It's barely 6 a.m. and already there's turmoil in the small booth above the stands at Hollywood Park.
Three people with binoculars and stopwatches occupy a cubicle known as clocker's corner, and their voices pierce the quiet morning air.
"I got him from the four and a half! " says one.
"I got the blue one down there!" says another while pointing to the track.
"Stay with him! Stay with him! You stay with the one in the front and I got the one in the back!"
Southland freeways are still pretty much traffic-free, and the 1 p.m post time is still seven hours away, but Hollywood Park is already alive.
Most people, however, aren't even aware of what is transpiring at the track at that hour, even though what is going on at clocker's corner impacts many racing fans.
The major activity for now in the dark, cool morning is among workers scattered around the Inglewood horse racing facility sweeping, cutting grass and delivering stacks of Daily Racing Forms. Inside, on the dirt track, thoroughbreds gallop and occasionally sprint during early-morning workouts, but it's hardly noticed by the early birds who come when the gates open at 7:30 a.m.
The avid gamblers lounge around studying the Racing Form, also known as the Bible, paying little attention to the action on the track in front of them.
Most don't even realize what goes on in the cubicle above, where the action begins two hours before they're even allowed on the premises.
From there horses are officially timed during morning workouts. The results are published in the Racing Form and used for handicapping.
Three clockers--Gary Nelson, Emilio (Papo) Aglesias and Robin Marcketti--along with tab writer Kathleen Burtch work in the open-air booth that often shakes when the wind blows.
The clockers overlook the track, and Burtch sits in a back corner where she records on a yellow legal pad the numerous times that are sporadically shouted by her three co-workers.
She also writes the numbers that clocker John Fontaine yells through the intercom on the small table in front of her. Fontaine works across the track in a blue shack surrounded by trees. It's located trackside, which allows him to communicate directly with horsemen. A lot of them approach the window after being timed.
"How'd I do John?" asked a man in gray jeans and a red shirt as he pulled the reins of the restless thoroughbred beneath him.
"Hey Papo!" Fontaine screamed into the mouthpiece of his headphone while chomping gum, "what ya give him?"
After informing the exercise boy of his thoroughbred's performance, Fontaine asked him for names of other horses from his stable that worked out. Things get so hectic that often clockers don't have time to get a horse's name after it's timed.
They always follow the horse to the wire, but sometimes can't name it since their view is frequently distorted. Also, they each time about 160 horses a day, making it difficult to keep track of names.
When that happens, clockers record the horse's performance and give a physical description to facilitate getting the name at the end of the day.
"This is much more complex than the average person thinks," Marcketti said while puffing on a cigarette during a short break. "It really gets hectic up here. Very hectic."
The thoroughbreds are differentiated primarily by saddle flags, but often more than one uses the same color flag and many don't keep the same color throughout the season. That's why each clocker has a notebook with individual characteristics written down that help identify the different horses.
Unfortunately, even that's useless during the two busiest periods--after the track is renovated with tractors--when each clocker times about 40 horses in a 25-minute span, making for a boisterous atmosphere.
"The main part of this job," said Nelson, the head clocker, "is getting to know stables by saddles. When a new horse comes in I always go and check it out and see if it has any marks. Some have no marks, though. In that case we have to distinguish it as dark bay, light bay, small, big, wide etc."
Despite marks and flag colors, however, getting to know the 2,008 horses that reside at Hollywood Park can be a difficult task, especially when they have names like Miss Pilgrim Pride, Nu Myoozik and Mon Legionnaire.
That's why clockers appreciate top-notch, veteran trainers. Most of them notify the booth or Fontaine before their horse takes off for time.
During a workout Tuesday morning, D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of 11 national champions and last year's Kentucky Derby winner, phoned trackside from his blue Mercedes-Benz to spell his thoroughbred's name and later get its time.
"That was Lukas," Nelson said after hanging up the phone next to him. "He's great. Some of the smaller guys don't call and let us know so they keep us guessing. Lukas always calls."
The trainer, said to be one of the nation's best, is impressed with what clockers do and says they're an essential part of workouts.