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Horse Racing at Saratoga

Two Professional Bettors Take Their Handicapping Expertise and Wallets to Saratoga
Brad Thomas
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

New York's thoroughbred racing industry has always regarded the midsummer meeting at Saratoga Springs as its fountain of youth. Traditionally the best and brightest potential stars among juvenile horses are revealed then in rich events.

The green summer splendor of upstate New York only adds to the aura of grace and tradition. Saratoga's streets are lined with magnificent, old oak trees that guard row after row of Victorian-style houses. The quaint downtown district is ringed by red-brick buildings and is the former home to a casino. The area vibrates with the activity of an appreciative crowd. City dwellers from metropolitan New York and around the world visit this charming, small town and are rewarded with an invigorating relief from claustrophobia, graffiti and daily rush hours.

Sitting in the green, wooden grandstand at the Saratoga race track for one of the great stakes races such as the Travers or the Whitney, you can almost forget the decline of modern thoroughbred racing. Women wear cotton dresses and fine hats, as a reminder of glory days gone by. Yet for most of the 11 months of racing at Aqueduct and Belmont near New York City, there is little romance and history. Except on a handful of showcase days, the competition at these facilities is presented as fast-food gambling for a few hundred professional horseplayers and several thousand other bettors. The quality of the sport at Aqueduct and Belmont is decrepit, the atmosphere is somnambulistic and business is generally lousy.

In the past two years, the decline and decay of downstate racing has begun to overwhelm racing's consumers--the fans and the bettors. Professionals, like myself, are increasingly unable to grind out a reasonable living, and casual fans do not find the sport compelling. Saratoga's importance as an elixir for the racing industry's dwindling customers is even greater than in the past. As a result, the pressure on the track to produce its summer magic this year was acute.

With some trepidation, the pros headed north in August to try their hand and skill at the track. While there were dozens of races to explore and handicap, I've chosen two days at the track to illustrate how hard it has become to eke out a living wage.

Saratoga Springs

August 4

My partner, Marc Siegelaub, studied filmmaking at New York University. I am a lifelong student of military history. We offer advice on buying horses to others and bet on races for ourselves. We are most successful when our different approaches to handicapping (evaluating races) lead to the same conclusion. Marc watches race replays dozens of times hoping to spot the subtle or multiple movements that indicate an equine athlete approaching top condition. Most bettors wager on short-priced favorites who have already reached their peaks and are actually more likely to tail off than to win. Professionals attempt to anticipate, rather than react to, explosive performances while being rewarded for the risk taken by high odds and large potential returns.

I analyze races from a tactical standpoint and look for horses who figure to gain advantage by the way events should unfold. Detailed knowledge of horses' abilities and jockeys' styles gives serious players a reasonable chance of predicting who will get the best position in a race. Since many events are contests among relative equals, the issue is often decided by each trip down the track rather than overall ability.

On this day, we liked a grass race entrant named Glorious Purple. Marc felt that the traffic trouble she got into in her last start was far worse than indicated in the Daily Racing Form and track program. He was also confident that the smooth-moving and lightly raced filly would improve with experience. I believed that her rail post position and tractable running style would put her in a prime spot to pounce on a suspect pacesetter in the stretch. I also viewed Glorious Purple's father, Lord Gaylord, as a greatly underrated sire of turf runners.

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