Risk Intelligence

This was the follow up to the Magic Number.

It was in the last issue of Horseplayer that never got published.

An Englishman named Dylan Evans has written recently about something he calls risk intelligence (RI). It refers to a special kind of “intelligence” we all have (to varying degrees) that we use to define risk and uncertainty in our lives. Evans describes it as, “the ability to estimate probabilities accurately, it’s about having the right amount of certainty to make educated guesses.” In horse racing terms, it means that if you have enough information and enough skill at processing it to recognize when an investment is justified, you have a much greater likelihood of making money in the long run. To put it in more practical terms, if you bet a horse at 10-1 that you think should be 3-1, and you are good at calculating probabilities, in the long run you should make a healthy profit.

Unfortunately, estimating probability is far easier said than done and ultimately rests on an individual’s ability to take limited information and a whole lot of uncertainty and come up with the right decisions. Above all, it depends on having a clear and unbiased ability to know yourself and recognize your limitations. As Evans started doing research, he found that most people are not particularly good at estimating probabilities. In fact his first thought was that just about everyone must be terrible at it. As he did more research, to his surprise, Evans found that a small group of people consistently had very high levels of risk intelligence – horse players. (To be fair, the other high RI groups are sports bettors, blackjack, poker and bridge players, and surprisingly weather forecasters.) I don’t imagine his finding is surprising to the vast majority of serious handicappers, and it underscores what many of us instinctively know: if you are betting without an edge you are just gambling. Or as Evans might suggest, if you are playing the horses and you have a low RI, it might be time to think about taking up tennis. (You can go to this website to take an online RI test at no cost http://www.projectionpoint.com)

What Evans critically points out is that people with very high RI’s are neither underconfident nor overconfident to an excessive degree. (But let’s be frank – we’ve all had a sure thing that we’d have bet the farm on given the chance, and that sort of makes Evans’ point. We don’t see it as overconfidence, but great handicapping.) In fact, once Evans started testing RI, he learned that most people tend to overestimate just how much they actually do know, which once you’ve been to the track also is not very surprising. There is always one person in the group who is absolutely, positively sure he is on the winner, often to the point where when his horse trudges across the finish line mid-pack he can thoroughly explain why the winner shouldn’t have won and he should have. The good news is that even if you don’t have a very high RI, it can be acquired.

Whether Evans knew it or not, he was building on the work of the well-known (at least in horse racing circles) psychologist Howard Sartin. Sartin treated compulsive gamblers based on the basic idea that if you wanted to cure losing, you had to teach someone how to win. In Sartin’s case he did it by developing an eponymous methodology based on pace principles and energy distribution, and for a number of years the so-called Sartinites were in great vogue in the handicapping world, with the height of the Sartin craze coming from the publications of Pace Makes the Race in 1991 and Tom Brohammer’s well-known book, Modern Pace Handicapping in 2000.

Sartin’s simple idea that learning how to be a winner was the answer to being a complusive loser certainly sounds logical enough. But, if you dig a little deeper, it is clear that there are emotional differences between expert and compulsive gamblers. First, skilled handicappers know when not to bet because of their ability to more accurately calculate probabilities. Second, while problem gamblers get a huge high from winning, losing doesn’t really bother them that much. On the other hand, expert handicappers do not get as big a rush from winning, but more importantly they thoroughly detest losing. This makes them constantly trying to improve their decision making process. To finish the thought, being armed with a good handicapping tool won’t be a lot of help if it doesn’t help you discern between a good bet and a bad one. And as many a great handicapper has lamented, if only I was a more skillful bettor, my profits would skyrocket. I can tell you the greatest bettor I have ever known was at best an average handicapper. In fact, it is an absolute fact that every successful horseplayer is a highly proficient bettor. Most of us spend inestimable time learning how to discern racing data, and figure out betting almost as an afterthought.

So, how do you improve your risk intelligence? The answer is pretty obvious. Keep detailed records of wins and losses. The wonderful thing about betting horses is that the results are not ambiguous. Either you win or you don’t. Either you make money or you don’t. You have to do the one thing that regular losers don’t do – constantly figure out which bets you lose and why. And most of the time the answer is less about your handicapping than your betting.

In my blog post “The Magic Number”, I described how to make and use an odds line for win bets. In this article we’ll apply similar reasoning to combination bets – exactas, trifectas, and superfectas. So while it wouldn’t be valuable spending any time discussing record keeping (you can figure that out on your own), it would be useful to get a little deeper into the topic of probabilities and betting the combinations.

I happened to be in Vegas recently having dinner with one of my brothers, when he said something I found illuminating. Handicappers are most proficient at assigning win odds, but almost completely untrained to assign place, show or fourth place odds. This is true whether you are trying to decide the chances one of the favorites will finish behind the actual winner, or if you are trying to assess one of the lesser runners. What does this mean? It means most bettors are at least initially going to be lousy at making combination bets such as exactas, trifectas and superfectas, and often when they hit them the return on investment (ROI) is something that should be unacceptable. Have you ever put $60 into a trifecta to collect only $120, and then wondered what you were thinking? Even money on a risky combination bet is not the road to riches.

Let’s start by examining some generalized race types. The example below shows the respective probabilities of finish for a hypothetical 2-1 horse (33% winning chance – and remember these are your odds, not tote board odds) in a 10-horse field. Assume this horse is in good form, was placed at the right level and has a good running style for the race. The table shows that this particular runner has an additional 25% chance of running second and an additional 15% chance of running third. Thus, its total prospect for finishing in the money is 73%. For those of you wondering, the best horse in the race should have its highest percentage number in the win category. Does this mean the horse has less of a chance of finishing second? Technically yes, although if you were making a straight place bet you could say the probability of getting a payoff in this example is 58%. Finally, take note that the percentages are not based on an exhaustive study but are used as an illustrative hypothetical. In this case, the point is that not only does the horse have a great chance of winning the race, it also has a high probability of being part of the exacta and trifecta, and a fairly small probability of finishing in the back of the pack. As you’ll see later on, you actually won’t have to create percentages for other than the win position, so don’t get panicky. We’ll call this runner the high-win type (HW).

