By Jude “Pontiff of the Pick Four” Feld
Last week I was lucky enough to spend a few days at Oaklawn Park and broadcast the Rebel Stakes (G2). It is a beautiful little track, dotted with Bradford pear trees and redbuds and blessed with some of the nicest customer service people on the planet.
The Arkansas fans are loyal to Oaklawn and loyal to their hometown trainers and jockeys. They really enjoy the game and will talk your ear off about it if given the chance. Many of them know one another personally, as almost everyone has, “been comin’ to Oaklawn for years.”
Despite all this charm, I have never bet Oaklawn on a regular basis. My last trip there was in 1983, when I went to saddle Pewter Grey for the Razorback Stakes. Most of my life I have lived on the West Coast and the rest in the Eastern time zone. Central time zone tracks never seem to fit into my busy schedule.
I’m always careful when I go to a track I don’t follow. I love handicapping and I love horseplaying, but it is best when you are at a strange track to temper your enthusiasm for wagering, or at least your wagers, until you get a feel for the place.
Take less money. Remember, you are out of your element. If you were at your home track, you wouldn’t plunk down lots of cash on a first-time starter from an obscure barn, being ridden by a jock you’ve never heard of. If you don’t regularly play the track you are visiting, every bet is just like that. If you bet $200 a day at home, take $100 and be most careful on the first day of your trip.
Watch a few races. My Uncle Earl was not the racing aficionado that my father was, but he would often accompany my dad to the track. An engineer for IBM and very analytical by nature, he never made a bet until at least the fourth race. He liked to see how the track was playing, how the jocks were riding and just get an overall view of what was going on before he ventured to the windows. This is good advice on a racing vacation.
If you must bet, keep the wagers small and analyze the results of your handicapping. Most importantly, check for a track bias. The three days I was at Oaklawn proved to me that closers are at a distinct disadvantage and horses that make the lead into the stretch get home on top most of the time, especially in races using the first finish line.
Read the “Standings” page in your program. The leading trainers at the meeting have barns of quality and their horses have obviously been running well. The leading jocks have the best agents who have their pick of mounts. Let them guide you a bit. It doesn’t mean you have to turn things into a chalk fest, but be aware of the top players. During my recent Oaklawn visit, the leading trainer, Allen Milligan, popped with a first-time starter at a $132.80 mutuel!
Gravitate to the best races. Any horseplayer worth their salt knows that a Grade 2 stakes is much more predictable than a conditioned Arkansas-bred $7,500 claiming race. It is good to adopt an elitist attitude as far as handicapping on a racing vacation. The best races at almost every track, every day, are late in the card. Go easy on the early races and save your prime bets for the allowance and stakes races later on.
See the sights. Use every race that you pass as an opportunity to check out the facilities and talk to the fans. Go to the gift shop and get a t-shirt to remember your trip. Visit with the locals and get some insight. Take a trip to the paddock. Watch a race from the rail. Eat the track’s signature dish. (At Oaklawn it is the corned beef sandwiches.) Drink it all in.
Hay, I am all in favor of making a major wager when the opportunity presents itself, so if you fancy an overlayed steed at a track you don’t usually follow, “be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.” The rest of the time, keep these concepts in mind. It is o.k. to lose your luggage, but don’t lose your bankroll.
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