Handicapping ProcessOur panelists open up about their approach to handicapping
By Dana Byerly, Hello Race Fans Co-founder
When I was ready to get serious about handicapping, one of the biggest things I was curious about was how people handicapped. What was their process? What pieces of data did they use every time? What pieces of data did they use for particular situations and under what circumstances? Even though I have my own ever-evolving routine, I’m still curious about the process of others.
Since we’re all playing against each other It’s not always easy to get a bunch of players to give up their secrets, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pry some pointers and food for thought out of them! We had such fun discussing Beyer Speed Figures that I wanted to assemble a group to discuss the process of handicapping. From the HRF Crew we have Jessica Chapel (Railbird), Chris Rossi (@o_crunk), Valerie Grash (Foolish Pleasure and Fillies First), Ed DeRosa (newly minted Marketing Director of BRIS) and first time HRF contributor Derek Brown of WirePlayers. A big thanks and welcome to all of our participants!
Let’s start off with an easy one: Paper, as in newspaper, PDF print out or digital, what’s your delivery method for past performances?
To kick it off, here’s my answer: digital. Last month I bought an iPad expressly for handicapping but prior to that I was squarely in the PDF print out camp. I like to do a lot of highlighting and notations and wasn’t convinced that I would make the switch until I saw HRF Co-founder Adam Wiener’s iPad set-up on Belmont Stakes day. I use GoodReader for annotation, a Boxwave stylus and Quickoffice for spreadsheets because of its Dropbox and Google Docs integration.
I download DRF PPs as PDFs, open them up in GoodReader and highlight and annotate the heck out of them. I’ve even started annotating a little differently because it’s easier to apply different highlighting colors on the fly vs. having several actual highlighters. While the basis of my handicapping hasn’t changed that much, the mechanics have and so far it’s been helpful. Since I’m a strictly a weekend warrior the jury is still out on what kind of impact this switch will have on my capping, but I’m looking forward to seeing how I can step up my game.
I know at least one of you also uses an iPad, one recently acquired one for handicapping and one of you is seriously considering it. I also know at least one of you are old school and buy the newsprint version of the Form. So let’s hear it, what do you use?
Old school. I still buy the form. The majority of my playing is at the track. I like the sun. I like the paddock. I like to move around. I sweat, I drink, I spill hamburger juice on my shirt. I beat my brains in. Sleek technology in these environs is unlikely to end well. I’ll use Formulator every now and then, if I’m curious about some breeding or arcane trainer stats (mostly for kicks, not really as handicapping tool) but even if I play from home, it’s likely my primary interface with handicapping is the OG version of the form increasingly on less and less news stands across the country.
I don’t mark up my form beyond scratches or jockey changes. A lot of my handicapping is visual and replay oriented. I think the more one notes the more one must organize all of the noting. After a while one can find themselves in a predicament of over information. I don’t use virtual stable. My notes are simple – name of horse stored in a text file and that’s it. If it’s in the text file, I feel there’s a chance to make some money later on dependent on the situation, which will be digested when and if that time comes.
Since I do the bulk of my wagering at home, I’ve gone the iPad route, but like Chris, still manage to spill hamburger juice on my shirt. I used to print out Brisnet PPs the night before and as a result was burning through paper and ink at an absurd rate. Since I’ve recently started using the Sheets as well, that can add up to an overwhelming amount of paper to go through for an entire race card. So now I keep my PPs in GoodReader for annotations, my sheets in iBooks, since I rarely make notes on them, and copies of both in Dropbox to access or share them from different locations.
I’ll often augment my handicapping by looking at the blogs of handicappers and pedigree experts I respect the night before in order to glean some additional insight beyond the PPs. The iPad gives me the ability to easily access and switch between those posts, my PPs, ADW and real-time opinions from other handicappers on Twitter during the races.
When I started handicapping, I bought the Daily Racing Form, which meant going to the one newsstand in Harvard Square that sold it and hoping that the day I wanted would be in stock (it wasn’t always). The news guy would ask, “For you?” And once I became a regular, “Got any tips?”
I started printing DRF PDFs, which I marked up with circles and notes, arrows indicating class moves and checks indicating similar conditions. I would work my way through a card, doggedly deciphering every race, and only when I was done would I look back and figure out which races I’d actually play and how.
Now I do almost all of handicapping on my laptop, and buy DRF or print PDFs just for those days I go to the track. Although I use Formulator to look up trainer stats or individual splits in charts, I prefer to download PDF files for whichever races I plan to play — I rarely handicap a full card anymore, looking instead for specific conditions, certain situations, and horses I follow at several tracks — and make notes in a Google Docs spreadsheet. I’m considering getting an iPad — its portability is a big plus.