High-Win Type

Finish Pos     % Probability

  1.                          33
  2.                          25
  3.                         15
  4.                           9
  5.                           6
  6.                           5
  7.                           5
  8.                           2
  9.                           0
  10.                           0*

*Percentages may not add up exactly to 100% due to rounding


The second type is the opposite of the first – the low-win type (LW). This horse has a much higher probability of finishing in the back of the pack as opposed to in the money. The first two types represent the two extremes. Horses with high probabilities of winning conversely have low probabilities of finishing well back, and horses with low probabilities of winning have much higher probabilities of finishing near the end of the pack. But, from the way the second type is constructed, it is also clear that the chances of the high-odds horse finishing third or fourth is not insignificant, and this will be useful when we start discussing betting. In fact, the probability of this type of horse finishing fourth is about the same as for lower-priced horses.

Low-Win Type

Finish Pos         % Probability

  1.                               2
  2.                               3
  3.                               6
  4.                               9
  5.                            11
  6.                            14
  7.                            15
  8.                            16
  9.                            12
  10.                            12

Before we get into talking about how to better make combination bets, let’s add three other types. This represents the mid-priced type (MP), in this case a horse about 5-1 on your line. These horses have far lower win probabilities than the high-win types but are almost as likely when it comes to an in-the-money finish.

Mid-Price Type

Finish Pos              % Probability

  1.                                     17
  2.                                     20
  3.                                    17
  4.                                    15
  5.                                    11
  6.                                      8
  7.                                      6
  8.                                      3
  9.                                      2
  10.                                      2

This next type applies to horse with a low probability of winning, but a high probability of finishing in the money. We’ll call it the in-the-money (ITM) type. It looks similar to the normal high-win type from the place position on, with the win percentage near zero. You often see this pattern in “professional maidens” (horses with 10 or more starts and a high number of place or show finishes) or horses with some version of “seconditis” (the horse that looks like 35-1-11-13). The term we used for that type of runner was the “sucker horse,” and the only time these horses seem to win is when they are battling in the stretch with a similar sucker horse. However, these horses often represent great opportunity, because the crowd will confuse their chances of winning with their chances of finishing in the money, often sending them off as severe underlays. You can feel safe putting them in the back holes, and save money by leaving them out of the win slot.

In-The-Money Type

Finish Pos            % Probability

  1.                                      2
  2.                                   25
  3.                                   24
  4.                                   15
  5.                                   10
  6.                                     8
  7.                                     7
  8.                                    6
  9.                                    2
  10.                                    2

The final type is the All-or-Nothing (AON) sort, meaning either the horse wins or finishes somewhere in the pack. This pattern would be most common among “need the lead” types, where if they face a stressful challenge, they fold badly.

All-or-Nothing Type

Finish Pos         % Probability

  1.                              33
  2.                                 7
  3.                                 6
  4.                                 9
  5.                              11
  6.                              11
  7.                              10
  8.                                5
  9.                                4
  10.                                3

As I said above, most of us, and especially the crowd as a whole, are far more effective at assigning win percentages, and until someone writes the definitive piece on “How to Pick a Horse to Finish Second,” it will probably remain that way. We’ve all been conditioned to “pick winners,” but with the best payoffs available in the combination pools, it becomes critical to figure out which horses to use and how. Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as saying the horse with the second highest win probability has the highest place probability and so on. I don’t know exactly how often in a full field the first three choices finish in exactly that order, but I suspect it is a fairly rare occurrence. In the same respect, having a longshot fill the show spot happens far more often than you would expect given its low probability of winning.

It’s not the case that there are only five types of runners, but in general, any other type is just a slight variation on one of these five. So, armed with this knowledge, how do you become a better combination bettor?

We’ll start with the exactas and I’ll make it easy for you. The table below shows the payoffs you would need to realize 50% profit from any respective $2 exacta combination using YOUR pre-race win odds line (it’s not perfect but remember, I promised you wouldn’t have to calculate place probabilities and it’s better than guessing). In general, if the exacta is paying less than the amount shown, it is not a worthwhile bet, but as always, use your discretion.

Place Horse

    3-5 4-5 1-1 6-5 7-5 3-2 8-5 9-5 2-1 5-2 3-1 7-2 4-1 9-2 5-1 6-1 7-1 8-1
  3-5 4 5 6 7 7 8 9 10 12 14 16
  4-5 6 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 14 16 18 21
  1-1 7 7 8 8 10 11 13 14 16 17 20 23 26
  6-5 8 8 9 9 10 12 14 16 17 19 21 25 28 32
  7-5 9 9 10 10 11 12 14 16 18 20 22 25 29 33 37
  3-2 8 9 10 11 11 12 13 15 17 20 22 24 26 31 35 40
  8-5   8 9 10 11 11 12 13 14 16 19 21 23 26 28 33 38 43
Win 9-5 8 9 10 11 12 13 13 15 16 18 21 24 26 29 32 37 43 48
Horse 2-1 9 10 11 13 14 14 15 16 17 20 23 26 29 32 35 41 47 53
  5-2 11 13 14 16 17 18 19 20 22 26 29 33 37 41 44 52 59 67
  3-1 14 16 17 19 21 22 23 25 26 31 35 40 44 49 53 62 71 80
  7-2 16 18 20 22 25 26 27 29 31 36 41 47 52 57 62 73 83 94
  4-1 19 21 23 26 28 29 31 33 35 41 47 53 59 65 71 83 95 107
  9-2 21 24 26 29 32 33 34 37 40 47 53 60 67 74 80 94 107 121
  5-1 23 26 29 32 35 37 38 41 44 52 59 67 74 82 89 104 119 134
  6-1 28 32 35 39 43 44 46 50 53 62 71 80 89 98 107 125 143 161
  7-1 33 37 41 46 50 52 54 58 62 73 83 94 104 115 125 146 167 188
  8-1 34 43 47 52 57 59 62 67 71 83 95 107 119 131 143 167 191 215

Finally, some DOs and DON’Ts with regard to the running types described above.

