The first time you show a novice handicapper a program filled with past performances, he or she is bound to say, “That’s another language to me.” Most of the time, in my experiences, the novice turns away as if there is no interest in learning the “language.”
Sometimes there is a person who is intrigued by the numbers and markings. That person begins to look and ask questions; that person pursues an education because something about the configuration of all the symbols invites a challenge or promises to present clues to the mystery of winning.
Those people, whose interest ensues, learn to read the past performances and find that their initial sense of intimidation was unfair because, for one thing, they are easier to learn than any romance language.
For sure, the attraction to reading past performances is a very personal one; sometimes so personal that it becomes a second language. The relationship between a person and past performances, in fact, becomes possessive. A program or racing form is treated as if it is a private tool.
Years ago, when I was still wet behind my handicapping ears, I asked a veteran horseplayer if I could see his past performances. He grimaced and with great hesitation, held it out. Then, before he gave it to me, he recited the rules: “All right, but just for a second, and don’t spill anything on it or bend or fold it, don’t smudge the ink with your fingers and for [expletive deleted] sake don’t write on it. I mean don’t even make a mark, you got it?”
I knew then I should have my own program. No one should ask to share one. Another veteran commented on that experience, saying, “Asking to use another person’s [Racing Form] is like asking to put on another person’s underwear. When you buy it, it’s yours, you marry it and you express yourself and only yourself on it.”
Today, though the packages for past performances have changed shape and form greatly from the large Thoroughbred publications and one-track programs for harness (remember those glossy covers?), it is still a rite of the handicapper to entirely own what package he or she purchases to use while betting. Some of these packages are huge, with the past performances of 10 tracks in their contents. The paper is thin, easily stained, and you have to check an index just to find the track you want (some of us need to put on or take off our glasses to see the small print).
But make no mistake about the fact that just because the new volumes that house past performances cost a lot more than the old publications, once a person buys a book, it is the sole possession of that person, with a common-law copyright included in the price.
Perhaps that is a reward for learning to read the unique language. Possession, always considered nine-tenths of the law, becomes 100 percent, and the secret of the puzzle, scribbled by the purchaser upon the pages, is a signature.
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