One of the people who follows my blog asked me about how I prepare for a daily card. Interestingly, the first article I ever wrote for American Turf Monthly was on that subject. I used the example of a golfer preparing to hit a shot. The best golfers have a routine they go through on every shot, and the routine doesn’t vary much from shot to shot. That consistency allows them to execute with maximum results. The advice I gave horseplayers – develop a routine that works and stick with it.
Here are some brief thoughts on various handicapping elements and how I view them.
If you need to spend two hours handicapping a card, either spend the time or don’t bet. Looking at past performances for two minutes before a race is a surefire formula for losing in the long run.
Before you dig into the race study the conditions and determine which horses fit the best. Know the class risers, the class droppers and be able to tell the difference between a positive drop and a negative drop. I love to look for horses with back class that are cycling up after being down for a while. Improving horses rising in level shouldn’t be discarded without proper consideration.
First, every race is it’s own puzzle and there is always a key to the race – just not necessarily the same key. Second, there’s nothing wrong with being a specialist – like only doing turf routes – or avoiding certain races – I know people that avoid maiden races. To be a good handicapper you have to be able find the right key in the race you are handicapping. I think of myself like Michael Phelps. His main stroke is the butterfly – mine would be turf races – but he can still kick butt in the individual medley. I believe I am just about as proficient at maiden races of all sorts, two year olds, and dirt routes. If there are races where I am weaker, it would be dirt sprints, but I’m still pretty good. Finally, if you are too mechanical in your handicapping you will miss a lot of opportunities. You have to be flexible and open to be a great handicapper.
I’m not going to tell you there is a single right way to handicap. I’ve been a pace handicapper for most of my career. Before handicappers had the depth of information available today, I custom made par times for the tracks I bet. It took hundreds of hours, but it was a great project for the winter. Par times allowed me to make daily variants, which allowed me to compare fractional times from one race to another. It allowed me to know that a horse that ran a 1:11 on a day that was four fifths slow was faster than a horse that ran 1:10.3 on a zero day. It allowed me to see that horses that ran adjusted times of :44.1 for the half and finished in 1:11.1 were likely better bets than horses that ran :45.3 and finished in 1:11, especially when all the crowd could see were the raw finish times in the Racing Form.
One of my favorite angles – the hidden fraction. Horses that run superior interior times – say from the quarter call to the stretch call in a sprint – without winning or fading disastrously are great horses to upgrade.
It has always been my approach that the final time a horse runs is a function of the interior pace of a race. That is why I believe the best friend a pace handicapper has are final time figures. Taken without context, they may or may not have value, but they often wind up pushing horses to lower odds. I love betting against horses that have good finish times off soft fractions.
When I first started handicapping there were no Beyers figures. The Daily Racing Form published a speed figure based on track records and a daily variant. I had some amazing years betting horses that I believed were the best in the race, but were ignored by the crowd. It was so much easier to beat the races back then!
Even if a figure gives you a leg up, you still have to handicap the race. I use two products to do my handicapping: DRF Formulator and Timeform. I print out the DRF past performances and the Timeform condensed sheet. I only buy one formulator card and one Timeform card because I only handicap one track in a day, almost always a NYRA track. I wind up spending less than people who have to buy an $8 racing form with multiple tracks.
I’m not going to talk anybody in or out of playing multiple tracks in a day, but I learned (the hard way) that I can only effectively handicap a certain number of races in a day. I also decided that being an expert at one track gives me an advantage over being merely above average at multiple tracks. I know the trainers, the riders, the biases intimately.That gives me an edge, and if there is one piece of advice I believe is critical it is that you have to have an edge over the other players. I get why people like to play multiple tracks. When I did it I loved the action, but I also realized there were too many races where I was throwing money away. I remembered early in my career when I was winning consistently, I was only betting one track. I guess I’ve come full circle and I’m winning consistently again. If you can bet 20 races a day and stay afloat, I tip my hat to you, but I can’t.
You have to make up your mind. Is the payoff for you profit or the thrill of the action?
When I was a teaching Introduction to Geomorphology in college, one of the modules was mapping. If you’ve ever seen a USGS map, it has elevation countour lines that define relief in an area. I found people fell into two categories – those who could look at the map and actually “see” the landscape, and those who just saw lines on a page. The DRF works like that for me. I can scan the page and “see” different things, including patterns. I believe it is simply a function of having looked at thousands of racing forms. It’s an old habit and one I’m not likely to change. I also like that you can view charts and race replays with a click.
Remember pattens. I ask two questions: how fast is a horse, and do I think it can run that fast today? You can’t tell that simply by looking at the last race. You have to look at all the races, and decide which one is most representative of today’s race. I’m trying to figure out the race my horse is most likely to run today and whether that will be good enough to win.
I look for horses that are what I call “win types.” I often dismiss horses that are 2 for 36 out of hand, even if they have good figures. Usually 10% wins is the minimum I’ll accept on a horse. In maiden races I’ll often start by looking for horses that have four or fewer starts. And as horses get up to 10 starts without a win, I’ll downgrade them substantially, even if they have good figures. Same for winners – as they get to zero for their last 10, they’ll get downgraded regardless of numbers.
While I don’t consider myself much of a trip handicapper, there are two things I especially look for – trouble at the start and horses that break slow, rush up, and fade in the stretch, but not disastrously. Horses that have trouble out of the gate often are left with no winning strategy. That’s usually visible by looking at the comments and the running line. One of the best recommendations a horse can have is that it tried hard during the race, especially if he had the kind of trouble that would discourage most horses.
Still, it helps to watch replays of every race. You can often pick out subtle things that don’t show up in the comment line. During the 2015 Saratoga meeting I kept a daily log of horses to watch based on the replays and it produced some high priced winners. If nothing else it makes it easier to determine when the track is biased with regard to speed or running path.
