Break out the Maalox.
Hide any sharp objects.
Mark Cusano just wants to remember how to get home, he’ll say.
If you’re at Saratoga Race Course when the 2008 season opens on Wednesday, take a look at the white platform on the roof just above the press box. You might spot Cusano and a sprinkling of other handicappers scoping a race.
At some point every year, Cusano looks like he might be ready to jump. He never does.
That’s the kind of tongue-in-cheek angst that’s an everyday part of life for those who provide opinions on which horses will finish first, second and third in each of the almost 350 thoroughbred races that will be run at the historic track in the next six weeks.
Of the 25 to 30 handicappers who publish their Saratoga selections in upstate and downstate newspapers, the Gazette will spotlight Cusano, Bill Heller and Dave Litfin over the next three days to illustrate how difficult their job is and why.
Anyone who’s wagered at the Spa knows what a challenge it is to win money, at least on a consistent basis. Like the springwater that flows from the Big Red Spring in the picnic area, the stream of opinions is endless. What makes the handicappers a good resource for mystified bettors is the fact that they put in hours of research every day and have spent years observing the patterns and vicissitudes of racing.
And still, it’s just hard to be right, especially at Saratoga. As Heller, who handicaps the New York Racing Association circuit year-round for the Gazette, said, “To be realistic, I’m in a business where if I’m only wrong six times out of nine, that’s a good day.”
Saratoga, widely regarded as the best meet in the U.S. based on the quality of daily racing for a condensed period on the calendar, is a different kind of puzzle for handicappers.
There are some quirks, and most cards have a certain all-star-game feel, as big purses and tradition-rich stakes races attract horses from all over the world. Another complication is the emergence of synthetic surfaces in North America in the past five years, leaving handicappers scratching their heads trying to translate horses’ performances from these tracks to a dirt track like Saratoga.
There are certain universal principles that all handicappers apply to the selection process, but with an increasing amount of past performance data available, each handicapper has a distinctive style and routine to sift through all the information.
Cusano, who joins Heller as a Gazette handicapper for the meet, is known for his expertise picking turf races and for haunting the press box replay machine that was installed about 10 years ago.
The racing analyst for WGY radio and co-host with Mike Veitch of the OTB Network’s popular “Down the Stretch” program every Saturday morning, Cusano was one of the first in the Saratoga press box to take advantage of video from about a dozen tracks around the country, prompting Gazette sports writer Phil Janack to post a hand-made sign over the machine that read, “The Mark Cusano Replay Center.”
“I said as long as it doesn’t say ‘The Mark Cusano Memorial Replay Center,’ that’s OK,” Cusano said.
He can laugh when he says that because Cusano has just about the best record at Saratoga in the past 25 years.
Among the Capital Region newspapers, the New York City tabloids and the Daily Racing Form, where Litfin is the lead NYRA selector, close to 30 handicappers keep track of their total winners throughout the meet in an informal but intently watched competition.
Cusano was the press box champ twice while working for the Glens Falls Post-Star and has done it four times in the 12 years he’s worked for the Gazette. A former assistant golf pro at Wolferts Roost Country Club, he started going to Saratoga with his father about 40 years ago, when he would bring $10 he earned caddying and try to keep it and maybe build on it.
He tries to bring that sensibility to the picks he makes at Saratoga.
“When you put your name on something, you’re going to do the best job you possibly can,” he said. “Some years will work wonderfully. Sometimes you actually work harder, when it’s a struggle, than years when it kind of flows and everything falls into place.”
One of those years for Cusano was 2005, when he picked 133 winners in 345 races (38.6 percent) and blew away the press box competition.
Horses with no history
Even in a year like that, though, there are plenty of opportunities for Cusano to dredge up the old “Maalox moment” catchphrase.
That’s because each winner is precious to the handicappers, and there are so many different ways to be wrong.
Saratoga is difficult for several reasons, the most prominent of which is the fact that the lucrative purses bring in good horses from everywhere. Any given race can have more than one or two real contenders.
This is also the time of year when trainers begin to feel more comfortable racing their 2-year-olds. A handicapper will have some information and racing performance to consider for the better ones pointed toward stakes races, like the Schuylerville for fillies on opening day Wednesday, but many of the races will be filled with first-time starters whose lack of experience makes them next to impossible to figure out.
