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Artificial star power

People sometimes wonder what it's like to be a horse race writer on a national scale.

Here's exactly what it's like.

The biggest story in horse racing at the moment, and for the rest of the year leading up and through the Breeders' Cup in California is, and will be, the artificial racing surface, and its influence on the face of the sport and the face of the handicapper, as well. When confronted with fake dirt, the face of the average handicapper says: What the? Important artificial dirt numbers beyond speed ratings will include statistics on injuries and their types, and breakdowns, compared to natural surface causes. As a world goes green for better health, some horse racing venues are trying a paler shade of artificial brown. From a handicapping perspective, rubberized racing surfaces seem to influence running styles and outcomes about as much as a monsoon. Some football teams are built to play on manufactured home fields. So too does there appear to be a home welcome mat advantage for certain horses, a variety of which I have yet to spot with consistency. Some factory surfaces seem so specific to a running style, great dirt horses are prone to run around the material, to dodge the tracks with it, completely. I will not say that I am the worst artificial surface handicapper in the world. In the bottom one percent of the worse fake dirt players? I wouldn't be surprised.

As a national horse race writer, it is my responsibility to get better at artificial surface handicapping, or at least understand why I am so terrible.

So I set aside some time to study the relatively new racing surface, results and trends to date, and live racing as well, going to the simulcast facility nearest my house to analyze the current Del Mar meet.

There was nobody at the desk out front.

A sign said: Programs at IRS window.

There were two tellers in the non-smoking side of this large facility, two young women, one of whom seemed to be flirting with a man who smelled like a honky-tonk at closing time.

"There are no Del Mar or Penn National programs anywhere to be found," I said.

"It's not my job," said the teller wishing for a tip from the man who had been drinking.

"Whose job is it?" I asked.

"I love you, man," the man who had been drinking said, recognizing me and lurching in my direction.

"Do you have a Del Mar or a Penn National program?" I asked him.

He said he had a few bucks, that was about it.

I called out loudly to inquire of any employee, security guard, or drunken customer, what a person had to do to get a lousy program around here; there was no response.

It was ten minutes to the post at Penn National. Penn National is where the experienced horse player goes for an evening stake. With the opening of the Hollywood Casino at the track outside Harrisburg, Pa., Penn National has become more inviting than ever when it comes to collecting. If you won't tell too many people, I'll let you in on how to hit some big Doubles there. The Hollywood Casino has helped to increase purses, attracting more horses from the likes of Philadelphia Park, horses that show little form and go off at 20-1 and routinely defeat local chalk in cheap claiming races.

Playing bad Philadelphia form over decent local form Harrisburg form can be rewarding.

There was a 35-1 horse from Philadelphia in the first race at Penn National on this occasion. It was coming off a string of lovely sevenths and eighths and looked as good if not better than the odds-on favorite from a local mom and pop-type operation. So with a drunken man and an irate teller following my every move, and with numerous scratches on the Penn National early Double card, I went into the garbage in search of a program.

The garbage container was large and lined with plastic.

At five minutes to the post, I leaned over at the waist and dipped to the bottom of the trash container with my hands and arms and brought out a bunch of nasty stuff, the worst of it being chewing tobacco in a French fry container. The best of it was beer-stained. I found one Del Mar/Penn National program with catsup all over the cover and shook it off while racing to a betting machine, as the man who had been drinking had gone back to trying to get over with a teller.

I put $60 into the betting machine and pushed Penn National numbers with the first finger on my right hand. The betting machine didn't work. I began slugging it with the heel of first one hand and then the other.

A man behind me laughed and said that machine hadn't worked in months!

I threw back my head and cried out for technical help, should there be anybody with a modicum of mechanical expertise within a half mile radius of this place.

The race at Penn National went off and the 35-1 horse from Philadelphia shot ran an easy second. The Exacta with another out-of-towner was around $100; the local 4-5 favorite should be finishing just about now.

Somebody said that had I not been a national horse race writer, I could have been expelled from the grounds for unbecoming behavior.

As for racing industry perks, television is probably the way to go.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.