11/16/2005 12:00AM

Look for the edge, but don't go off it


PHILADELPHIA - Back in pre-simulcast days, there were years when I did not miss a single race at the track I was following. When I lived in Maryland, I knew everything there was to know about Bowie, Laurel, Pimlico, and Timonium. Sometimes, that even helped me make money.

Without the tools available today, you could not afford to miss anything. If you missed it, you were not going to be able to make it up. The drill was: watch the race live through binoculars, watch the replay, get to the track early the next day to watch a second replay. That was it. You got what you got.

I had an index card file for every trainer in Maryland. I noted several characteristics of each winner, hoping patterns would emerge. There were dozens of blind alleys along with the occasional nugget. There was a fairly anonymous trainer named Frank Calvo who was golden second-time after the claim. Over time, the pattern emerged. I have no idea if Calvo even knew what was up. I didn't care, either. He may have been a genius who was cashing every time I was cashing. I just knew I was cashing and, judging by the prices, few people seemed to know what I knew.

These days, even with the flow of information so extensive, the object of the overall exercise basically is unchanged. The successful player knows something that the rest of the players don't know. If you don't know when you are in that position, you are in the wrong game.

Having the feeling of knowing something the other players do not know is no guarantee of anything, but it gives you the satisfaction of having no regrets. And this game is filled with regrets. For every brilliant play, we've all made dozens that we regretted. There are other plays that end in outcomes for which there is no explanation. I was in one of those NFL suicide pools, the kind in which you pick a team each week. If the team wins, you play on. Once you have selected a team, you can't select that team again.

This pool had a nice reward at the end, nice enough that, after surviving the first nine weeks, I had mapped out a strategy for the last eight weeks. I knew every team I wanted to play.

I had the Giants against the Vikings last week. The Giants drove up and down the field. The Vikings showed no hint of offense. Yet, the Vikings led all game because they returned an interception, kickoff, and punt for a touchdown - something never done before in an NFL game.

When the Giants came back to tie in the final minute, I figured the sporting gods were going to reward my play. In the end, the better team was going to win despite all the craziness. Just then, the Vikings drove down the field and nailed a long field goal seconds before the finish.

It was a bad beat, but not one I felt all that badly about. I had the right side. It was one of those one-in-a-zillion outcomes. As a younger player, I might have gone off. As an older player, I know the object is to put yourself in the right place and you will win more than your fair share.

What I can't handle is being in the wrong place where you are at the complete mercy of luck. There was a time when I really enjoyed gambling. Now, I tell people I don't like to gamble as much. I like to win. And if I don't think I have an edge, I am not playing.

I am not at the track all the time anymore, so I do not have the edge I had all those years ago in Maryland. My edge comes now in the big races, especially the 11 annual races that have the promise of a life-altering score. The three Triple Crown races and the eight Breeders' Cup races attract the biggest fields and the biggest pools. The risk of sending in a big bet with such large fields is quite high. The reward can be so high that you can't see that far.

I keep files on all the horses that might show up in the Triple Crown or Cup. I watch the prep races over and over again. I listen in the days and weeks before the races. I ask questions of the participants and listen to opinions that I respect. Gradually, I begin to form general opinions. I have made a real study of superfectas and pick fours, bets that much of the public is still trying to understand. If my opinions match up with a particular bet in a particular race, I fire away. If not, I wait, content that the right bet will eventually meet up with right opinion at the right time.