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California's Bettors Are a Lot Better Off : Compared to Race Tracks in the East, the West Is a Horseplayer's Paradise

January 20, 1986|ANDREW BEYER | Washington Post

Californians are spoiled. They take it for granted the sun will shine every day, that the climate will always be pleasant, that fresh avocados will always be available. California horseplayers are spoiled, too. They take it for granted that race tracks will treat them with consideration, give them the information they require and conduct the sport in an intelligent fashion.

Eastern visitors, who accept the fact that life will have its imperfections, may well feel envious on both counts.

Any racing fan who pays a visit to tracks on the opposite side of the country will be struck by many differences in the day-to-day conduct of the sport. There are, to be sure, a few things that California's tracks could learn from the East, but the West has most of the pluses in any coast-vs.-coast comparison.

--Workouts. California is the only state that has an effective system to ensure the accurate reporting of workouts, and the information changes the whole handicapping process.

Maiden races filled with first-time starters aren't guessing games as they are in the East. A bettor in the West can evaluate first-time starters with the published workouts in the Daily Racing Form as well as local publications that offer commentaries on the quality of the workouts. When horses are returning to competition after a layoff, it is possible to judge their current sharpness or infer that they have had problems if there are long gaps in their workout patterns.

--Stewards' Films. Santa Anita is one of the few tracks in America that lets its customers see the head-on films of races that the stewards use. They are shown on specially designated television monitors. Maryland and other states have refused to do this, for fear that fans would be constantly second-guessing the stewards about what is or isn't a foul. Santa Anita's experience has shown that there is nothing to worry about.

The head-on shots have generated no controversy and little attention except from serious handicappers.

--Trouble Sheets. As another service to horseplayers, the stewards and patrol judges compile and publish a "trouble sheet" after each day's races, showing horses who encountered bad racing luck: "Calabonga bumped at start, wide into stretch. Harry Jr. rider lost whip final yards. Billikin bumped, steadied after start." --Scratches and Jockey Changes. Few things annoy a horseplayer more than handicapping a card for hours, going to the track and learning that the races have been riddled with scratches. That is a regular occurrence in the East, especially New York. But at the start of the day's races in California, the public-address announcer is likely to say: "There are no scratches or jockey changes on today's program."

In California, trainers must name their rider at the time the horse is entered. Today's jockey is listed under the horse's name in the Daily Racing Form's past performances. In the entries for a typical Maryland race, by contrast, Donald Miller may be listed to ride three of the horses and "No Boy" will be on five others.

--Morning Line. The morning-line odds published in the racing programs here are astonishingly accurate--a sharp contrast with Eastern tracks, where they are utterly meaningless. "This is a full-time job to make a good line, but most tracks don't have a full-time linemaker," said Santa Anita's Jeff Tufts, who starts his day clocking horses at 6:30 a.m. so he can make an accurate line on first-time starters. The quality of the morning line may seem a small matter, but nothing creates ill feelings and suspicions of larceny so much as a 20-to-1 shot in the morning line who is bet down to 2 to 1. Usually this happens in the East because the horse was supposed to be 2 to 1 in the first place and the linemaker did a lousy job. It doesn't happen here.

The West, however, still has a couple of things to learn from the East.

--Post Time. Maryland, New York and a few other states start their races promptly at the scheduled post time and--contrary to the initial fears of racing officials--bettors don't get shut out. Horseplayers learn quickly that 1:02 p.m. means 1:02 p.m., they wager accordingly, and they like the system. The California practice of having the horses walk around in circles and delaying the start for two or three minutes seems insufferably bush league.

--Exactas. Horseplayers love exactas. They create betting opportunities that would not exist under traditional win-place-and-show wagering, and they give small players a chance to make big profits. That's why Laurel and other civilized tracks offer nine exactas a day.

But Santa Anita's management takes a paternalistic, we-know-what's-best-for-you attitude and offers only three exactas a day. Moreover, all the California tracks have established a $5 minimum unit for exacta bets, which creates a real hardship for bettors of limited means. They justifiably resent being forced to spend $30 for a three-horse box. It's a policy that makes no sense.

On balance, however, horseplayers in the West can consider themselves very lucky.

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