The Mr. Ed Follies

The first post time is still half an hour away, but the thoroughbred racing action has already begun, via video, in the Inside Track Room. The glass-enclosed area, which resembles nothing more than a smokers' lounge at the airport -- sans smoke -- is beneath the grandstand at Gulfstream Park. And on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, it's full of people watching the video montage of crop-flailing riders, flared horse nostrils, and fist-shaking fans that opens "Showtime at the Inside Track Room," an entertaining live program that teaches neophytes how to bet on the ponies.

In recent years racetrack crowds have dwindled, and tracks have responded by turning their grounds into amusement parks of sorts, featuring -- as Gulfstream does -- weekly concerts and special events. One such event is "Showtime," which takes the mystery out of reading a racing handicap form, which, without interpretation, might as well be written in Greek.

"So if we can educate people about [wagering] in an entertaining way, then we can get them excited enough to come back out and visit another time," explains Scott Savin, president of the Florida chapter of the Horseman's Benevolent and Protective Association, which helped create the program.

Entertainment is provided by college theater students, who present information through songs, humor, and trivia contests. During three races shown on closed-circuit TV, they even encourage the crowd to whoop it up, just like the folks in the video.

While the show is fun in a campy way, racing newcomers do end up learning a valuable lesson: Making educated betting choices doesn't require hours of studying a racing form. What bettors really need to know is conveyed by track staffers Sarah Polley, an exercise rider, and Caton Breder, an ESPN and Fox Sports horse-racing analyst who also appears on Gulfstream's simulcasts.

Polley provides a breakdown of the track's official racing form, the Handicapper, which lists each horse's breeding history, owners, trainers, and statistics from its last several races.

Today Polley notes that the number-two horse in the second race, Tactical Honor, has finished third six times in eight races, as indicated by a row of numbers in the middle of the chart. "So maybe he doesn't want to win that bad," she says. Horse number four, Boundary Hunter, is running its first seven-furlong race, evident by reading the column of digits followed by the letter f. He might tire by the end, Polley muses.

Perhaps the most useful information comes from the Daily Racing Form. In the "comments" section of the Handicapper, information pulled from the national publication says a lot about a horse's performance and temperament in recent races. "Between rivals, gamely," for instance, reveals that a horse had no problem running in a pack and bullying its way through. "Hugged in" means a horse didn't hold a straight line and thus lost ground.

By considering such factors, bettors can increase their odds of picking winners. And there are other elements to take into account. In video segments created for "Showtime," for example, Breder discusses how the odds work and what to look for when checking out horses before the race.

"When you leave the program, you really know about as much as 90 percent of the so-called professionals," says Savin. "The next time [novices] come back to the track, they'll make a bet or two and feel like they can compete with the so-called experts."

-- John Ferri

"Showtime at the Inside Track Room" takes place Saturday and Sunday during racing season at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. at Gulfstream Park, 901 S. Federal Hwy., Hallandale. The program is free; admission to the track is $3. Call 954-457-6224.

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John Ferri