MANY YEARS AGO I had a common and perfectly reasonable desire to become a professional horseplayer. It wasn't that I had any big problems with my life or job; it was just a good time to take on a supreme challenge. Writing books was a challenge, but judgments operated on too many elusive levels, where success or failure seemed to be ultimately subject to revision or deferral. What I needed was an endeavor where the effort required a lot of studious preparation and where decisions and their consequences were immediate, irrevocable, and unequivocal. I had played the ponies for fun, but thanks to my grandmother Bessie, who used to destroy all comers at Hialeah, my feelings for the game ran deeper than mere play would allow. I needed to find out what would happen if I went all the way.

I was so determined to complete this excess of lifestyle that I bought books, tools, and a green-shade-based plaid suit. Although comparisons to capitalist casinos like the stock market only cheapen horseracing's endeavor, in the 1980s a spate of books actually touted handicapping the horses as a sound form of investment, turning the adage "all horseplayers die broke" on its head: Beating the races, the authors claimed, was your best chance to keep from dying broke. I bought all of these books, but -- in an inevitable balance of odds -- once published, the information became less valuable. For example, after Andy Beyer's speed handicapping guide, Picking Winners, came out, winners with high-speed figures attracted more betting, and so gave lower payoffs. So Beyer wrote The Winning Horseplayer, concentrating on trip handicapping -- picking horses on the basis of the ease or difficulty they faced in recent races. This more subjective and even traditional approach was also potentially more lucrative, as Beyer demonstrated in a chapter where he reinvented the wheel of betting, using multiple bets based on "wheeling" one horse to others (e.g., playing the #3 horse with all or some of the other horses in a multiple bet like the exacta or daily double) in exotic wagers to "construct a scenario" where a winner could win a fortune -- or at least, do pretty well. (Nowadays, Beyer finds it lucrative to sell his speed figures to the Daily Racing Form.)

If I hadn't already decided to devote myself to the track, Beyer's appearance on a PBS special would have cinched it. "I'm king of the world," he would scream after a big win, much to the annoyance of practically everyone around him. At that time the only horseracing in winter around here came courtesy of an ad campaign for a local supermarket chain, which passed out jackpot scratch cards with the numbers of horses running in races at Gulfstream Park. Of course, any number the supermarket gave you had to be a loser, so the game was to pick which horse, among the others running in the half-hour TV show/commercial, would win those races that had been taped long ago.

Mostly, though, the off-season was devoted to research at the library. This involved going through race results for the last few years at Longacres to determine patterns of speed, class, and trainers. For two years my walls were lined with handwritten records, determining, for instance, how long it takes the winners of races for four-year-old geldings in $6,250 claiming sprints to finish six furlongs, what to expect from a nine-year-old dropping from a career of stakes races to a glue factory holding-pen of low-level claiming heats, and what to do when Gertrude Bakamus entered a first-time starter in a maiden race.

While I threw myself into the Sport of Kings as a monk, dutifully sacrificing all frivolous pastimes in order to record every last fact I could find, James Quinn cashed in on the literary trend by gushing over that revolutionary new handicapper tool, the personal computer. Psychologist Howard Sarton took the computer dependency even further by coming up with a novel cure for compulsive horseplayers: He taught them how to win, using programs that analyzed pace. The Sarton methodology, like these other disciplines, differed from the classic "system" approach to horseplaying in one crucial way: It incorporated rather than excluded information. Where a system might eliminate any three-year-old filly racing against mares in June, a pace handicapper might not throw out the youngster if she figured to take a seven-length lead by the half-mile pole in a six-furlong sprint.

Today, in the world of horseracing as it pounds off Emerald Downs, desire thrives. The benches are crowded. Live local racing and simulcasts from tracks across America stage a nonstop stream of action. Add to this bonanza the new, user-friendly Daily Racing Form, which supplies information that bettors like me used to spend hours compiling, as well as on-demand video replays of past races and daily newspaper touts who refer to pace charts and trainer patterns as they give you the winners... has money ever been this easy?

Yet, no matter how sophisticated the readily available information becomes, the fact remains that the public only picks the winner about a third of the time, and winning favorites pay significantly less than $3 per $1 wagered. This is the universal constant of pari-mutuel wagering, and rather than discourage, it only drives horseplayers to beat the game.

Some say you can't win; after two years of trying to become a professional horseplayer, I can only admit that I lost. During that time, though, there was an irresistible feeling of progress, of getting closer to something. Some call it desire, some call it greed. But when you survive a losing streak that symbolizes more than just money blown at the track, to see your 8-l shot take command at the top of the stretch, you'll know exactly what it is.

April 15, Emerald Downs, 1:00 p.m.: It is now post time.


How to Bet on Horses:

· "Win": Your horse finishes first.

· "Place": Your horse finishes first or second.

· "Quinella": You picked first and second place in any order of finish.

· "Trifecta": You picked the first three finishers in order of finishing.

· "Superfecta": You picked the first six place-getters, in correct finishing order.

To place a bet, all you do is give the betting

operator the following details:

1. The amount of the bet.

2. The type of bet (e.g., Quinella).

3. The horse number from your racebook (e.g., 4 & 10).

Horse Racing at Emerald Downs, Auburn, 888-931-8400. $3 general admission. Thurs-Sun, some Wednesdays, starting April 15. First race 1 pm weekends and holidays; 6 pm weekdays.

Representatives from the Auburn post office will be on site to accept your tax return on opening day; half-price coupons are available at U.S. Bank. Laffit Pincay Jr., all-time winningest jockey, rides on Sunday, April 16. Opening weekend has pony rides and other stuff for kids.

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