09/09/2007 10:49PM

Through the Looking Glass


BOSTON--Like a moth to the flame, or Charlie Brown to that football Lucy's holding, I keep going back to Wonderland Greyhound Park, the site of my parimutuel awakening, even though I know its time has passed and you can't go home again.

I spent four or five nights a week there from 1976 to 1978, then returned for the first time 22 years later, toward the end of the Handicapalooza tour I did with Mike Watchmaker. It was devastating. I wrote in a column for the July 25, 2000 DRF:

"The pilgrimage was disheartening. We remembered Wonderland as a charmed place, a bustling little quarter-mile oval with packed stands and a busy grandstand apron. What we found was a grim and silent simulcasting factory with lots of television monitors but little energy. In the clubhouse dining room, no one even bothered turning up the sound to alert you that Swifty the mechanical rabbit was beginning his appointed rounds and the race was about to start."

I tried again in 2003, during what may have been the first and was certainly the last book signing ever held at a dog track. My chief memory of the event is that the guy who used a boxcutter to open the two cartons of books we had ambitiously sent also opened a crucial vein on his arm, spraying every copy with his bloody autograph. I choose to believe that's the only reason we sold roughly two(2) copies.

Yet back I went Sunday night, being only six miles away on the eve of a long-planned Monday visit to Suffolk Downs. If possible, things have deteriorated even further. If there were 100 people in the one small open area of the track, I couldn't see most of them, and I counted exactly 11 on the apron for the night's second race. The only open outdoor area starts a good 10 yards to the right of the finish line, so you can't even watch the dogs cross the wire.

The prices posted for race 2 suggested the WPS pools are not terribly robust these days:

1: 5.20 9.00 ----
2: ----- 3.60 7.80
8: ----- ----- 3.80

That first set of dashes is no typo: Nobody bet on the 8-5 favorite to show. And I'm guessing the place pool was about $24, with $2 bet on the winner and $5 on the runner-up.

Becoming a retired-greyhound owner has ruined me as a dog handicapper. Greyhound racing is actually a fascinating handicapping exercise, with a high premium on predicting how the race will unfold into the first turn, but I no longer ponder such things: I merely look for the black dogs who look like like Badger Pluto and the black-and-whites who look like Badger Popeye, throwing out all the reds and brindles. I know, it's pathetic. But in race 3 it worked: I made a $10 three-dog quinella box of the black and the two black-and-whites and they ran 1-2-3 around the track. I missed the $82 tri but the Q of Abe (Stritzal-Fast Pass) and Echelon (Crew Cut Casey-Gimena) came back a fat $17.20. Having won my first bet at Wonderland 31 years ago, I decided to win my last, and called it a night.

--We have a policy at DRF of not printing "brag boxes," those squibs you sometimes see on the racing pages of daily newspapers that Clocker Joe or whoever makes their picks had six on top yesterday. But one of our own deserves one: Dave Litfin, who according to a scorecard kept by the very useful racing-links site equidaily.com, came out on top among the 26 public handicappers who made daily selections during the Saratoga meet. Litfin picked 109 winners from 345 races, three more than Tom Cunningham of the Albany Times-Union and 35 to 45 more than four employees of a downstate tabloid that captured four of the bottom five spots in the rankings.

What makes Litfin's achievement all the more impressive is that his picks were made and published a full day before anyone else's because DRF prints a day earlier than the other papers. That means that every other public handicappper has the benefit of Litfin's analysis, and not one of them could improve on his selections.

Before he gets a swelled head, I'll note that he went 1-for-10 Sunday at Belmont with his lone winner paying $2.30.

---Speaking of that $2.30 winner, it was Oprah Winney, tuning up for the BC F&M Sprint in the restricted Schenectady Handicap against four overmatched statebred rivals. NYRA permitted show betting and the bridgejumpers jumped in at $2.10, but some of them were probably looking for bridges after they apparently tried to do it again in the finale: Posted, with triple-digit Beyers in his last two starts, was 2-5 to win a statebred N2x but wilted from chasing Stonewood early and faded to fourth. The show prices in his absence, with the 2nd, 3rd and 4th choices running 1-2-3, were $9.60, $14.60 and $17.80.

