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Graveyard of champions (and handicappers)

The wagering hall was crowded for the Woodward States at Saratoga, where champions go to lose. That's because there are so many champions up there running.

I sat between two men, one of whom had turned his Form into something resembling color-coded study notes for a SAT exam. The other man was working a computer, calling up some power ratings based on the usual input.

The man working the colors had two sets of red, yellow and green markers on the desk.

Some underlining had been done in black ink.

A late scratch would be somewhat distressing after all that artwork.

According to both handicappers, each of whom had spent more than three hours on the Form the night before, and the morning of, the key to the race was in hooking, for exotic bets, the correct set of horses under the low-priced animals that figured to win.

I spent all of five minutes looking at the numbers for the Woodward Stakes and felt over-extended at that. Nothing computed. It was as though the facts and figures led up to a big equals sign, and beyond that, a question mark. Any horse gave the impression of being able to finish anywhere. Sober horses and trainers can do that a race.

By race time, the color-coded Form had been marked so much, red ink had bled through the paper and onto the desk counter. The handicapper with the computer had made almost a legal-sized sheet of paper full of notes.

Each handicapper said he had made bets on the race amounting to hundreds of dollars -- one man shrugged when I asked more than three hundred?

Betting lines were long. The horses looked beautiful on the track. It was like watching best of show competition on the way to the gate.

The race, exciting in its own right, seemed exceptionally thrilling because of the hopeful noise generated by the large crowd in the simulcast building. Race fans are just great at being at their loudest as the horses pay off -- the words turn to cheering and the cheering becomes screaming, the decimals rising to peak velocity as the winner hits the finish, then whoosh! -- it's as though all the racket had been sucked out through a hole in the roof.

In this instance, everybody looked at one another as if to say: What the ..?

The winner paid $64, the next one $19.

When the Exacta was announced, the lights seemed to flicker.

The man with the colored pens slowly put the caps on his felt tips. The handicapper on the other side turned off his computer.

If anybody in the crowd so much as came close, they weren't saying.

I was about the only who didn't seem surprised.

"You had that?" somebody asked.

I said of course not. I hadn't bet the race because nothing that could have happened would have surprised me. My understanding expression had come from confusion over the race, skillfully accepted.

Not that long afterward, we got down to my kind of racing, a $5,000 claiming race for non-winners of two at a track on the outskirts of nowhere.

After the handsome crowd for the fancy race had cleared out, there were eight gamblers left in non-smoking.

Situations like this beg the question: Why bet a tough stakes race instead of a cheap claiming race?

It's as though winning handicappers have to pay a low-rent tax after hitting a 10-1 shot in a $5,000 claiming race. It's though hitting a stakes race makes you sleep better.

Many people think cheap claiming races are run roughshod over unruly surfaces, featuring pot-bellied trainers and old horses.

So?

I am frequently asked why I love playing small and middle-sized tracks.

Here's why.

Twenty-to-one shots are easier to find.

How can that be?

There's so much more trouble out here once you know where to look.