Our game today

A day at the races, Saturday, February 12, 2011.

After ten days of snow and ice, and after trying to clear the streets with what appeared to be large butter knives hooked to the fronts of trucks, the simulcast venue was packed. Most seats in the large facility were occupied, most of the betting windows were open, and the suckers, feeling weird about having money on hand due to the blizzard, were betting from both front pockets.

Today at the races is a strange place, all right. Hardly anybody goes to the live races except as a holiday venture to a spa or scenic setting like Oaklawn Park, Del Mar, Saratoga, Kentucky, or perhaps Florida, though, concerning the latter, once you've seen the sticky flats, you've pretty much seen them all. The state of the horse race business? Only the dumb go bust. Stick in some slot machines and call the accountants. It is thought by some that slots can carry the bulk of the horse race industry only so long. Yes, well, tell it to the people cashing their government checks at the slot machine while receiving a complimentary beverage and warm smile. Tell it to the small tracks running $30,000 allowance races featuring unknown breeding.

Another reason today at the horse races is a fascinating place to be is the average age of the attendee. After the last race at Aqueduct, you expect somebody with a megaphone to say: "Attention. Attention. The bus to Meadow Manor is loading at the back door. And listen, people, don't forget your billfolds."

Today at the horse races, the simulcast joint is full of mostly older men. It's not like a dog track in Miami where they rise before the third race to play the sixth race. An older clientele is not the negative it once was. Older just got older. And there will always be older people. What's a retired gentleman to do with his time and savings? Get out of the house, that's what. The industry has long wondered how best to lure younger people to the horse races. The natural glamour of Triple Crown and Breeder's Cup and other big-time or big-scenery races will interest some in their twenties. The young gamblers are playing cards. Get them a treadmill. Keep them alive. We'll see them when they're told by their doctors to slow down. Who would make the best spokesperson for a Saturday afternoon at the simulcast hall, Rickles? It's a little like going to the opera, but you get used to it. And manners improve with age.

Most of the players at my simulcast facility are playing Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.

It's pretty funny how regionally biased horse racing can be. Poke fun at one of those patented six-horse New York fields that flips up a 110 Beyer Lite and watch the eastern writers take to the archives, some ways back.

The only thing more difficult to handicap than a spring thoroughbred meet would be something like a $10 slot machine. The average early season race looks something like this. Horses with long layoffs come from eight different tracks and use seven new jockeys. Obviously, huge pre-spring prices are commonplace, as the cheap and cheesy frequently outrun the classy, current form being the equalizer.

Chief among the stories observed during this day at the races is just how awful so many horse players are at handicapping.

It used to be thought that ten percent of the people at the races won the money, with most of them getting out barely ahead; five percent is probably more like it anymore.

Why are horse players so bad? Besides it being early in the year?

Speed is too often ignored. Cheap quitting speed is an ugly sight, until it carries at 50-1 against nine who need a couple or three.

Too many races are played. The man to my right had three Forms and four programs.

Too much advice is taken. As the creative writing teacher said, it's much easier to teach than it is to write. And it's easier to make money picking than it is to wager.

The horse players on this day at the races were not without certain skills. With most of them leaving in extraordinary good moods, they seemed to have mastered the strategy of betting only what they can afford to lose.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.