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Southern California is clocker country
In 1978, Gary Young was a teenager finding his way into horse racing in the heralded Winick barn in south Florida - Arnold, the patriarch, and his son Randy and nephew Neal. Arnold Winick used to sit in the grandstand and watch his horses and others train and offer his analysis. He wanted to see if Young might like that. So, one morning at Calder, Neal Winick instructed Young, "Here's a watch. Go up in the grandstand and see if you can learn anything."
Young was a quick study with that stopwatch. He started clocking horses and still remembers the first wager he made based on a workout. Lawson Isles, trained by Stan Hough, won and paid $14.
"Wow, that's pretty good," Young thought. "Maybe this clocking horses isn't so bad."
During the last three decades, the stakes have gone up considerably for Young, now 48. He spent summers in California beginning in 1981, when Arnold Winick sent him there as his stable agent with a few horses. A few years later Young decided to stay permanently.
To prove himself as a clocker and gambler, he had to trade one sunshine state for another. California was a mecca for clockers. Young joined about a dozen others, their hours early and long and their only paycheck a winning ticket.
"Clocking is basically nuts," Young says now, laughing. "It's not something that's meant for everybody."
Applying his morning observations to the afternoons, Young began a lucrative raid on the pick six, something he continues to this day. Last April, for instance, he and his associate scooped the whole $366,834 pick-six pool on California Gold Rush Day. Since the early 1990s, Young has brought his keen observations to the bloodstock business, his best finds being Brocco and Crafty C.T. A few weeks ago, horses he helped purchase, Dave in Dixie and Evening Jewel, finished second in Santa Anita's Robert B. Lewis Stakes and Las Virgenes.
Trainers, bloodstock agents, jockeys, and their agents regularly seek Young's opinion. Public handicappers do the same, especially in maiden races. He spends more time buying horses now, but the backbone of his work remains the same.
"I still go out and time horses in the morning," he said.
Young is not alone. Clocking is still something of a religion in Southern California. It has different churches - workout reports from National Turf, The Winner's Card, Today's Racing Digest, The Handicapper's Report - and many believers. Workouts are scrutinized like scripture. The scene Young entered almost 30 years ago has experienced some attrition, but it is an aspect of racing that remains unique to California.
Every racetrack has official clockers who time all the workouts on a given day. Equibase gathers this information, which appears in the Daily Racing Form and racetrack programs. But a community of private clockers, who gather information for betting purposes or sell to clients, does not exist outside California. Bettors benefit from this wealth of information and readily pay for it. Their opinions can move the tote board.
"The clocker culture in California is borne out of the fact that if you can clock two tracks you can see 95 percent of the horses," said Andy Harrington, 46, who wields a stopwatch for National Turf. "You get a line on almost every single horse. That's why clocker information became so ubiquitous out here: the geographic nature and lack of training centers."
In other words, Southern California is an island. Without training centers and farms, as on the East Coast, all horses currently train at Hollywood or Santa Anita (or Del Mar in the summer). There are few shippers from out of state, making it a relatively closed horse population. Harrington and his competitors observe the same horses every day, as familiar with them as if they were relatives. Their success depends on it. Harrington says he knows a third of the horses on sight. And nowhere else are workouts so important. In California, trainers work their horses harder and more consistently.
The clocker scene took shape in the early 1970s, when the state adopted a rule that required trainers to identify horses when they came onto the track. Other states have since followed California. Reliable information on workout times had largely been the property of insiders. A clocker named Jay Clark was the first big success, betting on 2-year-olds and claiming horses that became stakes winners.
Harrington made his way in as a fan in 1990 and then met a clocker who needed a second hand at the track not running at the time. Eight years later, he signed on with National Turf. Astute observers say Harrington's work is the best, sought after by bettors, trainers, and owners. Young, who is his friend, agrees.
"Andy's the best," he said. "I go over the workouts every day to cross information with him. I have a lot of confidence in his opinion."
Modest and self-deprecating, Harrington says his job is "pretty simple" and that the "mechanics are simple," but this does not seem to be the case. The job requires a thoroughness and dedication few people can maintain.
Harrington arrives in the dark, around five in the morning. At Santa Anita, he sits above the wire in the box seats. Others, like Young, are nearby. Young, a traditionalist, has occupied the same box, 40 yards before the wire, for the last 25 years. Their tools are a tape recorder, stopwatch, and notebook.
The first step is identifying the horses, beginning with the trainer's saddlecloth. Recognizing jockeys or exercise riders also helps. Said Young, "First thing is, you've got to know whose horse they are. Second thing, you've got to know what horse it is. They divide themselves into categories of what color they are: bays, chestnuts, and so on. Then you have to get down to the markings."
For instance, Young might say into his recorder, "Chestnut stripe left front left hind" - meaning a chestnut horse with a white stripe on his forehead and white markings on his left front leg and left hind leg.
Theirs is a different job than the official clockers. The official clockers record the what of the workout - the time - whereas private clockers record the what and the how. The emphasis on clocking assumes a horse will race like he trains. Put another way, five-kilometer runners do not win marathons overnight.