We'll catch up together on the rest of the opening three days of Belmont Fall after I get back home, crunch the numbers, and watch the replays on something bigger than a breadbox.

John Fleming More than 1 year ago
I just want to thank you for continuting this blog i have read them from saratoga for the last couple of years. I find them very informative and help me with my handicapping at times. Just wanted to say thank you.
Michael More than 1 year ago
Steve, This was great stuff to read. I think everyone remembers where it was that they first got introduced to wagering or the racetrack in some form. I've had a smiliiar experience in returning to where I got introduced. My grandfather loved harness racing. He was from Central New York where for many years, even up to today, harness racing was in the blood of everyone up there. I was maybe 7 years old and he took me to "kid's day" at Vernon Downs. Kid's day was basically an excuse for the players to justify taking the kids to the track. It involved ice cream and and when you walked in the door they handed the kids these little program books with coloring pages and the back of the book was an entry form for the kids to fill out that won you the prize of being one of the 5 kids drawn who got to ride in the starting car before the races began. Even at age 7 I wanted an edge. The books were free and I took 5 of them rather than one, and filled out 5 entry forms. My name was pulled twice, and before two races I sat in the starting car as the horses thundered behind us out the window just inches away. I can remember looking behind me out the window and seeing a horses face seeminly inches from mine. I still remember the whirr that the hydraulics made as the gate was pulled away and the car speeding up to pull away from them. I also remember being mad when I got back one time because my grandfather had held my ice cream cone for me as I went to go on my exciting prize honor, and he ate it before I got back. Harness racing never took with me, but 6 years later at age 13 I made my first bet(with the helf of my father) and it won. We were watching the old ABC "Wide World of Sports" and an amazing and compelling story came on about Timely Writer. It was October of 1982. The story excited me and we were visiting my grandparent's home town. My grandfather had passed away by now, but one of my grandmothers lived across the street from an OTB! My father asked if I wanted to make a bet on Timely Writer and I was ready and willing to part with 5 dollars of my paper route money!!! We went acorss the street and walked in the door where a world of men reading papers and statistics awaited. I knew I had found "home" the minute I walked into the place. One man was hunched over a newspaper and I asked him what he was reading. It was the NY Daily News, and he explained that he was reading the "expert selections" and pointed to the little boxes where they were. I looked at it, and noted that in one race every single one of the "experts" had chosen the same horse to win. WOW!! I mean, how could the horse lose? If every one of the "experts" agreed that this horse was going to win, then it just had to be a certainty!! I pointed this out to my father excitedly, and as we had gotten there early for the Timely Writer race(The JCGC), he said that if I wanted to I could still bet that horse instead. I excitedly told him thats what I wanted to do. So I forked over 5 bucks of the hard earned money from lugging a sack of newspapers each day while avoiding german shepherds that were always hard on my heels as I peddle as fast as I could. The horses name was Copelan, and he won the race(and as it turned out, the 2Y) Eclipse award). I was "rich"!! What a great game!!!! You walk in and read who all the experts like, you bet, and a few minutes later you have more than you started with!! I think Copelan paid in the neighborhood of 5.80. I had made $8.50 profit!!!! I then had my father put 5 dollars of that on Timely Writer in the next race, the JCGC. I remember feeling very shrewd and content that I was making the bet with "free money". Off we went across the street to watch the race on ABC, and Timely Writer broke down and died on the track. You'd think that experience would have embittered me and jaded me as to the sport of kings. Wrong, all I could remember feeling was "hey, I'm still up $3.50" !!! To this day my Mother and Father wish that he hadn't taken me there in time to bet that first winner. They figure if I had lost 5 bucks of my paper route money instead of winning $3.50 that it would have been the end of my interest in horses and racing. A year or two after that I purchased the book Picking Winners by Beyer, and like so many other Frankenstein monsters that Picking Winners created, I was hooked. I made a stop at Vernon Downs recently after traveling through that part of the state. Its been closed a few times since then, and reopened a few times more. It has to compete with Turning Stone Casino about two miles away, and that part of the state has fallen on very hard economic times. Its open, for now, but its a run down place that hasn't seen any touch up work since the time I rode in the starting car over 30 years ago. A few souls hang around in the daytime for the simulcasts, many sitting at little card tables on folding chairs in a decidedly depressing atmosphere.