I like the Timeform condensed printout because it allows me to see patterns at a glance. I can immediately spot a horse that ran figures in a recent race that don’t seem to fit, either way above or below its ability, but are likely to influence the crowd. I also think the Timeform pacefigures are as good as any numbers out there. But just like the Beyers, the horse with the highest figure doesn’t always win, and that is why you have to handicap. I also like that with Timeform you can see actual interior fractions for a respective horse at a glance.
I do look at the trainer. Trainers like Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher win a high percentage of races, and you have to make an evaluation of any horse they enter. There are also trainers that are consistently poor. Some trainers are great first off a claim. That will upgrade a horse. Some trainers do very well with first time starters, others rarely win with first timers. I’ll pretty much ignore Bill Mott first time, unless his horse is getting unusual action. Most trainers, like most people, will find patterns that they think are successful and repeat them, and it is up to the handicappers to identify them. Jockey switch, fast pre-race work, sprint to route – any of them could be the key to identifying a respective trainer pattern. Formulator can be great for finding those stats. I will upgrade or downgrade a horse based on the trainer.
I don’t place a lot of stock in who is riding a horse. I will look for jockey switches from a low ranked rider to a higher ranked one, but mostly for purposes of gauging trainer intent. You don’t engage a top rider unless you think your horse is live. But I have always believed it is 90% horse and 10% jockey, and that the jockey is more likely to lose on a live horse than win on a lesser animal. I’ve asked the question, how many jockeys could have ridden American Pharoah to victory in the Belmont? I suspect the answer is in the dozens. Pretty much the same with Runhappy in the Malibu. On the other hand, I don’t care who you put on Frosted in the Travers. He wasn’t beating AP. And giving Junior Alvarado more than 10% of the credit for Moreno’s victory in the 2014 Whitney won’t do. Plenty of jockeys could have sat on that horse on easy fractions and won the race. If there is an advantage the best jockeys have, it is that they get the best horses, and vice versa. I would agree that the best jockeys don’t make as many riding mistakes – in other words, they don’t lose on horses that should be there at the wire. They can be physically superior – sitting chilly on a horse or helping it hold a line – but I still won’t overestimate the contribution of the jockey. In general, riders in the top 5-10 at a meet are indiscriminately backable if you think the horse they are on is the best in the race. One other thing I might consider – when a jockey has his choice of horses, I upgrade the chances of the horse he selects. I also believe any jockey that has successfully ridden a horse in the past can be backed regardless of where he is in the standings. In short, bet the horse, don’t worry too much about the jockey.
I always look at workouts, not so much for the times, but to demonstrate the health of a horse. There are trainers that like to work fast, and trainers that like to work moderately, and you have to know their patterns. One pattern I look for in first time starters is to see a quick work early in the sequence and conditioning works later. That tells me the horse has speed and should be in condition.
In turf races I give extra consideration to horses that have done well on a respective surface. Pace is also less important on the turf. The final fraction is important, but you have to be careful not to overrate it.
I like to assess where horses are in their form cycle. Horses cycling up get extra consideration.
Post position may or may not be important. I’ll downgrade horses breaking from the inside that are likely to get buried on the rail. I don’t mind speed horses on the outside in sprints. They have a lot of run to get into position. I might downgrade outside horses on tight courses like the Saratoga inner turf.
Lone speed is still dangerous, turf or dirt. And track biases do develop on dirt. Pay attention to the early races and adjust for the later races if necessary.
I look for races where I can get down to three contenders. If I have five or six contenders in a race, it’ s not likely to be a good race to bet. Once I have my contenders I assign them win probabilities. Probabilities will vary based on the field. For example, the three horses may be assigned odds of 6/5, 3-1, 5-1. In that race, I think the top horse is very likely the winner and I may be looking more at vertical bets, unless the crowd misses the top choice. The three horses may also be 5/2, 3-1, 7/2 on my line. In that case I’ll be looking for an overlay on any of the three horses.
I’ve said this on many occasions, but if you are selection oriented instead of value oriented, you have a far smaller chance of making profit. You have to be willing to bet the overlay even if it is not the top choice. I’ve had plenty of huge hits where my odds were 3-1. 7/2, 4-1, and the crowd sends the horse off at 2-1, 4/1, and 13-1 respectively. I’m pounding the 13-1 even though I think two horses have higher probabilities of winning. A lot of people don’t get this, but it is purely mathematical. If you are good at assigning probabilities (and after 40 years I’m very good at it) you are simply playing the odds. If your pick goes off at 13-1 and it has a 20% chance of winning, you have to win money in the long run. Stop trying to pick one horse and bet the overlay.
I’ve advised average players to distribute their bankroll 50-25-25, win-exacta-any other pool. You may not get rich quick, but you can win in the long run. The win and exacta pools are usually the largest pools in a respective race and have the lowest take. The final 25% allows you to get into some higher paying horizontal pools, but the overal ratio makes for much better bankroll management. Frankly, unless you are highly capitalized, you have no business in most of the Pick-5/6 pools. Betting this way, you don’t need a huge bankroll to play from week to week, and you can focus your money better. I’d much rather have $100 in the win and exacta pools on an overlay than have it in a Pick-4 pool that I have a 10% chance of hitting.
Handicapping a race requires a lot of what I think of as muscle memory. They say it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, and there is no substitute for putting in the time. It is also frustrating. You’ll have a lot more failure than success, but if you stick to it eventually that turns around. You have to learn to see things that others do not in the data, and you need to put the information together in ways the crowd doesn’t in order to separate yourself.
My hope for the new year is that everyone gets better at handicapping and betting. If I can help I’m glad to.