Monthly Archives: March 2010

Clockers (not the Richard Price kind)

Every morning at an American racetrack, hundreds of horses train for upcoming races. Like any athlete, horses have a training regimen that should prepare them to race their best. They’re like distance runners who build toward marathons by increasing the distance of their morning runs. Horses in training often have one full-fledged official workout a week, whereas the rest of the time they’re jogging or galloping.

As this is a game premised on wagering, that official workout has meaning, and offers a glimpse into the health, conditioning, speed, and stamina of a horse. For decades, then, there are people at the track who time these workouts, and that information is published in the racetrack program and Daily Racing Form. The people who time the workouts are known as clockers.

Their job is indispensable but usually overlooked. It is not easy. Horses don’t wear nametags on the track. Clockers must identify the horses by their saddlecloth (which has the trainer’s initials), color, and markings. Once they’ve identified the horse, they use a stopwatch to time the horse’s work (or drill, as it’s also called), often watching and clocking several horses at once.

While every racetrack has a small team of official clockers, say between three and five, and whose timings appear as the official record, in Southern California there’s a tight community of private clockers. This is an aspect unique to California. These private clockers use the information they gather observing horses for wagering purposes or to sell to bettors. The simple idea is that horses translate their morning form to the afternoons. Put another way, five-kilometer runners don’t win marathons overnight.

In a new article for the Daily Racing Form‘s Weekend section, I wrote about this small group of clockers. Even racing novices will, I think, find it an interesting subculture.

The two private clockers I followed are Gary Young, one of the best gamblers and observers of horseflesh in California, and Andy Harrington, who offers his analysis for National Turf.

Here’s a passage:

Clocking is still something of a religion in Southern California. It has different churches – workout reports from National Turf, The Winner’s Card, Today’s Racing Digest, The Handicapper’s Report – and many believers. Workouts are scrutinized like scripture. The scene Young entered almost 30 years ago has experienced some attrition, but it is an aspect of racing that remains unique to California.

Every racetrack has official clockers who time all the workouts on a given day. Equibase gathers this information, which appears in the Daily Racing Form and racetrack programs. But a community of private clockers, who gather information for betting purposes or sell to clients, does not exist outside California. Bettors benefit from this wealth of information and readily pay for it. Their opinions can move the tote board.

“The clocker culture in California is borne out of the fact that if you can clock two tracks you can see 95 percent of the horses,” said Andy Harrington, 46, who wields a stopwatch for National Turf. “You get a line on almost every single horse. That’s why clocker information became so ubiquitous out here: the geographic nature and lack of training centers.”

In other words, Southern California is an island. Without training centers and farms, as on the East Coast, all horses currently train at Hollywood or Santa Anita (or Del Mar in the summer). There are few shippers from out of state, making it a relatively closed horse population. Harrington and his competitors observe the same horses every day, as familiar with them as if they were relatives. Their success depends on it. Harrington says he knows a third of the horses on sight. And nowhere else are workouts so important. In California, trainers work their horses harder and more consistently.

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