I’m in the midst of a major overhaul to my handicapping process.
1. I was going through way too much paper. A full card could easily require 100 sheets of paper between PPs and figures. And on big race weeks, it wasn’t out of the ordinary to use two reams of paper.
2. I begin work for BRIS on July 18, and want to use the products my employer produces.
Even with the changesâ€”an iPad to address #1 & BRIS products to address #2â€”I anticipate the nuts and bolts to remain the same. I’ll load a card into a reader I’m comfortable with (thanks for the suggestions), and mark it up by race. My ritual for digesting a race is similar to what Jessica described: noting the class and pace of each horse in the past then going back and looking at the race as a whole to see who fits where on the Crist-popularized ABC grid.
I prefer to have the vast majority of a card handicapped before it begins because I like to spend the time between races constructing tickets and/or socializing. The iPad will probably help me make some better on-demand decisions since it won’t be so cumbersome to sift through dozens of pagesâ€”especially if I’m at the track and playing more than one race.
When I first started out, I liked physicality of paper, the ability to circle, highlight, cross out and make other such markings. However, now that I’ve become much more of a pedigree handicapper (and a scrooge when it comes to buying printer ink), I prefer the digital format. I also make copious notes on yellow legal pads and in old notebooks while handicapping, usually with browser windows open to Pedigree Query, Equibase and a few other websites that keep records for foreign raced horses. Almost all of my wagering is done online, but even if I was trackside, I’d feel naked without the instantaneous access to digital information. Like Jessica, I too no longer feel compelled to handicapping an entire cardâ€”there are certain types of races with angles I’m looking for and I concentrate on those.
Great stuff everyone, and all of you touched on at least one thing I wanted to discuss further, but first, letâ€™s lay the groundwork for each of your capping styles. In his Introduction to Speed, Ed talked a bit about his process, referring to it as a “boomerang approach” where he sets out to answer his main question (â€œWho can win the race?â€) and takes several passes at the data from different points of view, ultimately trying to answer the main question. I loved this analogy and definitely take several passes at the data trying to glean different bits of information along the way.
So, here’s the question, or perhaps questions: What’s the main question you ask when capping, and for lack of a better way to put it, what does your handicapping boomerang approach look like? I’m assuming it might be different for different types of races, and a few of you indicated that you really only pick and choose races with certain conditions (please talk about that!), but let’s start with your baseline routine.
Here’s my answer: Generally, the main question I want to answer is “what is the pace scenario and who can benefit?â€ but in cases where I think pace is a bit less important (like sprints) I’ll focus on running styles. For example, is there a lot of early speed and only one or two stalker/closers? Once I identify who could benefit from the likely pace scenario, I focus on who I think could win. My boomerang goes like this:
1. Highlight wins, track & distance record, trainers doing well, jockey/trainer (this is to make the PP easy to scan)
2. Determine running styles & preferred pace scenario for each entrant
3. Dive into each horse: form cycle, work patterns, trainer stats, pedigree
4. Watch replays
5. Watch paddock/warm-up
For races like maiden and particularly juvenile races I focus on 3-5 and sometimes I only do 4-5, or even just 5!
So, don’t be shy, tell our readers about your approach!
*WARNING – LONG*
What do I ask myself? Who’s going to win? I don’t think handicapping can be boiled down to asking the same question for every race or situation *BUT* I do try to boil down the result of that handicapping to simple and clear declarative statements of my opinions. I guess that’s the opposite of what you’re looking for. Depending on the situation, the questions are different but the result I’m hoping to get to by asking those questions is always the same.
First, I think it’s instructive to provide some background for how I got where I am. 80% of my play is in win, place and exacta pools. 90% of my play is at Monmouth, NYRA and Florida in the winter. Every now and then I’ll take a stab at Pick N’s or play stakes races somewhere else but going back the last two years, I’ve cut out the action plays and stayed with what I know. Kind of like the economy itself, I got leaner and trimmed the excess fat of my playing.
Second, I think my mind was unintentionally conditioned for handicapping. Growing up, I was really into baseball. I could tell you stats from every player who played on the 1986 Mets. I’d memorize the back of baseball cards, I’d read Street & Smith’s baseball annual from cover to cover (The books were just stats and stats and more stats). I played a lot of Magic: The Gathering in high school. I wasted a lot of time in college following Phish around and can tell you what they played on certain dates or the last time they played a particular song (Only Phish geeks will understand this).
