When One Door Closes, Another One Opens

This week, when Gulfstream and Turfway open their winter meets, is always one of my favorite ones of the year from a cold, crass handicapping perspective. This doesn’t mean I will do well at either of these tracks. It also doesn’t mean, necessarily, that Gulfstream and Turfway are among my favorite tracks. But I’m confident that I will have a lot of fun playing these two ovals—especially between now and the end of the year.

The key for me is that both tracks will a) be starting new meetings and b) the participants (horses, trainers, riders) will not be the same old crew as those that finished out the respective preceding meets (in this case, Gulfstream Park West and Churchill Downs).

With the infusion of new blood (Gulfstream will see many Northeast shippers and Turfway will field many from Ohio and West Virginia)—and perhaps some tinkering with the track surfaces during the downtime—I find meet openings like these are like new beginnings, offering handicappers chances to tap into trends before the general public does so. And sometimes the opportunities are even riper with lower-profile, less scrutinized tracks (like Turfway).

About eight or so years ago, I had one of the great runs of my life playing deep closers (preferably piloted by competent, patient riders) early in the meeting at Turfway. I had no idea what accounted for the bias, but it got to be so much fun that I was almost as excited when the entries came out as I was on race day, itself.

In the blink of an eye, right around the turn of the new year, it was over. Speed horses started winning—regularly—and my mojo was shot. And a good chunk of my profits went out the door right along with my mojo. It was a little like being overweighted in high-flying Internet stocks during the bubble that burst in early 2000. It was a painful landing, but it was a fun ride while it lasted.

As fate would have it, I found myself at a party with then-Turfway G.M. Bob Elliston a month or so after the demise of my beloved deep closers. I tried my best to sound intellectually curious and not too blatantly bitter.

“So, Bob, um…great meet…by chance, did you guys maybe do something to the racing surface recently?”

His face lit up.

“You bet!” he beamed. “We waxed it at the beginning of the year. It was overdue for a wax job, but we finally got it done. It’s looking great now, isn’t it??”

I tried really hard to stay cheerful. “Yeah,” I said, unconvincingly. Then I clumsily changed the subject to something along the lines of world hunger and made my exit shortly thereafter.

Nevertheless, I have enjoyed Decembers at Turfway (and Gulfstream) ever since. Sometimes it’s track bias, sometimes it’s a new trainer or jockey who’s unfamiliar to the regulars (and jockeys are very important at Turfway, I’ve found), sometimes it’s a suddenly weird post position trend. But it’s often…something. And when you feel like you can jump into a new meeting on equal footing with everyone to start, and then possibly latch onto something that can give you a leg up, thinking through the races can become even more fun than usual.

And even if that “something” never quite shows itself, the heightened level of alertness now re-introduced to your handicapping process can be a pretty beneficial tonic come the end of a long year.

So no offense, Gulfstream Park West or Churchill Downs (or Del Mar, for that matter), but I’m excited to start anew with a couple of old acquaintances.