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Picking the big-time a whole new game

Here is an electric example of several things we've studied over the summer term. It shows that something else about the horse racing game that has changed recently: the player.

It has to do with a horse race.

It was a typical high-dollar horse race that attracts the ESPN equipment and commentary, a stakes race from Del Mar, where conditions are frequently favorable for a ten-horse photo for the win.

It has long been my contention that the five warning signs of problem horse race gambling are:
1. Can't get ahead.
2. Can't quit ahead.
3. Plays too many tracks at once.
4. Drinks too much.
5. Routinely plays stakes races at all the best tracks.

Most top-of -the-line stakes races have one of everything that could win the race: speed, a stalker, a stalker of the stalker, ground-savers, tactical wonders and closers, most of which are well bred and fit. Great races take from a sticks-track player this very important handicapping tool: an eye for bums.

Talking about horse racing most often drifts to theory. Handicapping theory is basically hindsight. Many handicappers I know can tab the winner of the replay. What pays off is when a horse player understands a race beforehand.

The race to which I refer in this piece was the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. It had all the essentials of a big-time showcase, speed, breeding, fast finishers, the Hank Goldberg pick.

Hank Goldberg picks most of what moves for ESPN, and, this summer, a lot of what didn't. You have to hand it to him in one respect: While other handicappers are hiding with their teeth chattering behind a palm tree, Hank Goldberg will step up to the plate and take three hearty swings at a Trifecta; attention, will a trainer please report to the broadcast booth. Getting paid to pick horses on television would have to take the sting out of any losing streak at the windows. The handicappers on these national shows need to make their picks with a little more time remaining before the post. What do they think we do with their selections, set them to music?

No. We either bet on them or we bet around them.

Concerning the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, where the serfs meet the turf (if you don't book a room well in advance), Hank Goldberg came on the air and said that he like the Exacta of Borrego and Lava Man. Borrego was a fat price, double-figure odds to one. The person in the chair nest to me at the simulcast hall came to attention. He said that he had been following Hammerin' Hank Goldberg's picks, some of which had been more like thumbtacks carrying a donkey's tail than blows struck for financial independence. The TV handicapper's confident tone after a slew of tickets that wound up in the IRS cigar box, well, it could have meant that something special was about to happen. The man in the next chair ran to bet the Exacta of Borrego and Lava Man.

The race was run almost exactly as Hank Goldberg had predicted. Borrego came late down the middle of the track to pay a valuable $24.40 on the win. Lava Man ran his guts out on the lead only to have the track surface, or the competition, or both, relegate him to a close-up third place, a heartbreaking third if you had him second on a ticket.

Somehow, big wins are no longer enough anywhere in this society of ours. Won $200 at the casino? Better luck next time.

The person in the next seat had neglected to bet Borrego to win, playing only the exotics.

The first rule of horse race handicapping is: If you're right, you must collect.

If picking a winner won't help, you're in the wrong game.