So when I came to serious handicapping sometime after college, my mind was already conditioned to dealing with large, data rich landscapes in pursuit of hobby. I think that’s helped me tremendously. After I played regularly for a couple years, a lot of the stats (and, more importantly, *feeling* for the stats) are in my head, which saves a lot of time. So in many instances, the past performances I’m looking at, I have at least a passing familiarity with many of the horses already and in some cases a deep familiarity with them. And certainly a deep familiarity with the connections and jockeys on the circuits I play.
Now when it comes to looking at a race and asking questions, I usually start with how I think the public is going to bet the race, which saves a lot of time. I usually do this the night before or the morning of the races. Usually this process is 15 minutes to 30 minutes and consists of a first pass to get a lay of the land. I’ll note the conditions and who the likely favorites are. I’ll note the handful of horses that jump out at me, which leads to the next step.
I’ll do a little replay research on the horses that jump out at me. Usually this bunch is 10 to 15 horses that I’m either unfamiliar with or are coming from another circuit. This process is usually an hour.
So in total about an hour to an hour and a half before the races on replay research and lay of the land. I think knowing how the public bets is very important once you know the horses. It helps save time and it helps you spot those races when something doesn’t fit or looks weird.
Once I’m at the races and playing, I’m looking for value on the win/place end and overlays in the will pays on exactas. I’m looking to make wagers formed on clear opinions and weighing those wagers based on how clear those opinions are. This is a lot harder than it sounds – learning when your opinions are strongest is the hardest part of the game, IMHO. The clearer and simpler the opinion, the larger the bet.
I started out handicapping at age eight, when my dad brought me to Belmont for the first time. The only real lesson he gave me was “just bet the horses that Angel [Cordero] is riding.” Back then, I relied more on race records than the vast amount of data available now. In a way, it was easier. Looking at all the data now sometimes makes me feel like John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind” – overanalyzing the angles and losing sight of a logical favorite’s ability to win amid a cloud of blinkers-on, down two classes, 31-60 day layoffs, shippers, etc.
I still use those angles, but give them more weight in races where all the runners look evenly matched. I find them especially useful when looking at bottom level claimers, or maiden-claiming races. On a typical race card, I start handicapping races from the outside posts and work towards the rail. I found that I was often zeroing in on a horse in the two-six posts and missing logical contenders on the far outside. I look at each horse independently of the others and note their pluses – whether they are running at their preferred class level/surface/distance, positive jockey/trainer combo or a horse that could rebound off a sub-par performance last out. Then I look at the overall race shape will affect the chances of the horses I’ve focused on to see whether the race shape will positively or negatively affect their chances. I’ll give a look at the horses in the paddock and post parade, but rarely let that influence my wagering, since even the slowest horse can look good before the gates open.
I’ve also learned that my handicapping of turf races is exponentially better than dirt, and slightly better than Polytrack. Knowing that I’m going to invest more heavily in those races, I focus a lot more on constructing exactas and trifectas on those races, and using dirt races lightly in doubles and Pick 3s. I play Pick 4s less frequently now, because there are few sequences that play to my strengths as a handicapper, so I really try to build my days around the turf races and make a few spot plays where I think I can make some money on dirt.
The question I am asking myself every race is, â€œWho can win?â€
The question I ask myself to get to that answer is, â€œWhat does history (revealed in past performances, pedigree, etc.) indicate could happen under today’s conditions?â€
I’m a believer that class is speed and speed is class. A horse who runs a “0” on the Sheets will far more often than not reach the finish before a horse who runs a “1”. Variables that could help the “1” win are weight, trip, and pace. Variables that could help the “1” outperform the zero this time are changes in distance, surface, jockey, etc. I take the Dana approach and mark up my program noting similar variables to today as well as notable changes.
Once I decide who can win (most often anywhere from 10%-75% of the field with some level of confidence) I start making my ABC grid that will define my wagering for the day. I love the Pick N wagers, so decisions surrounding races I think a single horse has a 50% chance of winning offer the toughest decisions.
To wit, if I think a horse has a 50% chance of winning then I think he has a 50% chance of losing. Depending on what I think could happen in other races, I’m most likely going to either single the horse I think should be even money OR toss him completely and use other horses that have 40%-45% chance of winning (without using ALL, I never consider a race a true 100% chance of advancing).
That’s probably a bit derivative for Dana’s question, but it’s always something I’m thinking about as I go through a race, so I figured I’d mention it.
I’ve been picking horses since I was 6 or 7 and going to the track with my grandpa. My “method” back then was to read the tote board, looking for 5-, 6-, or 7-to-1 horses in the win pool who were second- or third-choice in the place pool and bet that horse to win/place. Looking back, that seems kind of sophisticated for a first grader, but I loved numbers even back then and it made sense to me.