  • DO turn any low or medium priced horse into much longer shot. If you bet an exacta with our hypothetical 2-1 horse on top, demand payoffs at least in line with the exacta table.
  • On the other hand, DON’T turn your 2-1 shot into an 8-5 shot. Say you put the 2-1 horse on top of four other horses in a $2 exacta. That would be the same as making an $8 win bet, and if the 2-1 horse pays the minimum $6, that $8 win bet would return $24. So any of the four exactas that pays less than $24 is a bad bet. You can overcome this by varying your bet based on the payoffs, betting more on the lower priced combinations, and thus keeping any respective exacta payoff ahead of the total win bet. Still, you may often be better off dropping the low paying combinations and shifting your bets to the win pool.
  • DO make sure to have win money on a HW or MP overlay (when comparing your odds line with the tote board odds).
  • With the HW type, DO use the horse heaviest on top in either exactas, trifectas or superfectas, slightly less in the place position, and slightly less than that in the show position. DON’T use the high win type in the fourth spot in a superfecta bet.
  • With the HW type, DON’T bet trifecta tickets with the crowd favorite on top and the next two choices in the second and third spots. Same with the superfecta. If you really think the choices will finish 1-2-3, look to work out an exacta bet. It will probably be a better value.
  • With the MP horse, DO use the horse aggressively in the place and show spots for exactas, trifectas and superfectas. DON’T use the mid-priced horses on top in exactas, trifectas and superfectas equivalently to the high-win types. I know I’m often guilty of hitting the “box” button in the exacta, mostly because it is easy, but if you really believe one horse has a higher probability of winning than another, you should back that opinion with your action.
  • DO use the LW type in the third spot in trifectas and the fourth spot in superfectas. When it comes to the trifecta, the “all” button in the third position can reap big benefits. Remember the basic principle. The crowd is not nearly as efficient at assigning probabilities to the place and show positions.
  • When it comes to the AON horse, DO play the horse only on top in your combinations. As hard as it may be, unless the field is short, assume that if the horse doesn’t win, it’s likely to not even finish in the money.
  • When it comes to the ITM horse, DO single them underneath the higher win probability horses in the exacta, and in the place and show spots in the trifecta and superfecta. When you feel comfortable not having to reverse the exacta, you can more easily turn the winner into a higher priced horse. Remember as well, any time you have a single in one of the spots in a trifecta, you conceptually turn it into an exacta box. A single with three horses in the trifecta is six combinations, same as a three horse exacta box. Similarly, you can do the same thing in a superfecta.

August 18 Saratoga Late Pick-4

It’s my last day here for two weeks. I’ll be in Germany and Spain on “business.” I will miss the last two weeks of Saratoga, but I hope I’ll be able to weigh in on some of the big races and events.

Monday’s card is uninspiring at first glance, but there are a couple of very vulnerable favorites.


  • 2 Alysaro broke his maiden on the inner dirt at AQU for $20K this March. He’s raced twice at BEL since then and once in the SAR mud. He’s shown excellent tracking ability and should like the 6F distance. He looks a little fainthearted, but could get a really nice spot on the rail. Not impossible here.
  • 4 Captain Toews is a playback for me. I think you can discount his last race in the mud. Until that point he was very competitive in fields like this. His low profile connections take the blinkers off today. While I think he is a step slower than a few in here, he will be long odds in a short field with a vulnerable favorite.
  • 6 DJ Manlove is going first out in the Bruce Levine stable. This horse has shown high early speed and has a steady series of good works for his 2014 debut. I doubt he’ll be 6-1 at post time. I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if he wires this field. Top choice.
  • 7 Dyker Beach is the fastest horse in the race. He also has the dreaded record of 1 for 18 with 9 place finishes. I think he has to be a bet against in the win slot, but it would be a shock if he wasn’t one of the top three.


  • 1 Red Vine is a presser that will have to get out of the gate quickly today. He’s been a consistent horse with 9 of 10 lifetime in the money. His figures are competitive and combination of Clement and Rosario has always been solid.
  • 3 Inchcape has two seconds over the SAR turf. He’s been knocking on the door all year and certainly has the style and the numbers to beat this field. He needs to prove he can beat this class and maybe today will be the day.
  • 9 Pyrite Mountain is the obligatory Todd Pletcher trainee. He lost last out by the slimmest of margins and returns today to the same conditions. That was his first out in nine months, and given the maximum effort, a bounce is a distinct possibility. That was by far his best lifetime figure.  Perhaps the month off and the two maintenance works point toward him remaining in condition, but he is not an unbeatable favorite in this race.
  • 10 Side Road is making his 2014 debut for Kieran McLaughlin. He was a respected 3YO, starting in the Gotham. Something went wrong in that race because he spent the rest of the year on the sidelines. He came back as a turf horse, winning an OC25K at GP and then running in a series of graded and restricted stakes. His figures are very competitive. His last off a long layoff was just fair, but McLaughlin and Ortiz have been a deadly combination for a while. Top choice.


  • 2 Zucchini Flower has gone up against graded company last out, including getting beat for show by Ambusher by a length. The switch from McCarthy, a fine rider on lesser tracks but out of his league in SAR, to Irad Ortiz is monumental and the combination of Motion and Ortiz has been burning up SAR. She’s 7-2 on the ML and I think she’ll go off about that. On her best day she is as good as anyone in the field. Top choice.
  • 4 South Andros has been having a good 2014 and low profile trainer Rodney Jenkins brings her in for a try with the big boys. Xavier Perez has been riding primarily at Monmouth, with moderate success. She is 10-1 on the ML, and given her connections and apparently cheaper previous competition, she’ll be a big price at post time.
  • 5 Natalie Victoria should be the post time favorite for Michelle Nevin. Not that she doesn’t deserve the action, but Michelle Nevin is about as hot right now as you could ask a trainer to be. I think the horse is vulnerable, but the Nevin factor and her ability to wire fields are still dangerous. Not sure anyone can go with her.
  • 6 Ambusher was stuck in the mud last out but before that showed promise against graded fillies. She’ll have a lot to do in the lane to catch the 5, but wouldn’t be a surprise in the money.