At any track, the busiest time for clockers immediately follows the renovation break, sometime around eight. In those next 15 minutes, Harrington clocks several horses at once on the same stopwatch using the split hand. He tries to get fractions for each horse, although sometimes the last quarter suffices. He looks for horses training in teams, since good trainers match their horses up; if he sees a 2-year-old training with a 4-year-old, that says something about the young horse.
At the same time, Harrington keeps an eye on the gate for horses leaving there, and in the first few yards checks for those that are goofy or fast. As a horse finishes his workout in the stretch, Harrington observes him intently: How is his stride? Running with his head up? Washed out? On the wrong lead?
Finally, he notes the horse galloping past the wire. It is almost always a great sign if the horse is full of run. A fast time is important, but as Young puts it, there should "still be a couple of more gears left in the gear box."
All this information Harrington records into his tape recorder - a rat-a-tat-tat of clocker vernacular. Said Harrington, "You want to try in the few seconds you have to cram in as much descriptive information as possible, for when you go back to your book two or three weeks down the line and you can't remember anything about the drill. You never know if any little bit of information will mean something."
Harrington waits until a horse is entered to write his analysis, because he doesn't know the type of race in which that horse will appear. Five-furlong workouts in a minute have different meanings for every horse and trainer. Unlike the official clockers, Harrington does not have to watch every workout. He looks for the best ones, which amount to three or four every morning. And he pays careful attention to the most successful barns.
Take Julio Canani. On Oct. 1, 2008, Harrington wrote this about the final workout of the Canani-trained The Pamplemousse before the horse's debut: "Solis up . . . looked his usual big-striding self going the last quarter-mile in 23.80. Terrific mover is a legit Derby prospect." It was a bold prediction for an unraced juvenile. The Pamplemousse didn't disappoint. He became a multiple stakes winner before being scratched as the favorite on the morning of the 2009 Santa Anita Derby.
With California's move to synthetic tracks several years ago, the clocking culture has muted slightly. Several clockers used to hang near the gate and only clock those workouts, looking for sharp young horses. Early speed, the name of the game before, is much less important now.
And while the overall betting public has theoretically gained from all this workout information, some of the private clockers believe their betting edges have narrowed. Field sizes have also decreased significantly, leaving fewer chances for finding value.
"I think everybody knows everyone's business more," Young said.
Elsewhere, there is far less transparency. For most bettors at least, workouts are usually shrouded in mystery without the context private clockers offer in Southern California. Geography also works the other way. Horses in the Mid-Atlantic region and Florida can be found at training centers, farms, and tracks, and shipping across that area to run is commonplace. No clocker can be everywhere.
At training centers, in particular, the situations are Runyonesque. Trainers usually turn in their workouts. Hence, the honor system is in place.
At Fair Hill, in Maryland, which has around 650 horses in the summer, there's an unofficial clocker, but most trainers time their own workouts and turn them in. At Payson Park, in Florida, which has about 500 horses, an outrider doubles as a clocker. Smaller farms and training centers are even more informal. Palm Meadows, Gulfstream Park's training center, has an official three-person crew, but, in a changed policy, now prohibits private clockers.
Given this uncertainty, emphasizing workouts in terms of handicapping East Coast racing is either a formidable task or a fool's game.
"I'm not sure there's a system that totally benefits the bettor," said trainer Graham Motion, a longtime inhabitant of Fair Hill.
Motion offered several examples of how Fair Hill differs from other places: On the turf course, the last quarter-mile is uphill, and a seven-furlong workout over the synthetic track involves two turns. Times there are understandably slower.
Bettors would need a legend to keep abreast of the layout differences across tracks, centers, and farms. Every track, in addition, positions its gate at different points. At Churchill, there's little run-up to the first pole - when the clocker starts his watch - but at Keeneland there's almost 20 yards. Gate workouts are faster then at Keeneland.
By and large, racing commissions require a workout within 30 days of a race. This can occur outside the track, however. Even at racetracks with safeguards in place, such as the nearly universal rule that trainers identify their horses, most clockers acknowledge the impossibility of catching every horse on the grounds.
"If a trainer wants to give a bad name they can do it," said Gate Artis, an official clocker at Monmouth Park for more than 30 years. "Trainers can change their saddlecloths. Trainers used to paint their horses to cover up markings. Maybe a horse worked a mile and we only caught three-eighths and we have to ask the trainer what he had.
"At the end of the day," he said, "everything has to work on the honor system."
In Southern California, however, that honor system does not rely exclusively on trainers. On those days when the official crews are simply unable to catch all the horses, the stable of private clockers is ever watchful.
"I think we keep the game a little more honest in a way," Harrington said. "Largely because there's so many eyes on, it's a little more on the up and up in the mornings."
* Jay Privman's Q&A with Emmy-winning actor Jack Klugman, who owns El Encino winner Pretty Unusual
* Handicapping roundups from Santa Anita, Gulfstream, Oaklawn, and Aqueduct
* Matt Hegarty on the ramifications of a proposed 50-day meet at Monmouth Park
* Plus video analysis of the weekend's biggest stakes
It also helps when Andy Harrington comletely fabricate or makes up works when he doesn't see them.. If he were bound to turn the works in as they happen, rather than when they were in, you would see comletely different information.