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Cal Expo This Week

A Saturday night visit with the "Trackman"

For this week's installment, I'd like to tell you about a man and his wife that collectively provide a terrific service for fans of Cal Expo's harness racing. It was a pleasure to sit in for about an hour last Saturday night and learn all about how a vital piece of our overall racing experience is created.

If you've spent time following California harness racing through the years or ever just took a good look at a "Night Lines" program, you are most probably aware of a gentleman named Marty Bridges. This is the man who presents a considerable amount of the information and handicapping aids you see in the program.

Along with his wife, Connie, who does extensive work in recording the data, this power couple of race charting have been our source for this valuable data in California harness racing since the late 1970s. Marty welcomed me into his press box office this last Saturday, in the exact spot he has done this work ever since just after the doors of 1600 Exposition opened.

A lifelong fan of this sport originally from greater Chicago, Marty got into chart calling by the help of renowned industry executive Stan Bergstein and began his work in the early 1970s chart calling around at the different harness courses in that region. He made the move with his wife in 1977 to California, basing out of Los Alamitos.

When I arrived into the press box a couple minutes after race one, Marty was in the middle of reviewing tape of that event just concluded. Armed with several black "sharpie" pens that comprise much of the main needs for his work, what he does in the tape review is make a series of observations on how all the horses were performing throughout the race for the handicapping notes we see in the program. He did this with an ease and speed fairly stunning to watch, entirely in a shorthand style that could only come from all the years of experience. Upon concluding the tape review, we spent a few minutes talking about what he does overall.

Three hundred codes with numeric assignment are the keys to his assessments. When we see in the past performances short phrases such as "bid, hung", "moving, broke", or "asked, no gain" as the chief remark about a horse's previous race, these statements are memorized code for Marty that he will type into a computer program. He wrote this system, a methodology for expressing a horse's performance. More than one track has made use of his creation over the years.

"It wasn't like this in the first days I did it. It was a few years later where I began working with a computerized system for this job" he said, as horses began to approach the gate. "When I first started, we worked with hot lead" as he recalled how programs were constructed long ago with typesetting mechanisms back in Chicago.

The idea of hot lead, typesetting, and probably ink all over the place . . . it was a remarkable moment of pause as I watched the starting moments of the next race alongside Marty. However, as interesting as that image of yesteryear was to think about - it got very interesting when the race started . . .

As it has been done thousands of times before, Marty calmly picks up the phone and calls Connie at home. There's a bit of warm banter between them as the field lines up and passes our view, then the race begins. Marty pointed out just before the race to me where key points of call lie, and that the most challenging ones are at the three-quarters and stretch due to the sight illusions that occur when you do not have a directly perpendicular view, like one would at the half. Horses racing at a diagonally-placed angle to one's view may look like they're situated a certain distance amongst each other at first glance, but truly aren't that distance, a scenario many of us are aware of around the sport.

Just past the first quarter-mile of the race, a flurry of numbers and code is spoken by Marty on the phone for Connie to track on a gridded sheet that looks interestingly like a golf scorecard and all of this is remarkable to witness. Marty can give place and distance of a horse in under a second or so, every single time. Distances attached to horse number become code words like "check" for one and three-quarter lengths. It is all spoken rapid-fire. Saying nothing also means something, too. They've got it down to a speed efficiency that has to be seen to be believed. Marty's stream of spoken code repeats several times through the race. When the race is done, Marty repeats the tape viewing which I saw when I first arrived, makes his coded notations, and Connie proceeds to get in contact with the photo department and racing officials to exchange final result data.

Next week, an up-close look at just how a horse is prepared for race day with just possibly my first experience driving a standardbred!

- Leighton Worthey