  • 2 Callans Candy tried 5 1/2 on the SAR turf a month ago, finishing up the track after showing a little speed. There are a couple of interesting angles here. First, Bill Mott simply does not win with first timers. His record is abominable, and it shows in the 25-1 odds the horse went off at. Second, he gets first Lasix. Perhaps he bled in that race and perhaps he didn’t, but the Lasix won’t hurt. If you are playing strictly on numbers, this horse has no chance. On the other hand, if you believe Mott had a plan and today it all comes together, you’ve got a potential double digit longshot here.
  • 4 Hurricane Turn is the listed ML favorite. In a devilishly clever move, Stony Brook stables decided Chad Brown was no longer up to the task of training the horse and moved him over to Todd Pletcher. Brown tried to put him on the turf last out but was rained off. He almost won that race leading until close to the wire. He’s well enough bred for the turf, although this isn’t Pletcher’s main move. Wouldn’t be a shock, but I’m not leaning hard in his direction.
  • 5 Summation Time has one turf race at MTH  where he was steadied out of the gate but made a big move to finish second a neck. The Clement-Ortiz combo makes the horse a legitimate threat. The downside – why is he dropping the horse into a maiden claimer from a MSW? You can’t ignore the horse, but there are questions.
  • 6 Loves Last Chance is a six start maiden that has been close in a few races. Graham Motion finally drops the horse into a maiden claimer and that may be enough to get him over the hump
  • 10 Better Man is first on the turf for low profile trainer Patrick Reynolds. I’m inclined to give him a look but the outside post may be a bit too much to overcome.  Still, the numbers suggest he could be in the mix.

Saratoga August 17 Late Pick-4

It was a hard luck sequence for me in the late pick-4 yesterday. After crushing a few of the earlier races, and for the first time in decades having a DQ go my way, I had mixed luck in the last 4. Of course, I would have been a lot happier if the 3 had won the 11th, but today is another day.


  • 2 Making Havoc gets a nod from me for pretty much one reason – the change to the hot Phil Serpe barn. She was ultra competitive at Gulfstream, Parx, and Pimlico and didn’t embarrass herself at BEL when she was taken for $62K. She had a big break in her works from June 29 to July 31. I’d like to think Serpe was taking care of so nagging injuries and and giving her a much needed rest – she already has 6 starts this year. I just don’t think you can leave her off the tickets.
  • 6 Evening Show takes the blinkers off today in her second start for Steve Klesaris. After winning three in a row she developed a serious case of seconditis. This is not an overwhelmingly strong field, but her winning likely depends on getting the right ride from Rosario. Much the fastest, but not a sure thing. Still the top choice.
  • 9 Misszippityslewda could be the main pacesetter, meaning the outside post shouldn’t be much on an issue. She is another one with a tendency not to pass that last horse in the stretch. 6F should be her best distance and lately Junior Alvarado has been riding speed horses very well.
  • 10 Nuffsaid Nuffsaid has been knocking around this level her last two. She’s in the mix based on speed, but if you need a convincer I have two words – Michelle Nevin. Until she cools off I’m not leaving anything she puts on the track off my tickets.


  • 1 Alpha is a horse that will be overbet. Yes he’s been racing nothing but graded stakes for the past two years. Yes, he is a Grade 1 winner in a race with the interesting condition that it is limited to non-graded winners. Yes, Johnny V gets aboard. Yes, he seems to have good speed from the 1 post. Yes, you can throw out his last on the turf. But even with that, I think he is up against it and mostly a play against.
  • 3 Farhaan is a lightly raced 5 YO also coming from the stable of Kieran McLaughlin. On paper he looks a cut below these, but his pace figures do give reason for opimism. The main question is, why did McLaughlin enter him when he had the more accomplished Alpha? Sure they are from different owners, but I have to believe the trainer would not enter this horse if he was not cranked and ready, and he didn’t believe he had a legitimate chance to win. He wouldn’t be a comfortable win bet for me, but he deserves to be on the tickets.
  • 4 Easter Gift had no chance at all in the Monmouth Cup. The short comment belies the horrible trip she got. It also understates that speed killed in that race, with the first three horses down the backstretch were the first three horses across the wire. I’ll just say it. Joe Bravo stinks at SAR. He stinks at MTH too if you watch that race. He’s putting his horses in bad spots, he’s fighting them around the track. The change to Rosario is a big upgrade. Top choice.
  • 6 Stormin Monarcho fits the race and the distance well. He wouldn’t be a a big surprise. He was clearly way over his head in the Suburban, but did contest the pace for a bit. The switch from the overmatched Corey Lanerie to Cornelio Velasquez should help.


  • 4 Main Sequence won the United Nations in his first start in the U.S. His main issue is that he is a head case in the gate. He broke slowly in his last, dwelt in the race before that one. He’s probably the best horse in the race but not a sure thing.
  • 5 Imagining seems to be a Grade 1 horse. He likes the SAR turf and has run well this year. He has speed to use, but can be versatile. Hard to leave him off the tickets.
  • 7 Twilight Eclipse almost wired the U.N. field and should have no problem staying this distance. Top choice in this field.


  • 2 Jimmy Fillpot has two races on the turf and ran relatively evenly in both. He’s been off since Jun 21 but has a nice steady workout tab between.
  • 3 Breakeven Analysis has been off since November for Chad Brown. He’s had a deep closing style, which I don’t generally prefer, but he has great figures as a 2YO, which I do like alot. He has a perfectly steady work pattern and Castellano stays aboard. Have to be on the tickets.
  • 9 Hines has good numbers, Todd Pletcher and Johnny V. He’s had plenty of shots to win, although his last against NW1X runners probably wasn’t a real win opportunity. TAP and Velasquez just gets on my tickets somehow.
  • 10 Day Six will be the top pick. I love her last where she led most of the way and stayed fairly strong in the stretch. The cutback in distance won’t hurt and the switch back to Maragh has to be a godsend for his backers. Nice workout pattern and Barclay Tagg doesn’t hurt.

Saratoga August 16 Late Pick-4

This pick-4 includes the Alabama, one of the four races that once defined the Saratoga season. I’ve found on big days races tend to be formful, but just like Moreno at the Whitney, upsets occur. We have two dirt races and two turf races in this sequence.


