The Art of Clocking Horses

Time, an old racetrack axiom holds, only counts in prison.    But that ain’t necessarily so to horse players and horsemen worldwide who depend diligently on mathematical mavens called clockers to provide thorough, accurate, and prompt figures that might help cash a bet or win a race.    Clockers, succinctly described as people who time workouts, ply their trade at tracks from Aqueduct to Zia Park, zeroing in on Thoroughbreds and their exercises from before sunup until the track closes for training, a span of some five hours.    There are private clockers, too, whose primary interest focuses on padding their wallets or making their valued information available to the public for the right price.    They all watch like hawks, displaying the close-up intensity of a movie directed by Sergio Leone, often adding a comment such as “breezing” or “handily,” the latter being the most accomplished workout.    Each track later in the morning sends its works to Equibase, which publishes distances and times of said workouts for all to see, a regimen that has been ongoing for decades, although before technology allowed any nincompoop to go viral with their inane pap, results of the drills were guarded like the gold in Fort Knox, as clockers and trainers kept the data to themselves, dreaming of a prospective windfall.    Santa Anita has six clockers on duty every day, with four stationed in the press box area timing the horses and one “tab writer,” who takes calls from a sixth clocker positioned at the gap in front of the homestretch. The tab writer also can take calls directly from a trainer.    Overall, the track’s staff includes head clocker Kathleen Burtch and her daughter, Samantha; Michael Ascanio, son of retired Humberto Ascanio, former longtime assistant to the late Bobby Frankel; Scott Henry; John Malone; Jennifer Metz, wife of trainer Jeff Metz; Nancy Mlodzianowski; Thom Mitchell; and Dane Nelson.    The tab writer enters the works into a computer for Equibase, the main information bank for horseracing, which distributes them to outlets such as the Daily Racing Form.    On the surface, it might appear that accurately clocking more than 200 horses on any given morning from 4:45 a.m., when the training track opens (the main track opens at five), until 10 a.m. is a daunting and thankless task, but clockers are not flying solo.    Trainers give the names of the horses and the distances they are about to work to the clocker at the gap. He or she relays that to the crew in the press box. If there are later conflicts or uncertainties, typically the trainer will be contacted, even if it means going back to his or her barn to straighten things out.    “We do the best we can to communicate with one another to try and capture all the works,” said Kathleen Burtch, senior member of the crew who has been in command for three years. “The trainers give the calls to Thom at the gap and he relays all the calls to us . . . When it gets really busy, it can be a little difficult to mark every horse, but we all try to help one another.”    Burtch, 58, a native of Washington, started in racing in 1988 at defunct Longacres as an exercise rider before becoming a clocker, which she’s made her vocation for some 30 years. Prior to joining the backstretch brigade, she attended college at Central Washington University.    “Before I turned to clocking, I found out that exercising horses is very hard,” she said, chuckling at the recollection. “It was not easy at all.”    Mitchell, 66, though well organized, doesn’t take anything for granted.    “Trainers are cooperative,” said Mitchell, who has been at Santa Anita some 10 years and also has clocked at Del Mar, Fairplex Park, Hollywood Park, and Los Alamitos. “I think for the most part, the days of hiding horse’s works are fairly over because of technology. Also, there are private clockers in the stands, and somebody’s bound to see something.    “Technology today is so advanced, now we’re at the point of filming works and showing them on TV, so it’s a lot harder to conceal them.”    Clockers also recognize specific workers thanks in large part because they have the markings of all horses, provided by The Jockey Club. In addition, each horse has an identifying lip tattoo, but it’s rare when a clocker has to resort to a lip tattoo to learn the horse’s name.    Familiarity helps.    “As you do this job over and over,” Mitchell said, “you get to know the horses. Plus, the trainers have their own tack and saddle cloths. It’s not like the afternoons, where an owner’s silks are displayed (on a jockey), so we can pretty much isolate a horse’s ID by the trainer’s saddle cloth.”    John Malone has been clocking horses since 1991 after learning the game from the ground up, starting as a hot walker and groom.    “I trained horses for four or five years,” said the 64-year-old Malone, a native of a town near Ontario in Canada called Paris, “but when my daughter (Megan, now 30) was born, I didn’t want to be one of those guys who was never home, so I transitioned from that into clocking horses.    “I’ve bred a few horses, but I still want to go back to training, even though it’s a 24/7 job. I compare clocking horses to being an air traffic controller. It’s basically bedlam for about 20 minutes, and after that you start to put the puzzle together and usually it comes together.”    