06/23/2014 11:54AM

Watchmaker: On the road again

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Probably the best thing about cutting my teeth on New England racing in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s was that if you had the will and a set of wheels, you had access to day and night Thoroughbred racing just about all year long.

You had Suffolk Downs in East Boston, Mass., and Rockingham Park in Salem, N.H., in the afternoons, and Lincoln Downs and Narragansett in Rhode Island at night. At night in the summer you had Scarborough Downs in Maine, where the mosquitos were so big you could have thrown saddles on them. You had Green Mountain in Vermont, another nighttime summer option and, I believe, the first Thoroughbred track in America to race on Sundays.

You also had the notorious Massachusetts fair circuit of Marshfield, Brockton, Weymouth, Northampton, Great Barrington, and Berkshire Downs. And if all of that wasn’t enough, there were also a plethora of Standardbred and greyhound racing options.

Searching for similar game on the road was a thoroughly logical extension of this lifestyle, and racing road trips were a commonplace occurrence back then. Many were the forays to Saratoga, Aqueduct, Belmont, Laurel, Bowie, Keystone, and, a little later on, The Meadowlands.

Unfortunately, if you are of a mind to do so, putting together Thoroughbred racing road trips these days isn’t as simple as it was back when all tracks raced five or six days a week. But that didn’t deter a like-minded degenerate friend and me from cobbling together a little road trip this past weekend. We started out Friday afternoon at Monmouth Park, a track I’ve loved since I worked there on the Daily Racing Form chart crew in 1981, and then headed down to Delaware Park for a little evening simulcast action. We stayed over for most of the Saturday card at Delaware, and then headed northwest for the Saturday night card at Penn National. And we wrapped it up with the Sunday card back at Monmouth. Here are a couple of notes I’d like to relate:

Monmouth Park, Friday – Friday’s card at Monmouth was punctuated by a few big class droppers who looked like they had to win if they could stand up. Big Ana Splash in the third race was one, and she made $3.80 look like a bargain, something not easy to do in my book, when she won by 23 3/4 lengths. Royal Sparkle in the fifth was another, and she won by six, and paid $4.80. But Sunset Time in the finale looked like the biggest lock of all.

Sunset Time was beaten a nose in her recent last start over the track at the one-mile distance for a $16,000 tag, and was now dropping in for $7,500 for a barn that routinely makes such moves. Moreover, Sunset Time was capable of closing a bit, a huge plus in a field loaded with cheap and shaky speed.

On the far turn, Sunset Time, at 3-10, moved to the lead as though she was intent on challenging Big Ana Splash’s win margin. But Sunset Time never put her field away and, in fact, threw in the towel in the final furlong to finish fourth. I guess she found the fourth and final quarter run in an incredibly slow 30.23 too much to handle. The $2 exacta of a 9-1 over a 4-1 came back $102 and change, which was okay. But the $1 trifecta with a 17-1 shot third, and a prohibitive favorite off the board, was, I thought, light. The $1 tri paid $298 and change, just under the signing threshold. Hmmm. Time to hit the road.

Delaware Park, Saturday – I love Delaware Park. I know what you’re saying. This guy loves Monmouth, he loves Delaware, he loves every place where horses run in a circle and there is a betting window. That might be true. But I really do love Delaware Park. It’s just a great old track with a terrific simulcasting setup, and one of the most beautiful paddocks in American racing, populated with majestic trees planted in 1936. The people who work at Delaware Park couldn’t be nicer, and there was a very good crowd at the track Saturday composed of a heartening mix in terms of gender and age. And they have very decent pizza upstairs at only $2.50 a slice.

Truth be told, Delaware is a guilty pleasure of mine, and I play it with some regularity on dark racing days here in New York. But I must admit, the racing there Saturday was beyond me. It started with an $81.20 winner in a low-level conditioned claimer in the opener who I couldn’t have bet if I had a bucketful of counterfeit money. It continued with a $5.20 winner in the fourth who I was totally against because he was unable to win an identical race three weeks ago with the most golden of trips, followed in the next race by a 4-year-old first time starter winner. I don’t avoid first-time starters, but I generally avoid 4-year-old firsters in low-level maiden claimers. But in retrospect, this one might have been sneakily bet, even at a $28.80 mutuel. The only thing I was right about was that General Ike couldn’t lose the allowance feature, but that he would be a lot lower than his 2-1 morning line. He paid $2.80, way to low for me.

Penn National, Saturday evening – We spent the first part of the evening in the very comfortable upstairs simulcast area that also includes an excellent view of the track, which was perfect because, as usual, I had my binoculars with me. And despite being low key, I was recognized by a few people. One fellow said, “I have to be here. What are you doing here?” Another couldn’t wait to wave his win and place tickets on the 12-1 winner of the sixth race in my face, exclaiming, “It’s easy here!” Ummm, okay. I guess racetrack etiquette is a thing of the past, too. In any case, that was the perfect time to head down to the apron and paddock, where folks were really having fun. Really.

The seventh race was a $10,000 maiden-claiming sprint featuring a class dropper from Maryland named Arctic Solution who wound up going off at 1-10 in the five-horse field. For some reason, I found myself looking at the exacta probables, which, as everyone knows, do not display cents beyond whole dollar amounts. I saw that the exacta with Arctic Solution over the clear-cut second choice was coming back $2, which meant that it was coming back $2.80, or less! As it turned out, those probables must have been displayed in dollar units, because Arctic Solution romped at $2.20 and the second choice held off the distant third choice for a $5.20 exacta. That was value compared to the triple, which paid only $6.60.

I understand why tracks choose to report payoffs at different base minimums. It makes total sense to report pick four payoffs on a 50-cent basis. But it is important that tracks make VERY clear what denomination they are using when they post both payoffs, and probable payoffs. When I saw an exacta payoff of $2.60 on the tote board after this race, I thought that was for $2. I was wrong, it was based on a dollar, but I didn’t find it to be clearly noted, so how was I to know differently?

Monmouth, Sunday – Maggie’s Lad might only be a $10,000 claimer these days, and he clearly has his issues. But he’s still a cool horse, and was kind of the star of the day in my view. He romped in Sunday’s second race at Monmouth at even money, improving his record to four decisive wins from five career starts – his only loss came in his well-bet debut last fall at Belmont in a New York-bred maiden special weight race in his only attempt on turf – and making it now three straight at Monmouth. Maggie’s Lad had been claimed out of all three of his prior wins by different outfits, and he went to a new barn again Sunday. Trainer Jane Cibelli got him in a six-way shake.

In the next race, the first leg of the early pick four, Modern Mystic was scratched in the pre-race warm ups, and that brought to mind another irritation for the horseplayer. Wagering rules differ from state to state, and sometimes, especially when pick fours are concerned, from wager to wager. In New York, if a horse you used in the first leg of a pick four is a late scratch, you get the post-time favorite. In New Jersey, apparently you get a refund, although even several mutual employees, who were all very accommodating, didn’t know for certain.

The lack of sensible, uniform wagering rules is ridiculous, but even that couldn’t dampen a fun road trip. I’m ready to do another.