  • 1 Mosler is sure to get some action. He wired a field at a mile at Belmont last September. From the 1 post he’ll have to gun for the lead but there aren’t many horses he’ll have to duel with. His figure as a 2 year-old is about as good as anything else in the race. Bill Mott is almost 20% off the bench and I believe the drop to 7F is right up his alley.
  • 4 Scam goes for trainer Shug McGaughey. In has last start at SAR the comment says “off beat slow.” I think that is a little understated. He looked to me like he got out of the gate but something happened and the jockey pulled back to last. Then around the turn Joe Bravo managed to get stuck behind a horse and checked slightly. I don’t think anyone was beating the Big Beast that day, but he showed great courage and talent first out off a long layoff, closing past horses to finish 3rd. The 7F distance should be right to his liking. If he breaks he is a serious win contender.
  • 5 Surfing U S A was the show horse in the Tampa Bay Derby. He’s been off since March, but has run well fresh twice. He has a nice series of works at SAR and competitive pace numbers. He will most likely show a pressing style, sitting off the flank of Mosler. He may have the most potential talent in the field.
  • 10 Financial Mogul shows nothing but graded stakes runs since he broke his maiden last year at SAR. I really dislike seeing a horse handled this way. It is obvious he is not a graded stakes runner, and it took Violette all of 2014 to figure it out. The problem is that the horse has has seen nothing but rumps on his drives to the wire, and this can have an effect on his interest in winning. His running lines are full of real Grade 1 horses – Bayern, Social Inclusion, Samraat, Uncle Sigh, Coup de Grace. This is the easiest field he’s met in a year and if he has it in him to win, today is the day.


  • 2 Orino wired a field last year at the mile distance on the SAR turf, although he was ultimately DQ’d and placed second. He hasn’t come out quite as eager to go to the front this year, but from the 1 post he will have to break sharply to get position. Trainer James Bond has given him a nice series of works, including two bullets in his last two drills. Rajiv Maragh gets the mount. He’ll be my top choice.
  • 3 Hurry Up Alan shows up in the barn of David Jacobson after spending his career at Woodbine. Jacobson is 25% first time from a large sample, so that alone makes him a contender. The down sides are that it isn’t clear if the mile is his best distance and he has not shown a great amount of interest in leading at the wire this year. Still, his pace number say he is a consistent runner, plenty competitive with these.
  • 5 Petrocelli is a speedball with only four lifetime turf starts. His last time on the turf was last November, and he finished a close up third at the mile distance. He looks a little cheaper than some of the other contenders, but speed is always dangerous. He’ll find a spot on a few tickets.
  • 6 Sun Worshipper has been closing in turf sprints and perhaps the added distance will be more to his liking. He’s probably at the right class level, and although I won’t say this often, the switch to Alex Solis is an upgrade.
  • 7 Mobridge intrigues me slightly. His pace figures put him a few steps behind some of the other runners, but he has a few things going for him. First, Mott has been having a good meet and he looks geared up for a big Alabama Day. Second, he ran an off the pace style last race and won. He’s dropping in class today and if he runs back to that race could be there at the end. He’ll be on some of my “B” tickets.


  • 1 Unbridled Forever will be on some tickets, but is not by any means a key here. Since winning the Silverbulletday at Fair Grounds in January, she’s run into Untapable twice, Sweet Reason, and the favorite in this race, Stopchargingmaria. I think she’ll be overbet here. Her style is to come from off the pace, and from the one she may have to pull back farther than she might prefer in order to find a seam in the stretch.
  • 5 Got Lucky is the otherTodd Pletcher trainee in here. She’s been close in a number of graded stakes. You have to throw out the effort in the Kentucky Oaks because she had a horrible beginning. Other than that she’s been first or second in each of her races. I think Pletcher would like nothing better than to sweep the top spots here.
  • 8 Stopchargingmaria will be close to odds on at post time. Does she deserve it? I’m not sure. She’s been ducking Untapable all year, so she has to prove she belongs at the top of the division. She didn’t beat a lot in the CCA Oaks, but she doesn’t have a lot to beat here. She’s likely the best horse in the race, but I don’t think she is unbeatable (or Untapable).
  • 9 Size at 5-1 will be the choice today. In a race without much pace (remember Moreno two weeks ago?) she looks like she could get to the front and relax. Her race in the Iowa Oaks was excellent, despite it being in the slop. Distance should not be an issue since she is a First Samurai out of a Pulpit mare. The hot Bill Mott trains, and Junior Alvarado (remember who rode Moreno) rides. Could be deja vu all over again.


  • 1 Innovation Economy has one win in one start at this distance. In that race he dropped back to last, circled the field and exploded home. Unless he changes tactics, that’s exactly what he’ll have to do today. I’m not a big fan of plodders, but I am a big fan of Chad Brown. He has a big two year old figure, and if Brown has him ready to fire he could be dangerous.
  • 3 Woodfield Springs has been a bit over his head lately. He’s another that likes to close, but I think he’ll be able to get a decent tracking position today. I think on the drop down, he gets a look.
  • 4 Request has a win and a second from three lifetime races. His last race was at this distance and class level, and despite being wide, he closed well for second. Another with prospects.
  • 9 Shaun’s Blessing ran two bang-up races at Churchill this spring. He picked up the always capable Johnny V. I like his pressing style, and his pace numbers are competitive. I’ll make him the top choice.

When Will They Ever Learn?

It happened again today. A horse with a low probability of finishing first went off as the favorite in the 10th race, a low-level claimer on the turf. One of the folks on Twitter singled the horse, and I just wanted to scream, NOOOOO!

I’ve said it before, and a lot of people get this, but the crowd often conflates the probability of finishing in the money with the probability of winning. I don’t care how fast the horse looks on paper, horses with double digit starts and no wins inevitably seem to find a way to lose.

The specific horse in question today was Malibu Queen. She went off at 9-5. She was 1 for 19, including 0 for 8 on a fast dirt track and 0 for 9 on the turf. Her best figure was faster than any other horse and as far as I was concerned she could have been 9-1 and she wouldn’t have been a good win bet. She finished second, almost 6 lengths behind the winner and only a nose in front of the show horse.

This phenomenon is mainly applicable to maiden and NW2L races. In higher class races, horses that show they can’t win are quickly dropped down the class ladder until they find a level that allows them to succeed. Why do some horses run fast enough to get a good rating but not fast enough to win? I believe it relates back to behavior in the wild. Only one horse gets to lead the herd, and many other horses recognize they are perfectly comfortable following the leader or placing themselves in the relative safety of the herd.

Do they ever win? Sure they do. Usually when they are battling in the stretch with another 1 for 19 horse, or when they are able to make a perfectly timed sustained move.

It would be one thing if today’s 10th was an isolated incident, but it happens with ridiculous regularity. This is a sampling from last week at Saratoga.