E/L More than 1 year ago
from www.eurohorse.co.uk Current generally available industry odds in Ireland and the U.K. for the Arc and Breeders' Cup Classic: Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe - Sunday October 7, 2007 Authorized 5/2, Zambezi Sun 9/2, Manduro 9/2, Dylan Thomas 6/1, Soldier Of Fortune 8, Peeping Fawn 8/1, Mandesha 14/1, Airmail Special 14/1, Literato 16/1, Sixties Icon 25/1, Scorpion 25/1, Ask 25/1, Saddex 25/1, West Wind 25/1, Youmzain 33/1, Shamdinan 33/1, Septimus 40/1 Breeders' Cup Classic 2007 Fab Five: Lawyer Ron 7/2, Street Sense 5, Any Given Saturday 5, Curlin 7, Manduro 9 more on Friday at www.eurohorse.co.uk
Joe More than 1 year ago
Last week the owner of Wonderland offered to give up the Dogs for slots. This week Gov.Patrick will make his decision on gaming(Casinos/slots)in Mass. I believe it will be Casinos with a percentage (no slots)to the tracks.
yuwipi More than 1 year ago
The kudos for Dave Liftin are much deserved. Really enjoy his work. Can't count how many times I've asked myself "what does Dave think" when stumped on a race, and how many times he comes up with valid and pertinent info which is obviously the result of hard work. Reflecting on years gone by is often bittersweet. I love Saratoga as much as any of the other bloggers, but can remember when - PJ's Chicken was an A&W drive in with car hops. The horses were saddled under the trees and you could get as close as prudence allowed. The next day's Racing Form could be obtained at Pete Duel's newstand in the wee hours of the morning. You could cross over into the infield and watch a turf race from 10 yards inside the far turn. And the guy running the parking lot across Union Ave. looked exactly like he did when I left town this year. While thinking back, noted the passing recently of Tom Ainslie. Pulled out his "Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing" and that will take a person way back.
Dunque More than 1 year ago
The perils of trying to go home again. As Vicstu observed, every track is in a period of decline from its salad days except for the premier Keeneland/Saratoga/Del Mar meets. Even Belmont, other than on Belmont Stakes day, is a long way from filling its grandstand again. For myself, the place where I first learned handicapping was at The Red Mile in Lexington, KY. Like you, Steve, I remember days of the grandstand being packed, particularly during the Fall Grand Circuit meet but also regularly in the spring on Friday nights. Harness handicapping on a full mile track is night and day vs. the half-mile ovals. Had some great winners and saw some great races while learning the game. Whenever I think of the best races I've ever seen I still think about Mack Lobell vs. Napolitano in the Kentucky Futurity. And my list of best horses ever seen would have to include Nihilator, sone of the great Niatross.
Teresa More than 1 year ago
OK, so if we're walking down memory lane: My parents owned harness horses when I was a kid, and from the time I was five I spent most weekends with them at Saratoga Harness. Their horses (claimers, mostly) took us to various other tracks, and my parents never hesitated to take us with them to the track (raising two die-hard racing fans), including Hinsdale, which I had forgotten all about until reading about it here. I never did like dog racing; it always seemed cruel to me, and the last time I went was at Green Mountain when I was in high school. I was at Saratoga Harness the night Niatross went over the rail--will never forget it.
Green Mtn Punter More than 1 year ago
