied the charts of races at such far-flung places as Hoosier Park in Indiana, Great Lakes Downs in Michigan and Finger Lakes in upstate New York, hoping that some familiarity with these tracks would give me an edge at Tampa.

With their large fields, the races at Tampa are eventful -- especially so because the jockey colony at Tampa is not an all-star group. Every time I watch a race I am frantically scribbling notes about horses who are off slow, blocked or parked ridiculously wide on the turn -- a treasure trove of future bets.

Most simulcast bettors would instinctively shun a track where little-known jockeys ride $4,000 claiming horses, preferring to bet the major league tracks in California and New York. But those who do so are opting to compete against the nation's best-informed, high-rolling gamblers, who play the major circuits. This is like walking into a Las Vegas poker room, passing up a game filled with tourists and sitting down at a table populated by cutthroat local sharpies.

Sharpies do not play Tampa Bay. "During the week, our customers are mostly retirees and vacationers," said General Manager Peter Berube. "The weekends are skewed to younger people."

Moreover, I would guess that the majority of people who bet Tampa Bay from simulcast locations don't even consult the Daily Racing Form. I have observed enough generous payoffs on contenders and low odds on hopeless horses to suggest that the parimutuel competition at Tampa is pretty soft.

The usual drawback of minor tracks such as Tampa is that betting pools aren't large enough to accommodate even semi- serious action. But Tampa does surprisingly solid business. Berube said the track's popularity among bettors was spurred by the installation of a turf course in 1998. It orchestrates its post times to find open slots in the simulcasting schedule and lure wagers from out-of-state players.

The track's business was hurt in the past three years by battles between horsemen and management, but their problems have been resolved, and Tampa is likely to improve on last year's average daily handle of $2.1 million per day. Although that total is a far cry from New York or California, there is enough money in most Tampa pools to make playing the track worthwhile.

The only drawbacks I have observed at Tampa are its high takeout (25.9 percent on exactas and other multiple wagers) and the poor quality of its video coverage, which makes it hard to distinguish one horse from another. But because of the track's large fields and competitive races, I am excited and challenged whenever I sit down to handicap a Tampa Bay card -- and that is rare in modern racing.