  • Date     Race         Horse                              Record          Odds   Finish
  • 8/3        10             2 Shaikha                       14-0-6-1      6-1        4th
  • 8/7         6               5 Navajo Ca Lo           26-1-3-3      5-2        5th
  • 8/7         7              10 Kevin’s Steel          13-0-3-0      4-1        6th
  • 8/7        10             3 Jenny’s Creek         17-0-5-5       9-5       7th
  • 8/8        7               9 Dominate                   23-1-6-6       7-2       8th
  • 8/11     4               1 Downgoesfrazier  13-0-5-5       8-5       2nd
  • 8/11     6               6 Forest Boy                 12-0-4-1      5-2       5th

I’m not sure I got all the horses that had low probabilities of winning but got bet, but in a week there were 7 horses, 4 of which were favorites, and only 1 of which finished in the money.

It’s a difficult thing to toss-out the horse with the highest number, but that is precisely what you have to do if you are betting horizontals. My general rule of thumb is any maiden with more than 10 starts gets pitched unless something dramatic changes – move to a lesser circuit, change in barns, change in distance or change in surface. For horses that are in NW2L, any horse with more than 15 starts is a similar pitch.

These sorts of races represent excellent money making opportunities, especially in the multi-race bets. You just need the fortitude and the sense to ignore these sucker type horses.

Saratoga August 15 – Late Pick-4

It is a much more competitive day today than yesterday. There are a couple of false favorites so the pick-4 may wind up paying something.


  • 1 Trecastle is a three start maiden that is very well suited to longer races on the turf. The negative for me is his plodding style. Plodders have to read the pace perfectly and make their sustained move at the right time. He certainly has the talent. The question is, is he talented enough to run past the entire field, especially considering the pace is not likely to be killing. He is a must use on the ticket, but not a single.
  • 3 Atherton led most of the way in a mile and a half turfer at Delaware. Many handicappers think the longer the race, the more likely a closer will win, but it is in fact the opposite. A front runner that can run at an easy pace has all kinds of advantage in a long race. The race at Delaware was useful for Atherton. The comment, gave way grudgingly, speaks to his distance ability. It was an 11 horse field, and he only finished two and a quarter lengths out of it. He looks live, although suggesting the change to Luis Saez might be positive is a little bit of a stretch.
  • 8 Decisive Edge is already starting to show signs of the dreaded seconditis. He has plenty of front running ability, plenty of ability to stay the distance, a shrewd trainer, and a nice series of works since his last. He’ll be the favorite and if he has learned that close but no cigar is unacceptable he should be the winner. Another one where you are betting everything will go right for the horse.
  • 10 Vasco de Gama has one mile race on the Monmouth turf and he managed to close past most of the field. There are times at Saratoga when you think Pletcher could enter Mr. Ed and you’d have to back him. He gets a switch from Bravo to Johnny V and he has three useful 4F drills at Monmouth. The deep closing style is a concern, but I’ll make him the top choice.


  • 1 Parting Kiss is one of those shippers from a high percentage trainer that have to be respected when they bring a horse in. I’d be a little more excited if he looked for a local rider. She’s got a little bit of speed and may surprise the locals.
  • 3 Tabreed comes over from a Grade 3 at Arlington. Clement is having a good season at SAR and the horse has a third over the SAR turf. She’s a better horse than she was last year and should improve more in her second out of 2014. I’d like to have seen a gate work or two given she seems to have trouble getting out of the gate, so the race may turn on her start. If she gets out she’s dangerous.
  • 5 Maximova is the other Clement trainee. She’s just come off an OC on the turf where she showed some willingness to close. I’m betting Clement believes the horse is ready for a higher level of competition. She has good tactical speed and should have no problem with the distance. Top choice for me.
  • 6 Red Hot Tweet is included on the “if you take the 5 you have to take the 6” theory. She’s coming out of the same race and was only a quarter length behind Maximova. Graham Motion has been putting nothing but live runners on the track and this figures to be one of them.


  • 3 Weekend Hideaway has plenty of early foot and yesterday the track seemed to favor those who could get out in front early. He’s much better running in Statebred races and should figure in the outcome today.
  • 4 Quick Money is trained by Michelle Nevin who seems to be having a career meet at SAR. He’s been running with slightly cheaper but has the pace figures to compete with these. He’ll be my longshot opportunity.
  • 5 Moonlight Song has the most consistent figures in the race. He faded to 4th in the 7F Belmont Sprint, but this field is a little less talented than that one was. I’ll make him the top choice.
  • 6 Big Business is a high win percentage type and has not run a bad race for quite a while. He will come from off the pace in this race so it will be critical for Johnny V to put him in a good spot early. It’s going to be hard to keep him out of the top three.
  • 7 Amberjack is an interesting longshot. He only has one start this year, but it was a fast race. The dangerous Mike Hushion trains and Irad Ortiz gets the mount. This will be a big test, but I think you have to pay to see if he’s up to it.


Let’s start with the one-for-too-many horses. 2 , 3 and 6 are 1 for 16, 9 is 1 for 19. Despite the fact that the 9 is likely to eat money again, we are going to throw them out of the win spot.

  • 4 Barbara’s Smile was claimed last out by Gary Sciacca. She won at first asking on the Belmont turf, but then hit a rough patch. Sciacca has given her a nice series of works for this start and has actually jumped her in price from her last. She’s listed at 12-1 on the morning line but I’m going to make her the top choice.
  • 8 Sultry Warrior raced on a muddy SAR surface last out so that race is a pitch. Prior to that she was getting clobbered by NW1X fillies. She only has eight starts, but she’s really going to have to show a lot more to win this race. Fortunately the field is pretty weak and if Sciacca has her wound up, she could contend for the win. She gets a nod more based on how bad the field is than how good she is.
  • 12 Simple Touch goes for Wesley Ward after an 8 month layoff. She won at first asking, so there is every reason to expect her to run well fresh. Simple Touch has pace numbers as fast as anyone, and as you know I think any horse coming from 2 to 3 that has superior pace figures to the field is a high percentage play. I have two things that keep me from making her top choice. One is the outside post which could be a big disadvantage. Two is the rider switch to the tenuous Abel Lezcano. I’ll use her, but I wouldn’t be surprised to be griping about the ride at the end.