Steve, your Wonderland nostalgia trip was interesting to read and, of course, sad. I only made the Wonderland trip once during my BU days, after all it was just one or 2 more stops beyond Suffolk on the "T"! It must have been during a rare lull in the horse racing action, both flat and harness- between Suffolk, Rockingham (The Ol' Rock, as it was known, a wonderful track in those days, graciously hosted by Uncle Lou and Aunt Lutza Smith who always gave most generously to Cardinal Cushing's charity!), then there was Lincoln Downs and Narraganset down in Little Rhody, oh, and I forgot Bay State Raceway in Foxboro. Plus the county fairs which also had flat racing in those days.BU should have offered handicapping courses, beginning with 101 and all the way up to a graduate level seminar! Those courses would have filled fast, I'm sure. Back in our freshman dorm our NY friends would do imitations of Fred Capossela calling races and the locals would do "Babe" Rubenstein. It was all great fun and lots of laughs, especially the tall tales of hitting big daily doubles and longshots. Hope you have a great day at Suffolk- are you planning to go back for the Mass Cap? Now that Richard Field is majority owner, and with VLT's, perhaps Suffolk can play a larger role in east coast racing?
vicstu More than 1 year ago
Nice post, Steve. I got started in handicapping the same way, and it helped support myself while I was in college. I cut my handicapping teeth at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg, FL--the same greyhound track that Carl Reiner and Brad Pitt were at in Oceans 11. I eventually ended up working there as a patrol judge and a finish line judge...greyhound handicapping is a great lesson in breaking down a race by form by the 1/8th pole (in greyhound racing the pole that seperates the first turn from the backstretch)...because the dog that gets to the lead by the 1/8th pole finishes in the money 70 percent of the time...but I am sure you know all that. It also taught me about pure running form, which is almost identical between greyhounds and horses. Speed, Speed with stamina (also known as Class Speed), Stalkers, and Closers...As in horseracing, lone speed on the lead is dangerous...And once you get to know the dogs, it becomes complicated because they can be characters and make great pets and oversized lap dogs. In any event, Derby Lane does not attract the 5,000 to 25,000 it regularly did pre-internet days...it still has the 1st or 2nd largest handle of any dog track in the U.S. and has more All Americans every year than any other track. Now, as elsewhere, most of their handle is simulcast and online betting...They recently started holding the Derby Lane million stakes race that brings in the best runners in the country...and there is a night of stars that is simulcast between major tracks which benefits greyhound adoptions...But Steve, the thing that is keeping many tracks afloat now is poker and/or slots. I watched two greyhounds run there who were easily the best in the country at their time...Talentedmrripley and Cayman Went. Both were dominant and both won the Rural Rube and the Flashy Sir awards for best sprinter and distance runner in the country. Cayman Went did it in the same year. That one in particular may have been the most dominant and fastest greyhound I have ever seen run (they clocked him with a radar gun going 48.75 mph in the backstretch). He rolled off thirteen wins in a row, a second, and twelve in a row and won more stakes races that any other greyhound in history. He set track records and was champ at both Tampa-St. Pete tracks, and defeated the best sprinters in the country... Of course, here in Florida, the tracks are not as bad off as Victoryland...a track whose woes are well known in the industry (a shame)...however, since I moved to Jacksonville, they have closed up one of the dog tracks (St Johns Greyhound) and turned it into a gambling palace called "The Best Bet". One whole floor, almost the size of a football field, for poker and cards, and the floor above it for horse and greyhound wagering...including the dogs that run down the road at Orange Park. Rows of simulcast screens, jumbotrons...a great place to watch the Preakness or something, but 100 different screens blaring different tracks becomes confusing at times... The industry that those such as yourself helped to develop into what it was, whether it was greyhound or horse racing, has changed forever and will never be what it was... But you will always have those memories, and now you even have a formula to use to bet the dogs...pathetic, yes...but it works! More power to you and keep on writing...and feel free to post pictures of your retired sprinters any time you wish...they look so at peace with life and domesticated. Question, though, do the dogs still raise their ears and get excited when they hear a squeaking noise like a rabbit?
AlHattab More than 1 year ago
It's great telling stories about these tracks- great posts everyone. Hinsdale (where the lure I believe is the Colonel) will always have a place in my heart. My wife and I would take skiing trips to Vermont every now and then. Only problem was I don't ski. Mt. Snow was only about 25 miles from Hinsdale, so she skied and I went over for the matinee and horse simulcasts, and we got together in the evening for Apre Ski and dinner. A great compromise. I recall it being not so bad a place.