I first remember looking at a harness form at around junior high and started looking at real Thoroughbred forms in high school. Advance handicapping didn’t start occurring until my freshman year of college (fall 1997) when I joined BRIS and started downloading programs for day trips to Beulah. Good times!
This is surprisingly difficult question for me to answer, because my process is in flux — I’m looking less at races and asking, â€œwho can win?â€, and more at individual horses and asking, can X win in this spot and at a price greater than N? My play has become more focused on a set of horses I follow, value-driven and based on what’s happening in the pools.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t still go through past performances and evaluate all the contenders on conditions and pace and consider, as Chris does, how the public is likely to play, just that I’m increasingly more interested in how a specific horse fits in a race and if it’s playable. The exception is maidens stocked with first-time starters; I still handicap those by working through each horse, looking at all the relevant stats, and trying to figure out who can win.
As opposed to an exacting methodology, I prefer a more intuitive approach to handicapping. It’s not that I’m not a numbers person, but given that my “real” job has nothing to do with horse racing and is quite demanding in terms of researching and writing, I simply don’t have the time to commit to a rigorous evaluation and categorization of horses (ABC grid, etc.). Thus, I like to focus on certain types of racesâ€”usually those that involve juvenile first-time starters or turf races where a horse may be trying the surface for the first time.
For my boomerang approach I begin by skimming the past performances, noting key trainers and jockeys that I think make that horse a contender. This is usually more important in juvenile races where certain trainers just can’t be ignored. My next (and most important) step is probably less orthodox than most: I research each and every horse’s pedigree, focusing almost entirely on the dam side. Did the dam run and win at two? Has she already produced juvenile winners? Does she have talented siblings who raced and/or produced winners? For unproven juveniles, I’m looking for precociousnessâ€”especially those who have won first out in a dominating fashion. For turf races (especially routing), I’m looking for those with proven turf ability in their dam line, a fact that may not be readily visible in the standard past performances. This kind of evaluation can provide me with an edge that my fellow horse players don’t possess from a simple study of numbers, but obviously it only works for certain types of races.
After the pedigree analysis, I’m usually leaning strongly a certain way, so I’m next looking at workouts, but I’m not as focused on them as I once was. I’ve been a fan of horse racing since I was kid, witnessing many of the great performances of the 1970s (arguably the last great Golden Age of horse racing). I never wagered on races; I simply enjoyed them as a fan. Not until many, many years later did I become indoctrinated into the ways of the handicapper. In the beginning for me, it was all about numbersâ€”Beyer speed figures, bullet workouts, winning percentages of trainers and jockeys. Now, I realize that bullet workouts aren’t necessarily a good thing for certain horses, and there’s much more to be gleaned from information not readily available in past performances, so that’s what I’m looking for, and again it’s a strategy that best works for only certain types of races.
Great stuff everyone. It’s interesting to note how wagering strategy and handicapping can go hand in hand and I love that everyone has such a different approach and set of goals. I remember being so overwhelmed when I started out that I could barely get a handle on how and when to use all the data let alone looking for specific scenarios with an eye towards how I’d like to play them. The overarching theme seems to be “know thyself.” Additionally notable is that everyone mentioned an evolution or process.
Like Jessica, my process is currently in flux, and I’m finding that I’m playing more strategic spots with specific conditions. Although I can, and still do, enjoy some afternoon parade playing! Chris, Derek & Ed, you all have been handicapping and playing for quite some time, I’m wondering if you could talk a bit more about refining your process. For example, Derek mentioned that he recently started using the Sheets and Ed mentioned earlier that he wants to start using products from his new employer. I’m curious, as I’m sure some of our readers are, about how one refines or keeps their process fresh in the long haul. How do you balance leveraging your core strengths that have been built up over time with keeping your skills sharp? Or, asked another way, what do you do to avoid stagnation in your process?
I used to focus the bulk of my time handicapping on Pick 4s thinking that it would be easier to just pick winners, but I wasn’t really putting the proper analysis into it and building weighted tickets. I pretty much just looked at horses that I thought could win, and ended up playing too lightly on horizontal wagers. My focus was more on finding winners versus finding value. There’s little satisfaction in a picking a 3-1 winner on a pick 4, but not cashing the exacta with the 17-1 horse that ran second.
So I’ve done two things in the last few months; looking at a my detailed ROI to see which bets and tracks are the my most profitable, and changing my wagering strategy to not chase multi-race sequences where I don’t see value. Once I saw how poor my ROI was on Pick 4s, I started focusing on putting more money into exactas, trifectas and win wagers. Now, even if I’m not cashing tickets, I stick to my process for handicapping the races individually and building tickets based on how strongly I feel about a horse’s chances of winning proportional to the value they offer on the tote board. Occasionally, I can be my own worst enemy if I let a string of losses affect my initial thinking of a horse’s chances in an effort to chase a big payout late in the card. It’s the wagering equivalent of throwing a Hail Mary.
