07/01/2004 11:00PM

It's a prediction, not a selection

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NEW YORK - The morning line is one of the most familiar components of horse racing, and one of the most widely misunderstood - not just by fans, but also by track operators who are needlessly confusing their patrons.

A morning line - actually a misnomer now that simulcasting has turned them into day-before or even 48-hours-before lines - is one thing and one thing only: an educated guess of how a race will be bet and the price at which each horse will actually go off when betting closes.

It is not a ranking of the horses in the field, or a set of selections, or an opinion of anyone's actual chances of winning a race. It is, instead, solely a prediction of how the public will behave, which is something entirely different.

A linemaker might, as a handicapper, despise a horse who he thinks is going to be the 8-5 favorite. If betting the race, he would throw out the horse and borrow to bet against him. He is still supposed to make that horse 8-5 on his line if he believes that is the price at which the horse will start. If the horse goes off at 8-5 and is beaten a dozen lengths, the linemaker has done his job perfectly.

Many fans, however, will howl when this happens. How could that idiot make a horse 8-5, they will demand, when he had obvious deficiencies and then ran so poorly? In fact, nothing is amiss and the line was excellent.

Many tracks, however, list the three morning-line favorites in order as "Selections" in their track programs, a cheap and lazy way to pretend they are employing someone to make picks. Now the customer has a legitimate beef when the horse runs up the track, because the linemaker did not "select" the horse to win the race and in fact would probably have picked against him. Tracks should stop this deceptive practice immediately or at least label these horses "Likely Favorites" instead of "Selections."

Even worse in some ways is the common practice of highlighting the differences between morning-line and current actual odds. A number of major tracks post graphics on their simulcast signals putting these two sets of odds side by side throughout the betting, and some even put up a post-race chart comparing the line with the closing odds. Both of these bad ideas perpetuate misinformation and stoke the already unhealthy level of paranoia among rank-and-file horseplayers.

Posting a comparison of morning-line and actual odds implies the discrepancies are significant, that some horses are "hot" and others are "dead," and that patrons should bet accordingly. The discrepancies mean no such thing. They only mean that a single track employee made an imperfect guess. In the course of assigning 75 or 100 guesses on a single race card, even the world's best linemaker is going to be off a few times, sometimes badly. All that a track is illustrating through such a comparison is one employee's mistakes.

Not one in 10 customers, however, understands this. They instead think, since the track is going to the trouble of putting up the comparison, that they are receiving valuable information. They think that if a 6-1 shot on the line is 7-2, an international cartel of insiders must be sending it in from Maine to Spain. If the 6-1 shot is 10-1, all the wiseguys must know that the horse is lame or the barn isn't trying. In truth, nothing of the kind is happening. One overworked linemaker guessed a little high or low. Big deal.

Of course there are specific situations in which an unexpected amount of parimutuel support should be noted. The most obvious is the case of first-time starters, where a lack of established form creates a chaotic betting market and insiders believe they have proprietary information. In most races, however, every customer who does his homework has the same information.

The idea that the morning line is an authoritative assessment of the prices that horses deserve to be, and that any variation is telling, reinforces the fiction that prices (and perhaps even results) are set by "smart money" - some omniscient group of consistent winners who exploit the average racegoer. The less exotic but ultimately reassuring truth about the game is that no such group exists. Everyone, the linemaker included, merely has an opinion and is taking his best shot.

Tracks should stop pretending that the linemaker's opinion constitutes either a set of picks or a standard for meaningful comparison. The morning line is there to provide a useful guess of how a race will be bet, but once the actual betting starts it should never be mentioned again.