Plaids and Stripes

By John Angelo

My greatest fear as a public handicapper is that I'll become my worst version of myself. I'll give up fashion altogether and spend my days alternately swearing at and giving benediction to racetrack monitors. When asked an opinion, I'll defer to a number arrived at through calculated study of paths off the rail, chefs-de-race, and inside information, the kind of information that is so inside that everybody outside would be afraid to ever set foot inside my racetrack office.

"I urge the reader to flee for his life from any handicapper who professes to employ science in picking horses," Tom Ainslie wrote in The Compleat Horseplayer in 1966. And yet the serious speed at racetracks at the moment is the race for processed information on which to stake an opinion. Even the casual horseplayer is expected to be familiar with Beyer Speed Figures, Tomlinson numbers, and the Ragozin and Thoro-Graph sheets or he's considered fairer game than Macho Uno's name in the claiming box.

I would never stoop to pure science. I'm a craner, a trip handicapper, and just as foolishly smug in my pseudo-artistic bias. I rubbernecked my way through about 350 replays from Belmont Park, Churchill Downs, Monmouth Park, and Saratoga 1980-1999 (in perpetual cerebral file) in the Saratoga press box last summer. Take that, you cyber-cipherers.

My two years working on chart crews for The Racing Times and Daily Racing Form were a mere tuneup. For added ammunition I pored over result charts all winter looking for trainer angles. Right there, what are ya' lookin? A Dale Romans runner named One Call Close who pulled a Dayjur in tight quarters on the rail into the turn at The Downs? No buckjump today first start at the Spa at 8-1! (He thought about going airborne a few weeks later while running inside in a sprint race on Travers Day. Therein lies the rub for both fig and trip handicappers: How do you quantify the speculations of a Thoroughbred in motion?)

Handicapping remains an art, though even I am often tempted to sneak a peek at the numbers in order to find the right color. I'll never forget a 1992 spring afternoon at Rockingham Park when the rain blew sideways and eluded the hoods on the exposed video cameras. Calling the races through an open window was out of the question though trying to create charts from a watery blend of color and movement available through the replays was like helping Van Gogh mix his palette in the mistral at Arles.

I keep impeccable financial records lest I find myself bragging too much or not enough at the end of a meet. The good news is I once again beat the races for six weeks. The bad news is that had I spent eight hours a day patrolling Union Avenue for nickel deposits, I would have finished a furlong further ahead in the black. Time to revise the goal of getting rich at the races.

Meeting the public for this public handicapper is always dicey. Both the past and the future are fair game. The two general lines of inquiry are "What sure thing do you have today?" and "How come that horse you liked last week lost?" (Any discussion of past winners is invariably limited to the phrase "Didn't pay enough," and with its utterance always goes my last best chance to be famous long ago.) What ever happened to "the glorious uncertainty of the Turf?"

All will be forgiven by the Kentucky Derby, and handicapping will be a pleasurable challenge again. We start in the spring with the innocence of knowing that Ferdinand and Shoemaker could never plan on the hole on the rail or that Bailey and Sea Hero were right here right now. It's also the one race I talk about with the special education class I work with at a local public high school. I consciously never discuss Beyer Speed Figs or six-wide into the stretch on good to firm turf with them. It's so much less important than the Twin Spires, the length of Secretariat's stride, and the epitaph on Isaac Murphy's grave: "Act well your part, There all the honor lies."

Yes, horses can be analyzed, but their essence is one of unpredictability, closer to The Cranberries' "You Mystify Me" than to The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again." Here's that sure thing and I'm glad I'm still able to recognize it: Don't mix plaids and stripes.

JOHN ANGELO is the racing writer and handicapper for The Glens Falls (N.Y.) Post-Star. He also works as an educational assistant in a public high school.