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Betting the Bangtails


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A difference of opinion,” said Will Rogers, “is what makes horse racing and missionaries.” With faith, hope and apostolic fervor, race fans will flock to the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club this month for its 61st summer season (July 26 through September 13).

For 43 days, turnstiles at the fabled North County course will positively spin, herding in a range of patrons from big-time bettors to two-dollar dilettantes. But bankrolls notwithstanding, they’ll all have dreams of winning, and different opinions on how to do it.

Enter (at a gallop) the art and science of handicapping. How does one predict a winner before placing a bet? Read tea leaves or tout sheets? Ouija board, heartfelt hunch or expert analysis? What should a bewildered wagerer do to acquire advice straight from the horse’s mouth?

“Spend 35 cents and get my column,” says longtime San Diego Union-Tribune handicapper Bob Ike, with a chuckle. According to Ike, whose turf coverage takes in the Southern California racing circuit (including Hollywood Park and Santa Anita), there are plenty of ways to plot your parlays.

For cybercappers into sophisticated statistics-crunching, there are Web sites and databases bulging with downloadable dope. Useful publications include the venerable—though intricate—Thoroughbred bible, the Daily Racing Form; and the slightly less cryptic Today’s Racing Digest. But poring over past-performance charts, speed figures and other equine arcana can detract from the track’s inherent pageantry, suggests Ike, who spent childhood summers at the Del Mar oval with his family.

“The whole process of reading and interpreting the Form is really an intellectual endeavor,” he says. “I always liked the running of the race, and I think the horses are majestic animals. The thrill of competition was really what hooked me on it all.” The 37-year-old handicapper admits to a bit of early-bird wagering: “I was splitting $2 show bets with a friend by the time we were in fourth grade.”

Ike adds that it does behoove grown-up gamblers to study the sport. He estimates that, overall, “only about 5 percent of people going to horse races are making money. It’s definitely about doing your homework.”

But what of sudden inspiration, shots-in-the-dark and those nagging voices in your head urging you to plop a bundle on some galumphing dromedary? Try to base those stabs on observable track trends and patterns, advises the veteran horseman. In short, mix hard data with your sixth sense. “Gut feelings, intuition and educated guesses are all part of it,” allows Ike.

Syndicated newspaper handicapper Jeff Siegel believes a successful horseplayer should “know what’s reality. It’s no different than handicapping football, in the sense that you take in a lot of data, sort it out in your mind and try to figure out who’s most likely to win.”

But there are myriad angles to the sport of kings. Short race or long? On turf or dirt? A contest for 2-year-olds, Siegel notes, is handicapped differently than one for older horses. And who’s in the irons? A proven winner like Laffit Pincay Jr., or some befuddled bug boy who was mucking out stables two hours ago? The trainer-jockey relationship should also be factored in. And does the noble steed prefer a dry track or love scooting through the slop? Consider drugs. (Not for yourself, silly.) Is MedsaPlenty juiced on cortisone or pain-killing Butazolidin?

Bear in mind that a horse is a horse, of course. “These are not ostriches out there,” Siegel points out. “Horses do have their quirks and their own personalities, and you have to get a feel for how they’ll run under what circumstances.”

It is possible to get a better feel for those bangtails by visiting the paddock prior to the races. Does your horse look robust and ready to run? Is there a healthy sheen to its coat? Sure, you’re no vet, but you can tell a sore, gimpy gait from a lively little trot. If your pick is lathered up like the Denorex mare, she may have run herself so soggy in the morning workout that there’s precious little giddy-up left for the upcoming race.
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