03/10/2008 11:00PM

Obstacles prevent Argentine conquest

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BUENOS AIRES - For years I have harbored a gambling fantasy: to live in a foreign country and play the horses seriously by using American handicapping techniques. I did so in 1990 when I spent three months in Sydney, Australia, declaring before my departure that I was going to become the King of the Southern Hemisphere. This didn't happen - my profit was minuscule - but the experience was such an adventure that I wanted to repeat it.

And so last week my wife and I arrived for a month-long stay in Buenos Aires. The city is grand; the country has a long and illustrious horse tradition; the racing people I have met are astonishingly hospitable. I am armed with handicapping information that no one else on the continent possesses. Yet I already know the outcome of this venture. I will not make a meaningful profit, because Argentina's racing industry is discouragingly inhospitable to bettors.

I started my preparations nearly a year ago, studying data on an Argentine racing website and trying to craft speed figures like the ones I use in the United States. I have tried to do so for other foreign countries, with results ranging from modest (Australia) to dismal (Sweden). But Argentina proved to be an ideal place to make figures; most of the races are run on the dirt between five furlongs and one mile, and they are speed-oriented. I became obsessed by the project. By the time of my departure for Buenos Aires, I was convinced that my numbers are as accurate for Palermo and San Isidro, the country's two major tracks, as they are for Belmont or Hollywood Park.

Every gambler's dream is to have such an edge, but I have discovered that such an edge won't amount to much here, because Argentina confronts bettors with three difficult obstacles:

o Handicapping information is insufficient. The two main tracks' websites do contain valuable archives of video replays, but the published racing data is sketchy at best. Horses' past performances don't indicate their positions during the running of a race, so it is impossible to tell if an animal is a front-runner or if he comes from 20 lengths behind - a rather important distinction in five-furlong dashes. Statistics on trainers' records are hard to find. The daily racing publication, Palermo Rosa, presents its meager information in a format that is barely comprehensible.

o The betting pools are too small - particularly for a gambler whose native currency is not the peso. When Argentina's economy collapsed in 2001, the government devalued the peso by two-thirds; the slash in prices was a delight to tourists, who can buy for $10 a good bottle of Malbec wine that used to cost $30. But the once-healthy betting totals at the tracks were reduced by two-thirds in dollar terms. On an ordinary day, the wagering at Palermo or San Isidro (from on- and offtrack sources) totals only about $700,000. The Argentine tracks love to run interminable cards with countless exotic bets; when that $700,000 is spread over a 17-race card, there's not enough money in any pool to make a big win possible.

o Argentine tracks take a cut of about 29 percent from every peso or dollar wagered - one of the most burdensome rates of any important racing nation. In the United States, where the takeout rate averages 20opercent, the most sophisticated gamblers with the most sophisticated information struggle to eke out a profit of a couple percentage points. How could anyone using the limited data in Argentina overcome a 29 percent takeout?

I asked Tony Bullrich, the top executive at Palermo, if his track had any serious professional gamblers. "There are a couple who think they are," he answered. "But, no, we don't."

Why is Argentine racing so unkind to bettors? Acknowledging that the premise of my question was accurate, Bullrich replied that racing had been in difficult straits since 1988 and had been thrown into utter crisis in 2001. With its survival in jeopardy, the Thoroughbred industry had to rescue owners and breeders.

In 2002, the government made this rescue by authorizing Palermo to install slot machines, whose revenue boosted purses enough to make buying racehorses a rational investment.

"If you win one 2-year-old maiden race [with a winner's purse of about $11,000], you have covered you training expenses for the year," Bullrich said. "No place in the world has the same equation. Now the owners are coming back. . . . We are coming out of the crisis. Later we can think about gambling and takeout."

I have my doubts that much will change here - sooner or later. Argentina's racing industry seems tradition-bound and resistant to innovation - even when its necessity is obvious. In an age when gamblers like the fast action of slot machines, the tracks run cards that drag on from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., with one race every half hour, yet they resist adding simulcasts that would enliven the day for gamblers. Indeed, I have heard few people talk about strengthening the sport by appealing more to fans and bettors. Instead, Palermo relies on its slots, San Isidro on a government subsidy, and their main concern is owners and breeders. The customer seems forgotten.

Yet despite these negatives, I would rather have this experience in Argentina than win a pick six at home. I like the tracks: The scale of San Isidro is breathtaking, with an emerald-green turf course 1 3/4 miles in circumference and vast grounds that include five training tracks and four polo fields. I love the similarities that bind the racing experience everywhere on earth. When I bet a horse named Curius Emperor, and watched the jockey steady him three times before making a suicidal five-wide move, I cursed A. Giorgis at Palermo just as I would curse Joe Bravo at Gulfstream Park, and I searched for the Spanish word for "pinhead." I love the challenge of handicapping and betting in a foreign country; when I employed my almost-nonexistent Spanish to call out all of my combinations in a wager called the quintuplo, I felt as satisfied as if I'd actually won the bet (which I didn't.) And I have accepted, with stoical resignation, that fact that I'm not going to be King of the Southern Hemisphere, at least not in this country.

(c) 2008, The Washington Post