<
>

Thank heavens

A few of us were sitting around the past performances the other day, reflecting upon the pleasantries of the season.

Hallmark cards and TV advertisers keep us posted on the tenderness and general blessings of the holidays, starting with Thanksgiving.

Sometimes horseplayers have specific needs.

Here are 10 things for which horseplayers are particularly thankful.

1. Understanding spouses, partners or important others. Nobody makes excuses like horseplayers. Have to work late. Have to work early. After a period of time, any relationship with a horseplayer comes down to negotiation. Losing can be a part-time frivolity. But winning is like another job. It requires study, lab work, hour upon hour of observation and concentration. A friend of mine gives his wife half of what he wins, a quarter of what he loses. It's like a recreational tax. Another has worked out a time trade-off: four hours of racing for four hours of whatever you say, and this year alone has almost hand-built a spare room on the house.

2. Bad pickers. I am particularly thankful for TV pickers who never learn. They're pleased to announce that they hit a big one five years ago. Two or three more of those and they'll be even. Hitting a big ticket requires equal parts luck and skill. But the lucky part is quickly discarded. Suddenly they think they're smart and are soon eaten alive by the obvious. There's little more helpful than a public picker on a bad streak. Let somebody else do the bad handicapping. You study what's left.

3. Karma. Karma at the horse races is superstition unrequited. It's superstition unobserved. Karma is obvious at the horse races. It's almost tangible. It's what happens to people behaving badly. Karma is the great equalizer. It's the hammer. Withhold some valuable information, cheat somebody out of some money, display bad manners, you'll get yours. And we'll be observing from a safe place.

4. Good writers. Sports have always been a haven for a creative use of words. That's because all games are so emotional. Games and tragedy evoke the best of writers. Internet writing has diluted the genre somewhat. That's because time has become the essence, not always thought. Be first, forget best. Sportswriting today is most often about scoops. Blog it. Post it. Splash it. Who was arrested this time? Horse race writing remains different. Better. More thoughtful. Pace makes the grace.

5. Characters. Most characters have been hustled off to rehab and now sit quietly in the corner, apologizing and watching reality TV. It is thought in some circles that rehab dulls the creative spirit. Characters and alcohol have long been associated. Many of the characters who remain unchained can be found at the horse races, having a beer and explaining how he or she just got cheated out of five hundred bucks by a crooked trainer. Those characters still around must be appreciated and enjoyed.

6. Imagination. Bookmakers can tell what a regular client is about to bet and sometimes shave a line half a point against the player. Conservative people play favorites. Personalities often dictate investments. A vivid imagination is essential in handicapping horse races. You must be able to envision the near impossible, a 30-1 shot rocketing from the gate and leading all the way around, and you with an "All" ticket below the winner. Before handicapping a race, believe that almost anything can happen.

7. Luck. When your horse gets through on the rail and wins a triple photo finish by an inch, there's the tendency to think that your superior handicapping skills brought you the winner. That's why you almost always lose the next race after a big victory. You think you're a genius. Even a 10-length win usually involves pure luck at the break, at the first turn, inside the jockey's skull, somewhere. Giving pure luck its due in a big victory is a money saver.

8. Health. Once at the World Series of Handicapping at Penn National, a tournament player collapsed in line. It was near post time of a crucial race. Somebody took the guy's pulse. It was relatively normal. Somebody else said he had probably only fainted under the pressure of the event. So a few horseplayers stepped over the guy and placed their bets, then returned to give him compassionate care, first scooting him out of the line so others could get to the window. Given the stress and pressure of a horse race betting environment, and the seniors present, it is amazing how few health issues arise at the track. Perhaps there is a connection between intense concentration and halfway decent health.

9. Phraseology. Banks and credit card watch every charge you make. If you live in the heartland and ring up a two-grand home entertainment center charge in Singapore, some kid from the bank is apt to ring up your home number to see who did what. Sometimes discretion is welcome. On some of the online horse race wagering sites, money deposited into an account is listed under a somewhat dubious company line. For example, a $200 line item cash deposit for wagering might be listed as having gone to Esoteric Technologies --not to a betting window.

10. There's always another race in 10 minutes.