Hey race rookies - check the fine print

May 19, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Seven-horse messed me up in the second race at Pimlico yesterday. Seven-horse hadn't hit the boards (hadn't finished in the money) in two years. Two years! In fact, Archers Bow - that's the name of this Canadian-bred - had prompted these kinds of remarks in the chart commentary of his various races: "weakened," "gave way," "no threat," "empty."

He hadn't run a race of yesterday's length - a mile and a sixteenth - since November, and when he did, the horse "flattened out."

So, based on this, I invested nothing in Archers Bow, despite the fact that the morning line had him at 3-to-1 and his rider was Erick Rodriguez, which is a name that always catches my eye because it is the Spanish version of the Portuguese name, Rodriques, that was my father's when he was born on Madeira Island. And that's the kind of thing I look for when I handicap a race.

To me, the name of the jockey or the name of the horse means almost as much as his past performance.

What can I tell you?

I'm like a lot of schlemiels who go to the track, and like a lot of the interlopers headed there today for the Black-Eyed Susan and tomorrow for the Preakness. I read the papers and the program, listen to the track commentator, lower the reading glasses on my nose, scowl at the odds and act as if I know what I'm doing. It's part of the fun.

Not only am I an amateur handicapper, but I am a lapsed amateur handicapper. I am rusty.

If you don't go to church, you forget the harder prayers. If you don't go to the track, you forget the golden rules: Only bring money you can afford to lose, leave the ATM card at home, and watch out for horses wearing blinkers for the first time. (Blinkers limit a horse's vision to keep him from seeing things on either side and keep him focused on the path ahead.)

Track scholars such as Dave Woods, Phil Heisler, Joe Challmes, Ross Peddicord, Steve Proctor and an array of railbirds and writers taught me what I know. One of them told me to pay attention to blinkers being used - or not used - for the first time.

It occurred to me yesterday that, just as these men (and my pony-betting Auntie Grace) inspired me to enter the world of thoroughbred racing, I should be passing along what I know - or at least, what I appreciate - to the next generation.

This subject came up as we sat in the sunshine at the track yesterday. A woman seated near me remarked about Pimlico's poor daily attendance, an oft-heard comment. I suggested there was a lack of appreciation of racing among the children and grandchildren of the baby boom. They might love the Preakness and worship it as Baltimore's biggest party, but where are they the rest of the year?

We have not taught our children that it's OK to go to the track and blow some green.

"We've failed," the woman said, laughing.

Funny, but probably true. We should not be training kids to become degenerate gamblers, but we can at least present them with the pleasures of an occasional visit to Old Hilltop.

They need to be out there, among their elders, close enough to smell the liniment and cigar smoke. They need to see and hear, firsthand, the agony and the ecstasy of the bettor's life. ("Hon," I overheard an elderly woman say yesterday, "I could paper a house with them losing tickets. I could paper the Trump Tower.") They need to see real live horses rumbling toward the finish line.

Yesterday, there was a field trip of students from Oldfields, the girls' school in Baltimore County, and this week there were similar visits from students of Bryn Mawr School and Garrison Forest. The track has been conducting daily tours, from 6 to 9 a.m., and hundreds of people, including many teenagers, have turned out for them.

This is a good thing. Children who grow up in Maryland should know how to pick a crab, how to catch a shad, how to cradle a lacrosse ball, how to make a flower urn out of a tire, how to paint swans on a window screen and how to handicap a race at Pimlico.

We should have a statewide effort to educate our kids on the importance of the Maryland horse racing industry, and there should be no child left behind.

And now back to the second race:

I boxed the 3-1 Exacta, a wager on the first and second finishers, for $4. (If the finish were 3-1 or 1-3, I'd be in the money.) I considered this a modest but good bet. The crowd had Cloud Chief, the No. 1 horse, at somewhere around 15-1. I like to take such a horse for an Exacta. Most of Cloud Chief's races had been a mile or more, and I didn't see that kind of distance anywhere else in the field (except for maybe Archers Bow last November). The No. 3 horse was Tip City, the favorite.

What happened?

The finish was 3-7-1. Seven-horse, Archers Bow, messed me up. I realized, when it was too late, that there had been an equipment change. "Archers Bow will race with blinkers on," the fine print in the Pimlico program stated. I hadn't brought my Sun to the track with me. "Archers Bow adds blinks," it said.

And let that be a lesson to ya.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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