Commentary

Small track blues

Updated: September 27, 2010, 8:03 PM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

There are two distinct kinds of horse handicapping -- big track racing and small track racing.

The gap between the two types of racing has closed markedly because of slot machine loot. Now that the recession is over on Wall Street, fewer people will be cashing Welfare checks at your friendly casinos, more will be cashing Social Security grants there. Slot profits in the sticks continue to grow. At the average small track on a Thursday afternoon or evening, full fields are routine, as horses that belong in state-bred $5,000 claiming races run for $30,000 allowance windfalls, with $60,000 trucks parked all over the pot-bellied trainers' lot. In New York and California, five-horse fields limit wagering opportunities and remind spectators of dressage.

I have long been a supporter of small-track horse racing. The weekday crowds are hardly sizeable enough to qualify as even being colorful color anymore. It's the small-track handicapping angles that bring the color to the table in the form of cash.

Next time, as you're trying to figure a play among the six 10-1 shots that all look alike at a so-called "major" track, turn the dial over to somewhere like the Fairplex racing facility at Pomona, where the distance from the last bend in the rail to the wire is about two hops, a skip, three jumps and a lunge. Porky Pig could have the lead coming out of that turn and finish in the money. It's like Roller Derby, the hustle for the lead around the late bend can be that aggressive.

It's easier to find 10-1 winners at smaller tracks.

That's because the track biases seem more pronounced and the wagering public is dumber, some horses couldn't outrun me and still get bet. The lousier the competition, the better chance your 10-1 horse has to get there, beat some bums and collect, that's the way it frequently goes at Hinterlands Race Course.

But betting life is not always easygoing in the hideaways.

Here's what can happen to your picking skills on the way to collecting.

The other night at Charles Town, a fine and dandy West Virginia track that is up from Summit Point and over from Bolivar, I found an appealing rolling Double play, one of those 10-1 horses that, outside of some bad luck and who knows what kind of handling, looked every bit as decent as the favorites, quitters against sorrier.

When any two races can be hooked up as a Half Hour Double, forget daily, all you have to do to give yourself a chance to win dinner in another state is find one solid and slightly misunderstood horse; then you play it with something before or after and see what happens.

The race after the one I liked seemed to be full of a coin flip followed by more coin flips.

The one before had a halfway decent favorite, plus three or four others that had warmed up straight.

So I played my 10-1 shot with five in the race before, Double tickets for the most part, the odd exacta.

And off they went in the first half of the rolling Double, some impossible, fishy speed causing a moment of concern.

Isn't it grand, though, seeing horses that you didn't play being asked too early, feeling the whip too soon on the turn?

The winner of this one paid almost $8.

I had it with the one I loved, which got bet a little and went off at 8-1.

This is why we go to the races: Late on a week night, about two dozen people in the joint, counting workers, my Super Duper Rolling Double Yahoo Downs Play of the Week, no, Play of the Month, near the lead, me cheering the sleeper pick on in full voice, we're on the outside in deep stretch, up a nose, back a jaw, up a lip, who can tell for sure at the wire, they could have put on the Photo sign 50 yards out, it was that tight. And what's with the camera angles at many tracks, as much as they take off the top of each wagering pool, couldn't they get the race camera aligned straight on the finish? When you yell for a horse, and all the tellers hear you, and the horse wins the Photo and it pays you almost $19, you have to tip the tellers and waitresses because they're so happy for you.

My horses paid right at $8 and right at $19; nice, huh, real nice.

The Double paid $29.

I waited for the announcement about a tote malfunction, about a corrected price.

Two favorites can pay $29.

Secretariat and somebody probably paid $29.

But the $29 became official, and it was on to the next puzzle.

Subtract this, take away that, tip, settle the food tab and this example of late night midweek handicapping excellence cleared me eight, nine dollars.

There's this small-track axiom. When somebody bets real money and hits it late on a weeknight in the outback, there are no real winners.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.