AS THE HAPPY Handicapper often reminds himself and his fellow horseplayers, the No. 1 rule in the difficult game of making money at the track is "Pay Attention."
This is especially important at the local harness tracks which, for some reason or another, seem to go out of their way to make the game more difficult for the casual player.
Next to the lack of information on use of the "equalizer" sulky and other equipment changes, one of the H.H.'s major peeves is the inadequacy of information about trainer and driver records.
His complaint takes two different trails.
First, is the fact that although the harness tracks do an admirable job of printing each trainer's and driver's current record next to his or her name in the program, those records only include the results of the current meet.
So when a player looked at the seventh race in Friday night's Buffalo Raceway program, he or she saw that Jerry Nugent Jr., the trainer and driver of the No. 2 horse, was 0-for-8 in both roles.
But those figures include only Nugent's performances at the week-old winter meet. Nowhere was there any truer indication of his ability, as might have been revealed by either his record at the recent Batavia Downs summer-fall meet (where he was 9 for 68 as a trainer and 8 for 63 as a driver) or his overall record for the year at all tracks.
The second peeve is the way the harness tracks list the driver and trainer standings. Unlike the custom at many other tracks, including the major harness and thoroughbred plants in Ontario, the Western New York harness programs do not list complete records of all drivers and trainers, but list only the top few who have competed a minimum number of times at the current meet.
This leads to some confusing situations. Situations which cause some good horsemen to go unrecognized and some unattentive horseplayers to get hammered.
For instance, the final results of the recent Batavia meet, as published in Friday night's program, lists Brenda Ohol as the leading trainer, with 28 wins in 130 starts. Second is John Bonne, with 21 wins in 106 starts. They are followed by Dennis Cummings, Lisa Lederhouse, Stephen Flanigen, Tracy Wilcox, Mike Grieco Jr. and Bob Johnson.
But since it took a minimum of 98 starts to get onto the list, there was no mention of several very successful trainers who remained relatively invisible except to those who pay attention. Trainers like the following unsung heroes:
Michael L. Torcello: Although he had just 81 starts, Torcello sent out 28 winners, the same number as trophy-winner Ohol. He also had 13 seconds and 10 thirds for a "Universal Rating" of .476, compared with Ohol's .357. (To get the rating, assign nine points per win, five per second, and three per third and divide that sum by the total of nine times the number of starts.) Torcello's top horses included Royal Majesty (a winner of almost $41,000), Daylon Cobra, Battle Force, Perry Cash and other frequent visitors to the winner's circle.
Debra Slack: The early leader at Buffalo Raceway's winter meet was 12 at-bats shy of getting her name in the standing at Batavia Downs, where she posted an 18-16-8 record in 86 races, mostly with Tom Swift in the bike. So far at Hamburg, Slack/Swift have clicked with Crown of Harts (twice), Ocala Lone Ranger, Bando Scarlet, and Friends and Lovers.
James Compton: His 43 starts were far short of the minimum standards for listing in the standing, but Compton's 17 winners would have ranked him in the Top 10 for sure. Sly Hi, his 4-year-old gelding, won Autumn Pacing Series events at Saratoga, Vernon and Batavia and his times were frequently in the sub-two minute range. Valleycreek Ron, a $4,000 to $5,000 claimer, was another frequent winner.
Pat Sackett: Her 15 winners in 61 starts is an excellent record. Sackett's horses won almost a quarter of their starts and were in the money almost half the time. Her top horses have included Rothko, Supreme Killean and Crude Cartel.
Al Mariacher: Al Mariacher's white, gold and red colors haven't been seen on the track as often as in the past, but that doesn't mean the veteran horseman isn't having a good year. Frequently employing a variety of catch drivers, Mariacher won 15 of 69 races, and had 11 seconds and 14 thirds. Mariacher got off to another fast start at Buffalo Raceway with wins from Freddie's Skipper ($28.20, driven by Don Rothfuss); Jam Baroness ($24.40, driven by himself); Kristen Seelster ($8, Don O'Dwyer), and Windsong T. Collins ($3.20, Ed McNeight Jr.).
Alana Caprio: The female half of Team Caprio (husband Mike does the driving) clicked with 16 winners in 86 starts but fell a dozen at-bats short of breaking into the standing. Moonlighting, a 6-year-old mare, has been her bread-and-butter horse this year. Other recent wins have been scored with Keystone Avalon, Swift Emerald, Bangles Hanover and Sobriety Collins.
David McNeight Sr.: One of the senior members of the McNeight clan, his 15-of-86 record was not quite good enough to make the official honor roll. But smart bettors pay attention to the animals he sends out, especially with son Dave in the sulky. His Udalafesta, driven by Dave, paid $78.20 on Nov. 17. Other recent winners include Highland Division, Perry's Bonfire, and Come On Snoopy.
David Spaziano: This wizard doesn't send out many horses, but when he does, you'd better pay attention. Spaziano's steeds raced only 22 times at Batavia last summer: They won 10 races and finished in the money 18 times.
Three Spaziano horses have made recent winning appearances. Careful Driver, a $3,000 claiming pacer, has won five times since Labor Day. Cadillac Ranch A and veteran campaigner Twilight Sam have also scored victories.