What Makes A Great Race Caller?

With Tom Durkin announcing he is retiring after Saratoga, the outpouring of saddness and affection has been overwhelming. There was a time when the argument over who was the best race caller pitted Trevor Denman against Tom Durkin. For quite a while now the argument has been settled in Durkin’s favor.

Durkin admitted he was not sentimental about his craft. When asked what his job was, he said it was simply to describe what was happening during a race. That so understates what the race caller does. He paints a picture that even a blind man could see. At their best, they are poetic. They are excited when the crowd is excited, and if they are not pumped up, the race caller gets them involved. They are funny when the time is right. They tell us the somber news when a horse breaks down, and they do it in a professional way. They amplify a magnificent performance, letting the crowd know that they are witnessing something special. Their calls of great races stay in our memory. Fred Caposella calling Jaipur and Ridan in the 1962 Travers. Durkin calling Flanders and Serena’s Song in the 1994 Breeder’s Cup. Chick Anderson calling the great Secretariat the 1973 Belmont. The list goes on and on.

The best race callers define racegoing for a generation. When Fred Caposella retired, people in my father’s generation lamented they would never see another like him. Much the same has been the reaction to Durkin leaving.

The great race callers add to the lexicon of racing. “And down the stretch they come” from Dave Johnson. “Moving like a winner” from Trevor Denman. “Here they come spinning out of the turn” from Durkin’s model, Phil Georgeff.

I have to tell this story that involved Marshall Cassidy, the NYRA race caller Durkin succeeded. If you ever heard Cassidy call a race, he had the diction of a Shakespearean actor, but never varied he tone much during a race. We never questioned his accuracy, but he wasn’t known for his blood pumping calls. On an otherwise non-memorable weekday, a bunch of regulars were milling around the OTB in Amsterdam.  As I remember, at that time all we got was an audio of the race call on delay. Cassidy is doing his normal straightforward call, when a horse named What a Wabbit takes the lead. When Cassidy comes out with, What a Wabbit on the wail, the entire place cracked up. None of us could ever remember Cassidy even being remotely humorous.

Durkin turned the start of a race into his signature, “Annnnd, they’re off.” He knew precisely when it was safe to be funny. Everybody recognizes his calls of Arggghhhh or Doremifasollatido. In his impossible call of Yakahickamickadola he was really making fun of his own inability to get the name out of his mouth correctly. Everyone laughed and no one took it the wrong way. He paid tribute to the great Keith Jackson in his call of Whoa Nellie. Ready’s Echo coming from “another county” to finish second in a maiden race. He expressed the frustration of everyone watching a race in the fog at Aqueduct when he said, “wish I could see it.” He even knew when not say anything as he did when Commentator won a race by a city block.

Tom Durkin was not just good at his job. He was as good as anyone who has ever done that job.

Larry Collmus said it best when he noted he was not replacing Durkin, merely succeeding him.

Saratoga August 14 – Late Pick 4

The rain is gone, the track is listed as good and they are back on the turf.


  • 3 Casey Roo was claimed two back by Richard Shosberg who wheeled her back at a higher class level where she ran a fairly even race. I don’t like the fact she has no workouts between that race and today, but Johnny V stays and that is a good sign.  The comment line is a little misleading. She rode the rail around the track and when it was time to move she was generally boxed in. Johnny V make no attempt to punish her through the stretch and if she goes off at her ML 5-1 she would be fair win odds.
  • 4 Al’s Gal is the ML second choice but will be my choice today. She was just claimed last out by Bruce Levine who does well off the claim but is not known as a turf trainer. Al’s Gal only has 5 previous starts and gets a chance to improve today.
  • 6 Wine Burglar was a little unlucky last out. She kept Lonely Teardrops at bay through the stretch but Ear D’Rhythm flew from out of nowhere to get the win. No reason to expect she won’t run the same race this time.


  • 1 Sense of Peace found himself on the lead when Lucci the Lion suddenly backed out of the race. He had a clear lead in the stretch but by the time they hit the wire he was exhausted. I don’t think he gets a break today with the other speedsters in the race. Should be battling up front, questionable if he will be around for the photo.
  • 2 Take Down Two was beaten in his last by Photon, a horse who seems to have an extra gear in the stretch. This 9 year old gelding has been a solid racehorse with 103 lifetime starts. Is he fast enough? He is on his best day. Is today that day? There is enough speed for him to use his closing kick so it isn’t impossible.
  • 4 Immortal Eyes has been with much better in the not too distant past. He was a win machine in 2013, but since David Jacobson has had the horse he hasn’t been quite the same. He has plenty of speed, but it is unlikely he’ll get the lead. He can come from just off the pace, but given the heartlessness he’s shown in the stretch, I’m on the fence. Still, he will be good odds and this should be his top effort.
  • 5 Broad Rule is another with back class. He’s more of a closer and that should be a preferred running style in this race. His last wasn’t that bad and he takes a big drop today. He will be my longshot top choice.
  • 6 Photon is a hard horse to leave out given he’s beaten half this field in the last two months. He did, however, change barns after his last victory, and perhaps the change of scenery will break the streak. He won’t figure heavily on my tickets.


  • 2 Caribean Beat finished almost four lengths behind Distorted Beauty in her last. She likes to come from well out of it and has actually run her best races on a turf with some moisture in it. She’s competitive and if she times her run right could be the one at the wire.
  • 5 Distorted Beauty is making her fifth start and second on the Saratoga turf. She has improved her figure in each start and a small move forward today should give her the win. She’ll be close to odds on and deservedly so.
  • 8 One Time Only will be the horse in front on the backstretch. She hasn’t run on the softened turf, so today will be a test to see how far she can take them. I think maybe a little underlayed at the 2-1 ML.


  • 1 Tarpey’s Goal ran a monster at CD two races back. He’s been close at 6F before, but hasn’t won a race at that distance yet. Still, you can’t ignore him off the drop.
  • 2 Real Estate Rich is the longshot pick. David Jacobson tried blinkers on his in his last two starts and that experiment flopped. He was taken last out by Patrick Quick, and the blinkers come off today. He’s 4 of 5 at the distance and has been competitive with much better. He’s probably the best of the late runners.
  • 3 Regulus has plenty of speed to get himself into position and lately has been finishing well. He has a second on the Saratoga dirt and is fast enough to make an impact in the race.
  • 8 The Big Deluxe has good early speed and just missed 3 weeks ago at 6.5F. He’s faced better, he’s beaten better but you have to wonder if even with the slight cutback in distance if he has enough courage to make it to the wire in front.

