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Handicapping, Zen and the
Art of Growing Old Gracefully
by George Kaywood

As I write this, it is late in the week of Breeders Cup 2000.With as much handicapping and Internet/handicapping.com work as this week requires, the thought that nags anyone who writes a weekly column from time to time, "What should I write about for next week?" has been pushing its way to the top of my to-do list a little more strongly than it sometimes does. When I stumbled into the kitchen for my morning coffee today,  looked at  the large colorful calendar above my kitchen stove and saw that I had not yet changed October to November, I knew it was time to step back from the focus of the moment and look around at the rest of my world. 

Knowing that letting go, clearing one's mind, often lets answers come naturally in a seemingly mysterious flash of realization, I mentally relaxed, and continued the practice in the physical world by taking a somewhat scenic route back from the office supply store this morning. I found myself taking a new shortcut on a street that cut across what was actually the racing surface itself at Ak-Sar-Ben, the once-great racetrack in the heart of Omaha. 

In the mid-morning sunlight of autumn, the grandstand still held enough life to bounce back a brightness that could almost make you believe there would be horses racing there this afternoon. In the midst of the reality of two guys pushing lawn mowers on what has become a college soccer field, peeling paint, and nature converting the paved parking lots into erratic patterns of green grass and yellow weeds, I could hear the ghosts of Ak-Sar-Ben calling to me in broad daylight, telling me what to tell you here today. 

They said it is fitting and proper for all horseplayers to simply STOP from time to time to savor, as well, as remember, the very human pleasures that racing affords "its people." They said to remind you that mental rest is just as important as physical rest when you are concentrating intensely on finding the winning horse and The Right Play, because you must rest to grow stronger. They said to always take the time to talk and share with those who seek to join the ranks of Handicapper, so that there will always be ghosts in future grandstands--and, indeed, future grandstands where the only time the ghosts are there is between live racing seasons. 

Often, the activities that are generated as a result of being a racing fan live on in memory as much as particular races that you can never forget. For example, going out for dinner after a day at the races and lingering long into the night with both horse and human stories, laughter, and love, offers the intimacy that seems to be missing more and more from our lives. I have a number of those memories, which have become even more important to me as human frailties, time, and sometimes distance try to push away the enchantment that was, and still is, so satisfying. The wife of an avid racing fan friend became disabled several years ago to the point where he is caring fulltime for her now. His cards and letters always make references to the days when all of us went to dinner together after the races when she was well. For me, and especially for him, those memories-which would not be there had it not been for racing-take on an even deeper meaning. 

And then there are the occasions that belong uniquely to those in the racing fraternity (political correctness be damned!) that you have to be a handicapper to fully appreciate. The rather small collection of horseracing jokes that only players can understand and laugh at; the guy who says "I'm never comin' back here again!" and five minutes later says "See ya tomorrow," as he buys the next day's Form to study at home that night; the relationship you build with the lady who's worked for years at the hot dog counter, who is in a sense enough a part of your family that if she's off one day, you have to ask to find out where she is, just to be sure she's O.K. 

Zen is technically a Japanese Buddhist sect, but the term has become used in the broader sense of the sect's beliefs, which teach self-discipline, meditation, and attainment of enlightenment through direct intuitive insight. 

Does it strike you, as it has me, that those principles are really what every handicapper seeks as well? 

Meditation is that clearing of one's mind, which I referred to earlier, and I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that my driving past the old racetrack and realizing what I want to say to you this week is in a small way, a type of intuitive insight, just a very small touch of enlightenment. 

Last Saturday night, my friend Spotplay and I were playing some night tracks and we had pretty much finished our planned handicapping for the evening, but there were still a few races left at two tracks. We relaxed, took a breather, and looked over the remaining races very casually. I spotted a horse that had enough "angles" that made it jump off the page. Spotplay agreed, and the horse won at 7-1. Then we examined what seemed to be a nondescript field of maiden claimers, "writing the script" for how the race should be run, and watched as it unfolded as we had decided it should. Handicapping enlightenment. 

I drove home later alone, marveling not at our handicapping skill, but at the process that occasionally allows a player to unknowingly step into a higher level of handicapping, a different dimension in which you make decisions almost intuitively, drawing unconsciously from study, theory, and actual practice to understand how and why some races must run the way they do. It's a time, a place, an experience that doesn't happen frequently, but it only needs to happen once or twice to make you aware that you can excel at the game that you love. And only a fellow player can understand and appreciate what you're talking about when you try to explain it. To me, that's the Zen of handicapping. 

And what about growing old gracefully? Spotplay has expressed to me a concern that I'm sure many other Baby Boomer generation players (give or take a few years) have. He has seen, as most of us have, oldsters whose health has required them to move into various types of nursing homes, some because of physical illness, some because of Alzheimer's or similar mental problems. 

I know too many old-timers who are handicappers who I keep seeing over and over again at the local simulcast outlets, who were daily players when Ak-Sar-Ben didn't have or need any ghosts. They're still enchanted by the game and the challenge of it all. I tell Spotplay that as long as his interest is there, as long as he is determined to dope out who's going to win in tomorrow's feature, as long as he argues with me over breakfast in the coffee shop about track bias and questionable rides, he doesn't have anything to worry about. Handicapping keeps the mind exercised, and gives you something to look forward to every day. 

Even if you should develop a reputation for being a little cranky, you'll still grow old happily and gracefully-if you always remember to STOP and relax a little when you start feeling stressed, appreciate the Zen of handicapping, and listen to the ghosts at the racetrack that may talk to you, too, from time to time 

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