Malone cites 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus and 2015 Triple Crown king American Pharoah as two Thoroughbreds who showed they were worth the money before they ran their first race.    “They weren’t that hard to find, but Fusaichi Pegasus was one I was touting people on well before he ever ran, even though he was a $4 million yearling,” Malone said. “That doesn’t guarantee you’re going to be successful, but he and American Pharoah were easy to like.    “Time to me is kind of irrelevant, and I hate to sound like Joe Horse Whisperer, but recognizing a good horse is something you’re kind of born with. You see its smoothness, alertness, and whether it’s intelligent or not.    “Usually a good horse will tell you that in the morning well before anyone else sees it in the afternoon. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, but more often than not, it does.    “I’m not a grand gambler by any means, but if I like a horse, usually it can run.”    Russell Hudak has timed horses in California since 1981 and been top clocker at Los Alamitos Race Course in Cypress since Thoroughbreds moved from Hollywood Park after it closed on December 22, 2013.    “I was head clocker for a long time at Hollywood Park but when it closed, I came to Los Al on February 1, 2014,” he said. “My last day at Hollywood was January 31, 2014 and I started at Los Al the next day.”    In addition to timing horses, the 65-year-old Hudak also makes the morning line odds for the afternoon racing programs at Los Alamitos, where multi-faceted Ed Burgart does the odds for evening racing.    While the workouts published by Equibase today are rendered in hundredths of a second as opposed to fifths as in the past, Hudak points out that clockers still capture Thoroughbred times in fifths of a second, such as 48 1/5 for a half mile, as opposed to 48.20.    “Equibase makes those conversions from fifths to hundredths,” Hudak noted. “All the times are submitted to Equibase. In fact, it even built the program so that we can put the times into fifths and it automatically changes them to hundredths, 20, 40, 60, 80. It then processes them and sends them to everyone, almost instantaneously.    “We’ll have guys call us about works before the morning is over, because the tab writer might be still be putting them as they’re about to go public.”    California Chrome was no secret to Hudak, even early on, before the California-bred son of the late Lucky Pulpit went on to win two Horse of the Year titles while making Los Alamitos his home base.    “We knew that California Chrome was a good horse before we left Hollywood Park,” Hudak said. “But he really did develop at Los Al after he went through his early three-year-old campaign at Santa Anita. We saw all of that. Art Sherman had him at Los Al and he trained really well.    “Everybody was saying, ‘Geez, Hollywood Park closed, they’re moving to Los Alamitos. How can you expect Thoroughbred horses to get ready for major competition at a Quarter Horse facility?’ and I think California Chrome answered that question pretty quickly.”    Private clockers have a somewhat different regimen than track clockers; more of a vested interest, if you will.    “Track clockers basically are trying to catch all the horses, get the final times and get it out to the public,” said 56-year-old Gary Young, a man of a thousand opinions who began his career in 1978 and now is one of the most respected practitioners in his field.    “After the first couple (training) breaks on a weekend or during the winter on the first dried out track following a rainy spell, clocking is a very, very difficult job,” Young allowed, “because horses are flying around there, and anyone who’s been at Santa Anita or Del Mar after the first two breaks knows what I’m talking about.”    There are three morning training renovation intermissions, usually at 6, 7:15, and 8:30. Infrequently, tracks will arrange for a public workout before or during the races for a prominent horse preparing for an important stakes race.    “I try to catch a lot of horses, but when it gets busy, you tend to look at the better horses or those from the bigger outfits more than others,” Young said.    “But for me, I’m more likely to bet on a horse from one of the top 20 outfits than one of the bottom 20. I don’t want to miss a lot of works, but during busy times I want to concentrate on trainers who win the majority of the races or trainers I’ve had success gambling on in the past. That’s not to demean lesser trainers, but let’s face it, they don’t get the quality of horses the top guys get.    “Consequently, the chances of me betting on their horses are not as good. I’ve never really aspired to put out a publication with my opinions. Maybe I should have, but I never did. These days, I spend a lot of time out of town, at the end of February at the two-year-old sales through the Preakness (mid-May), so it would be pretty tough to do one anyway.    “Despite being fortunate enough to have some very high-level clients, I still like to gamble. It’s not as lucrative as it used to be, and at times, I ponder whether it’s worth the number of hours that I put in, but there are still some decent gambles that I cash because of my workout watching.    “When you try to gamble off of workouts, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that my big advantage is in the maiden (allowance) races. The landscape of California racing and racing all over to some extent has changed greatly since I started clocking 37 years ago.    “The two-year-old maiden races in Southern California up until the mid-90s usually had 10, 11, 12 horses in them and sometimes there would be five that worked pretty damn good, so if you happened to fall on the right horse and it wasn’t trained by a top trainer or ridden by (Laffit) Pincay or (Chris) McCarron, you could get a really good mutuel if it won.    “Nowadays, some of these maiden races have maybe seven, eight, nine horses tops, and there are only a couple of them that can run, so it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that the gambling edge is somewhat diminished just by sheer numbers.”    That said, it’s little wonder Young’s pockets these days are filled more by his transactions at the sales.    “I make more money purchasing horses for people than I do gambling,” said Young, who is understandably proud of his keen eye for a Thoroughbred.    “Crafty C.T., Brocco, Tom’s Tribute, Gabriel Charles, Life At Ten, Evening Jewel, Illuminant are but a few of the stakes winners I had a hand in purchasing for clients,” he said.    “The last year has been a little quiet for me, but I’ll stand by my record. There are some people out there who can tell you every horse I bought that hasn’t turned out, but those people probably don’t have 18 Grade 1s on their resume, either.”    Toby Turrell has been turning out one of the game’s most profitable tip tabloids, “The Yellow Sheet,” for 30 years, but that’s only one of the 53-year-old California native’s enterprises. Additionally, his workouts are sold via the internet on “Case the Race.”    He also does gigs for Daily Racing Form at Keeneland, Del Mar, and Santa Anita. “I’ve worked at Del Mar now for seven years, and basically the difference between clocking for the track and clocking for The Yellow Sheet is one dimensional,” he said. “You’re just putting a time on the horse.    “But honestly, I don’t think there’s any such thing anymore as a public or private clocker. They are obsolete expressions. There isn’t anyone I don’t clock for, in theory.    “My passion for the game grows stronger every day, even after 30 years. That’s the beauty of the whole endeavor. I’ve kind of proved that by enriching my resume through completing another season at the Fair Grounds, Keeneland, Del Mar, and back at Santa Anita.    “This is just one of many studies and pursuits I have in racing. I bought a couple of yearlings, so I don’t stop at clocking horses. That’s just where it begins for me, but everything goes in cycles in this game.”    Santa Anita’s clockers are under the sanction of the Racing Department, headed by Vice President of Racing and Racing Secretary Rick Hammerle.    “They are union positions and under the guidance of Santa Anita Race Track,” Hammerle said. “We have more clockers than any place I’ve ever worked, and they’re needed, because the number of workouts in California are more than at any place I’ve ever seen.    “I think they do a fantastic job, considering on many days the volume gets into the hundreds in a compact time frame. There are a lot of watches clicking during that span, but thanks to communication between the clockers and trainers, while it doesn’t remove all the guesswork, it does eliminate some of the mindreading.    “Clockers make mistakes, like anyone, but accuracy is most important. Even if they have to come back and put the horse and its correct time in the next day, they’ll do that. Bettors need to know when they see a time, it’s right. The clockers pride themselves in doing that.    “It’s a lot of work, a lot of follow up, a lot of teamwork, and that’s what it takes because clocking horses can be mayhem in the mornings.    “Clockers talk their own language; each person has his own job to do and it’s pretty wild to watch them do it.”

Time, an old racetrack axiom holds, only counts in prison.

But that ain’t necessarily so to horse players and horsemen worldwide who depend diligently on mathematical mavens called clockers to provide thorough, accurate, and prompt figures that might help cash a bet or win a race.

Clockers, succinctly described as people who time workouts, ply their trade at tracks from Aqueduct to Zia Park, zeroing in on Thoroughbreds and their exercises from before sunup until the track closes for training, a span of some five hours.

There are private clockers, too, whose primary interest focuses on padding their wallets or making their valued information available to the public for the right price.

They all watch like hawks, displaying the close-up intensity of a movie directed by Sergio Leone, often adding a comment such as “breezing” or “handily,” the latter being the most accomplished workout.

Each track later in the morning sends its works to Equibase, which publishes distances and times of said workouts for all to see, a regimen that has been ongoing for decades...

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