The Killer Whales

Fellow Denverite Derek Simon, blogging for www.twinspires.com, wrote an interesting piece about horse racing whales, those ultra-big money bettors. He seemed to make three important points. First, whales are not necessarily good handicappers. The second point was that whales survive by wagering large amounts of money often. So if a whale bets an average of $250,000 a week for 50 weeks out of the year, and sees a 2% return, he finishes the year $250,000 to the good. Now that amount is a good year for most people, but it seems like a lot of risk for a fairly small reward. You still have to be a 2% winner, assuming there are no intervening factors. Of course if making money was that easy, a lot more people would be whales. The third point is questionable – whales limit their play to the larger tracks and leave the action at smaller venues to the minnows. It doesn’t get much smaller than Arapahoe Park, and I’ve seen plenty of whale sized bets there. Same for Turf Paradise, Tampa Bay Downs, Mountaineer Park and a host of other small tracks. Simply put, 5% is 5% is 5% whether it is at Santa Anita on Breeder’s Cup day or Turf Paradise on a Tuesday in February, and a bettor is guaranteed at least 5% return on a winning ticket. Why would you avoid betting at Turf Paradise because you felt limited to, say, $10,000 bets? In fact, I might argue that at some of the smaller tracks the certainty factor is even higher than at larger tracks. Don’t laugh, but there are people I know who specialize in crushing Arabian and mule races at tracks like Delaware, Retama, Arapahoe Park and Pleasanton and are deliriously happy with a cold $7.40 trifecta, which by the way pays $7.40 because they have a substantial percentage of the pool. Ask any Wall Street investor if he’d take 5-2 on a 90% shot. The conclusion of the blog is don’t get too hung up on the action of the whales because mostly they are betting against each other. Derek also suggests that the rebates are irrelevant and that is where I want to zero in.

In 1968, Richard Carter using the pseudonym Tom Ainslie, published the seminal work, Ainslie’s Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing. On page 38 he talks about The Magic Number. Basically Ainslie suggests that no one should lose more than the track take on the win pool. So if the take is 17%, at worst, even if you are betting randomly, you should lose no more than 17% of your bankroll in the long run. He goes on to say that if you only bet favorites, you can reduce that loss to around 8%. Now imagine you are a whale getting a 10% rebate. Betting only favorites to win, you do two things. First, you skew the pool by making the favorite all but unbettable. Second, you still make a 2% profit. Think about it. You are an 8% loser making money, and the more you bet the more you make. If you are any type of handicapper, or if you are using a sophisticated betting program, you might erase half of that 8%, making you a 6% winner. Our same $250,000 a week whale would net a cool three-quarters of a million dollars.

Back when Ainslie wrote his book, favorites were winning at about a 32% rate and one of the first four choices won around 78% of the time. Today, the dilution of the racing product has resulted in smaller fields and a higher percentage of favorites winning. The modern percentage is close to 35%, and at the smaller tracks it seems like there are an increasing number of days when favorites win all the races.

Rebate whales affect the pools and sooner or later they are going to make your return on investment lower than it would be otherwise.

That is bad enough, but they negatively impact the industry as a whole. Ten years ago the New York Times published a short piece on how rebate whales affect the industry. They documented that since the advent of the rebate shops, purse money was declining even though handle is increasing. Is there another viable explanation? It doesn’t seem likely. So what do the tracks do? They think about raising the take, and guess who suffers the most? That’s right, the millions of patrons who aren’t whales. According to the NTRA, money is leaking out of the system and it isn’t going back to live racing. Instead, low overhead operations pay for the signal, make their profit on the volume of bets, and cater to the big money whales.

What’s the answer? I’m going to ask you to tell me your thoughts. Tell me what you think about whales, rebates, and how tracks are dealing with them.

The Benches in Saratoga

Have you ever been to Saratoga on a high attendance day like the Whitney or the Travers? It looks like the Oklahoma land rush when the gates open and people sprint for a picnic table in the back of the track. The dollar store must sell enough disposable plastic table cloths in August to keep China’s factories humming year round.  This year the track finally realized that in addition to charging people more to get into the track, you can also start selling the picnic tables, so on Travers day 130 picnic tables will go on sale for $100 each. The other 670 or so will still be subject to the land rush. You know what they say. Every $13 grand helps.

The plastic seats in front of the TV banks just inside the grandstand fill up about as quickly. Every square inch of open grass or dirt fills up in moments with people who bring lawn chairs with them. I feel sorry for the neophytes who come to the track thinking there will be places to sit only to find pretty much every fanny friendly spot to be occupied. And horrors if it is raining.

I think the first come, first served policy for the picnic tables and the TV seats is just fine. The track provides free seats and it is up to you to get there early enough to use them. But I somehow want to draw the line at the small park-like benches in the back of the clubhouse. I see these in the same light as the benches in your neighborhood park. You stop long enough to get off your feet and when you’ve had your rest you move on. But the custom at Saratoga is just like the picnic tables. First come puts a newspaper or something through the slats and the bench becomes theirs for the day. That means if they decide to wander down to the paddock, listen to one of the bands, watch a race from the rail and come back an hour later, the bench is expected to be open. If you happen to be wandering by and get a cramp, it’s up in the air whether you can sit down and massage it out.

There was one time when I was at the track with my mother and she just needed a rest so we sat on an open bench, fully expecting that whenever the owner returned we’d mosey along. The owner returned and was livid we actually sat on the Delaware section of the racing form he had used to mark his territory. I mean there was no, excuse me, but I’m sitting there. It was go ballistic first thing.

So I’m making a plea to Saratoga. Put signs on the benches that say, this bench cannot be reserved for the day. You can do the picnic table, the reserved grandstand seating, the Carousel, the plastic TV chairs, or your own lawn chair if you want a seat all day. That’s plenty  of guaranteed seating. But let the benches be like park benches. Available when someone physically isn’t sitting in them and used just to grab a quick rest.