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The Grab Bag Art of Horse Betting

August 13, 1992|BRIAN ALEXANDER

"I got the horse right here!" --Gambler Nicely Nicely in "Guys and Dolls" The next time a guy says the horse can do , think hard before you slap your two dollars in front of the betting window, because there's a good chance the horse should be canned .

The fact is, horse racing produces four sure money winners: the track, the state, the jockeys and the owners. Gamblers take their chances. Even the experts agree that finding a winner in any given race is usually more a a matter of luck than skill.

Even so, every track goer--from grizzled veterans to first time wagerers who think a daily double is a big cheeseburger--has a system they are sure can pick the winners.

The commercials run by the Del Mar track promote one sure-shot way: inside information from the horse. One recent Saturday, I was among the more than 20,000 people crammed into the Del Mar Race Track clutching my dollars, sure I had a way of picking the winners from the nags. I had taken to heart the commercials run by Del Mar depicting the horse looking one right in the eye saying, "Bet on me."

It actually happened. Downright Dusty did just that. He and I had a meeting of the minds, a union between horse and human. It was a special bond. Dusty was my pal.

Dusty lied.

So much for getting it straight from the horse's mouth. Beginners who are a little more serious about betting often hoof it over to Del Mar's Seaside Terrace where, at 12:30 every weekend afternoon, track employee and horse handicapper John Hernandez hosts a free handicapping seminar.

"This is my lucky bench," said a tiny middle aged woman who sat in the front of the audience. She carried pages ripped out of the newspaper and a copy of the Racing Form, the bible of the track. While long-time horsemen may not put much faith in lucky benches, anything can help in a pinch.

Hernandez opened the seminar by introducing a guest expert, turf writer Jay Posner.

In the first race of the day, Hernandez and Posner picked Keen Line, who did indeed go on to win.

"The distance is right and he'll be running without blinkers today," Posner said.

The would-be gamblers took notes.

In the second, Black Jack Attack was the pick. Stay away from Let's Go Flying, they said.

By now, it was becoming obvious that rotisserie baseball fanatics have nothing on horse players in their love for statistics. Both men advised the novice handicappers to track how each horse performed when the trainer tried a new technique. The horse's past workouts could be important, especially if the horse is young. Knowing the results of past races could be critical, as is knowing when a horse is moving up or down in class. (Moving up in class from, say, a $10,000 claiming race to a $20,000 claiming race, means the horse is "on the raise." That's good.)

One man in the audience listened intently and stared at a booklet filled with pages on which results for each horse had been plotted into line graphs by computer. Data from the last two years can be important, Hernandez said.

Here are the horses Hernandez and Posner picked to win in the final seven of the day's nine races: Nijinsky's Grandson, Madame L'Enjoluer, C. Sam Maggio, Porgy, Gervazy, Indian Chris and Calm Seas.

Here are the horses that won, including the second race in which they had picked Black Jack Attack and advised against Let's Go Flying: Let's Go Flying, Red X, Gentle Approach, Gum, Prince of Honey, Asia, Super Staff, Mobile Phone.

Two experts had gotten together and picked one winner out of nine races.

In fairness, other experts didn't do much better. On this day, one newspaper handicapper picked two winners; another picked three. The Duece Bruce tip sheet, a list of probable winners sold outside the Del Mar gate, picked one winner. The venerable Baedeker's tip sheet picked two winners.

Those results, it seems, are not at all unusual.

According to Bob Baedeker, whose father started the tip sheet in 1943, his sheet "is the best in the game" and the special research methods that go into the sheet's selections are legendary. Still, he said, tapping three winners is a very good day. Four winners is great.

Where does that leave the average race fan who goes to the track just a few times each season?

Baedeker advises novices to buy a Del Mar program for a dollar, and look at the statistics on trainer and jockey success. Betting on a horse trained by successful trainers and ridden by top jockeys is good way for the uninitiated to get going, he said.

That may sound good, but, it seems, many others have alternate styles. In the clubhouse box seats, where owners and trainers sit, one might expect to find the true secrets of betting on horses. Maybe not.

"Take the free seminar the track offers," suggested a former owner who has been in the horse racing game for 40 years. "When I handicap a race, I try to find a horse on the raise, and horses that are sound, not sore or hurting," he said.

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