Commentary

Tote bag

Updated: August 16, 2009, 1:14 AM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

Who among us hasn't seen the numbers change as they turn for home: not the numbers of the horses leading the race, the odds. It's not uncommon for odds to tick down along the back stretch. You might have thought you bet a 5-2 horse only to see that erased and re-chalked at 6-5.

Given their desire to take from us every cent that we have brought to the races, it's probably a good time to review the fading art of tote board-watching. Most funky money trails lead to a shifty connection, or fringe member of the training or owning team, or a friend thereof, betting just before the post. While not against the rules, wagering a lot of money on inside information at the last second is pretty gutless. But then, on the other hand, who probably wouldn't wait with a big bet that they liked a lot.

There's not much you can do when a horse ticks down two points a second before the gate opens, except to keep an eye on the hustlers. There's something seedy about getting a good-sized bet down right before the post, grubby people hanging out in a teller's window until the starting gate gets busy. A friend of mine keeps statistics on everything. This is a good friend to have. I gratefully buy him rounds. He has the numbers that show horses catching last-second money do run better than they appear in the Form, but that they run second far more frequently than they win. Horses that catch late money are usually middle-odds propositions at middle-sized tracks. If the people who bet them late were better handicappers, they' wouldn't have to train pretenders in the sticks, would they. There's much more to handicapping than training.

Big drops of early money, what's that about? The owner of a $5,000 claimer in his beer cups? Wagering early in case he passes out?

It is not uncommon at some tracks to see a 5-1 horse open at 4-5 and go off at 10-1.

Sometimes a horse catching money can be an illusion. A 5-1 horse going through the wagering period at even money can mean that the odds maker put up a bad opening number. Something that deserves your bet is a well-bred monster in a maiden special. You simply can't beat a motto like: All winners have value. All winners didn't used to have value. Then they added rolling doubles and picks 3's and 4's; suddenly 3-5 easy money can connect to a lot more.

Horses that should catch money, but don't, who needs them. These are different from big-number horses that require skill to find and play.

It's just great that even the money they try to sneak past the sincere, hard-working handicappers has to show up on the tote board. So why wouldn't college football and the NFL want legal and supervised parlay card wagering in Delaware? Legal wagering produces records, receipts. Evidently the college presidents and NFL prefer bookmakers and crooks. Delaware, with its football parlay cards, is my new hero state. When next I am in the northeast, I will absolutely travel there to observe nature and play some games.

Here's an area of tote board watching that is worth your time -- the exotic columns.

When a double or an exacta payoff is a lot less than the win odds suggest should be the case, you need to try to figure out why; then even if you can't see why a horse is taking on money, you need to give some thought to betting what the prospective chiselers are trying to put across with inside information. Hiding money in exotics isn't so time-intensive. They think we're stupid and won't look. The other night I caught a double solely because it should have paid twice what it did. Look Ma, no hands, no Form, just a TV screen and some uncouth characters who will get theirs one day.

The way you have to look at bets that make no horse sense but some financial sense, when it comes to inside money, is what's two bucks, as horse racing is the most rhetorical of the sports.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.

ALSO SEE