“Many times, the field will be comprised of anywhere between 75 and 100 percent first-time starters,” Cusano said. “So we’re all looking at the same information. We all know what certain trainer patterns are, we all know what certain workout patterns are, we all understand what pedigree says, but you know what, it’s simply an educated guess. It really is.
“And then you’ve got the 2-year-old grass racing. Going two turns often is like a magical mystery tour for these babies. Downstate, they might give them a sprint race as a maiden race for 2-year-olds, but here, it’s a two-turn race, and some of them, when they get to that first turn, they say, ‘What is this?’ ”
Fast on the grass
A trend in the past few years that has been a particular bugaboo of Cusano’s is the frequency of turf sprints, which, because of the configuration of the Saratoga turf course, can only be run at 51⁄2 furlongs.
His deep-seated love of turf racing — “the proper surface” in Cusano-speak — doesn’t extend to these little demons because they’re rarely run anywhere else in the country, creating a dearth of past performances, the lifeblood of handicappers.
After picking 40 percent winners on the turf at all distances in 2005, Cusano’s record on turf sprints alone last year was 4 for 40 (10 percent).
“So is it that I just became stupid in a relatively short period of time?” he said. “I simply had no idea, no feel for it. I didn’t have a feel for how to treat it. I wouldn’t even come within 100 feet of the window until I figure out what’s going on. But that has been a major, major change in handicapping Saratoga, for me, the advent of the ridiculously large number of turf sprints.”
As far as the issue of synthetic surfaces goes, most handicappers, including Cusano, haven’t seen enough of it yet to make confident, informed decisions. They’re much more likely to pick a horse who has shown that it likes running on dirt over one who mostly trains and races on synthetics like Polytrack and Cushion Track.
Crunching the data
So with all of these pitfalls, what’s a handicapper to do?
In Cusano’s case, as with most people, it starts with the Daily Racing Form, which lists pedigrees and is chock full of detailed past performance information and trainer and jockey statistics for each horse in each race.
He’ll eliminate 50 to 80 percent of the field, then head to the replay machine to get a better look at exactly how the horses that are left on his list ran in recent races. NYRA provides a few of these machines for free to the general public in the clubhouse.
“I’ve probably watched more video than anybody that I know as a public handicapper,” Cusano said. “I started a long, long time ago using video, and that’s the biggest thing for me. So race by race, I will go ahead and look at the necessary video and make notes on all of that, and that’s basically the way I arrive upon whatever selections I’m going to make.”
Cusano still has stacks of old General Electric logbooks that he filled with trip notes from races as far back as the 1980s.
Before he begins to write his picks and comments, he’ll spend 2 1⁄2 to 4 hours bouncing between the Daily Racing Form and the video.
“There’s subtleties that you see watching replays that somebody else may not see,” he said. “The great thing is, we’ve had times where in the press box, there might be two or three or four or five of us watching the same replay together, and we see things in a completely different way.
“Every race is its own puzzle. I’ve always done pretty well determining when a horse is sitting on a move-forward effort, sitting on a big effort. Having done this for a quarter of a century, there are certain things in watching replays that would give you the confidence that a horse is sitting on the type of effort that you feel is good enough to be a winning effort.”
Skill and a bit of luck
Even then, it can come down to simple racing luck.
One year, Cusano’s top pick was tied for first in a photo finish the first 12 times that happened at the meet, and the placing judges ruled in favor of the other horse 11 times. When it’s going that poorly, he’s likely to mumble, “I just want to find my way home.”
“My poor wife, we’ve been together since 1974, and what she’s put up with is unbelievable,” Cusano said. “You talk about frustrating, you talk about how important photos are. You have to be handicapping pretty well to have horses involved in photo finishes. You’re not getting beat 10 or 12 lengths. [But] the first 12 photos I was involved with, I lost 11 of them. I was a basket case.”
So no matter how well Cusano’s doing this year, by the end of the meet, he’ll be ready for this Pick Three: Antacid in the first, Dashboard GPS in the second and Soft Pillow in the third.