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Culture & Artsby Mark Reutter7:04 amMar 31, 20120

Getting the skinny on Pimlico from a seasoned handicapper

The thrill of horses in flight, as seen by an aficionado.

Above: “Cadre” nudges out “Pollards Image” in the fifth race at Pimlico, which started its 137th season yesterday.

For opening day at the Pimlico Race Track, I dropped $8 on three races, wagering on two exactas that each lost by a horse’s head and an exacta box that might as well have missed by a mile.

Pimlico began its 137th season yesterday. The races will culminate with the running of the Preakness Stakes, the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown, on May 19.

Yesterday’s races featured Thoroughbreds mostly from Maryland, and whatever I squandered at the mutuel window I quickly regained from an elegant tutorial on the lure of horse racing by Lorna Della.

Lorna, who lives in Baltimore County and spends her weekdays at an Annapolis law office, describes herself as a track aficionado. The horrors of the racing industry, detailed recently in The New York Times, were far from her mind.

And listening to her words, amid a flock of railbirds peering out on the field expectantly, you can pick up the electric charge of witnessing equus ferus caballus in flight.

“Watching a horse break from the gate and run as fast as it can, just because that’s what their heart tells them to do, gives me a thrill I cannot describe,” she tells me before Race Five (the first run yesterday on the inside turf) as we studied the tout sheet.

Railbirds hang on to the running of one of the seven dirt races yesterday. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Railbirds hang on to the running of a dirt track race yesterday. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

That thrill began when she was nine years old watching the Kentucky Derby on television. “I remember asking my mother what happens to the horses that don’t win. ‘They’re still running around the track,’ she said.”

So has Lorna. She witnessed her first live races at Tampa Bay Downs, in Florida, as a teenager. Moving to Baltimore in 1998 was one of the happiest moments in her life because of Pimlico. “The first thing I did was get my name on the waiting list for Preakness tickets. I have never missed a Preakness since then, and always try to making today, the opening day, as well.”

Horsing Around

Owning three horses gives her an appreciation of what it takes to get a 1,200-pound animal to the racetrack. “I know about mucking stalls,” she says. “I know about holding the lead line while the farrier trims and shoes a horse.” She’s nursed a sick draft horse, whom she named “Mr. Lucky,” back to life and is now training a two-year-old colt.

Horsekeeping aside, she’s been privy to the pleasure of crossing a 20-foot-wide stream on the back of a mare and not getting her feet wet, and “laughing out loud while galloping through the woods.”

Despite the start of live racing yesterday, many bettors stuck to the video simulcasts inside the field horse. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Despite yesterday's start of live racing – to continue, Thursdays-Sundays, through May 19 – many bettors stuck to video simulcasts from other tracks. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

In terms of betting, everybody has his or her own slants and superstitions. One of her friends, for example, is a disciple of the fairly exotic wager known as the key bet.

“He’ll find a horse he thinks is going to win and he’ll key it with 5 or 6 other horses. Meaning that as long as that one horse wins, the five or six horses he picked to come in second, he’s a winner. And he wins quite frequently. But the downside is that it costs more to play it that way.”

The Long Odds

Lorna’s usual technique is to find a horse that she thinks will come in first or second, then pair him with another horse that has longer odds “because you make your money on long odds.”

She’ll scrutinize the racing program for intel, concentrating on a horse’s bloodline, class rating and the reputation of its trainer. She sees the latter as critical.

“Say a horse hasn’t been running well, but now he’s being trained by a trainer you know always gets the best out of his horse. Then I’m inclined to bet on that horse. I don’t care if he came in last in every other race.”

“Racing,” she continues, “is a thinking man’s game. The more you know, the more successful you are. But it’s also sort of simple. Or can be.”

Musing for a few seconds as a man watching a simulcast on a nearby screen yells out, “Come on, Nine! Come on,” she says, “I like the unpredictability. I like being in a crowd making noise.”

Bettors could see the horses through the glass windows of the paddock where they are paraded before a race. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Bettors can see horses through the glass windows of the paddock where they are paraded before a race. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Her picks for Race 5 go down in flames, but she’s ready to try again in Race 7, a turf battle between a dozen ponies. She settles on “Last Empire” because he has a solid class rating and “Great Harbour” (as the longer odds) because he has won his last two races on the grass.

Lorna darts toward the outer rail with her husband as the horses round the second curve. Heading down the home stretch, the animals pound the grass, scattering tufts of sod. The crowd stirs in anticipation. No. 2, Great Harbour, sweeps across the finish line, followed by No. 10, Last Empire.

Lorna joins in the cheers. She’s won $24.30 on her $4 exacta box.

That makes for a $4.30 net gain for her $20 worth of wagers, her usual betting limit on a racing day. The sky has turned sullen, but Lorna is feeling good.

“I can’t imagine a better way to spend an afternoon,” she declares, bounding back into the field house.

An outrider, or mounted escort, waits to lead a racehorse to the starting gate. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

An outrider, or mounted escort, on the dirt, waiting to lead a racehorse to the starting gate. In the rear, rowhouses on Belvedere Avenue take in the day's offering. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

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