The Sheets are a recent addition to my handicapping process, and I’ve found them invaluable in terms of weeding out horses that may appear to have flashy form on paper but are still slower than others in the field. Using them requires me to spend more time analyzing each horse within the shape of the race and determine what I see as fair value for their odds and how I’m going to use them in my tickets.
First of all, handicapping should be fun. I don’t think I’m thinking about handicapping in the sense that I’m aware of my process. I’m just trying to figure out races. For instance, I do the KenKen in the NYT everyday. If I get stuck, I put it down. Sometimes I come back to it and whatever had me stuck is long forgotten. It’s the same thing with handicapping. Get stuck, turn the page and there’s another race.
But it’s really important to realize when you’re stuck. You get stuck on a race, then spend more time on it, then maybe feel like you have to bet it after you spent a lot of time on it. You have fewer real opinions than you think. If there’s one thing I’ve evolved in my process over time, it’s skipping more races where I don’t have a real opinion. I learned the races from an action junkie in Pa Dukes. Some days he plays more tickets than I do in an entire month. My action plays were terrible. They were killing me. So now, over time, I’ve cut out all the action to almost down to nothing.
I’ve tried rags (the Sheets) and TG (Thoro-graph) but it’s just not for me. I’ve tried speed fig handicapping. Frankly, I find all of them to be dumbed-down handicapping. I’m keenly aware of them when figuring out how the public is going to bet a race but I just don’t use them to make decisions on horses. In fact, a lot of stats are straight up useless to me and enable more paralysis in decision-making. (An example: ever notice, how at the top end, average 1st time starter % for a whole swath of sires is between 12-18% – it’s a useless stat. I guess we’ll be getting more into that later).
“Handicapping should be fun” is a great mantra. As Derek noted, figuring out which wagers are your most successful is great starting point for refinement. If you use an online wagering account, like TwinSpires (Ed’s new employer!), you can easily determine which wagers and tracks are your most or least successful. I had terrible exacta cold streak last year and being able to see exactly how cold I was allowed me to reign in my exacta play until I got it back on track. If I didn’t have stats to back up my hunch (that I was stinking on ice), I might have been able to keep telling myself that I wasn’t that cold. Knowing the ugly truth allowed me to play a bit more judiciously.
I want to follow-up on something that a few of you mentioned, both pro and con, and that’s making an ABC grid. For those who may not know what that means, it’s pretty much as it sounds, a grading system for race entries made popular by Steven Crist’s Exotic Betting (review). Crist uses the method to help with elaborate multi-race exotic ticket construction* but I’ve recently found the approach useful in terms of simply helping me clarify my opinion by forcing me to rank the entries regardless of whether I’m playing a Pick 3s or Pick 4s. Before I started using this approach I was frequently wishy-washy about several horses that I “kind of like” and would find myself trying to include all them equally. Now I’m making better, or least less expensive decisions!
So, tell our readers about your ranking approach, regardless of whether it’s using an ABC grid. In particular, how do handle decision-making when the field seems particularly evenly matched?
Crist’s ABC system doesn’t really apply to me because I tend to only play one Pick 4 ticket. I struggled with trying to weight horses and tickets, but ultimately the financial constraints I put on myself for Pick 4s limit me to the “caveman” ticket. I still rank horses, within each race, but use it more to determine my horizontal wagers. The same criteria apply – As are the horses that have the best chance to win and Bs have a lesser chance, but should be played underneath in exactas and trifectas. Once I have all my As on the card identified, I’ll look through each of them to determine which ones may fly under the radar of the wagering public and offer the most value with win bets. If I land on more than two horses as solid As, then I’ll typically avoid win and exacta bets, but still look to play them in doubles if I can whittle down the other leg to one or two horses.
I don’t use the grid all the time but when I do I break it down to A+/A/A-/B+/B/B-. A+ is the rare occasion where I feel as certain as I can that a horse will win. These are the occasions where I bet the most heavily. If the odds for the A+ horse are under whatever threshold I’ve determined acceptable (admittedly, I kind of wing that part) I will play it in exotics only. The most likely scenarios is that I have several A horses that I think can definitely win and maybe a few A- that I think could win given particular circumstances (pace, track condition, scratches etc.). A B+ could become an A- or even an A depending on scratches and B or B- is underneath only. I can’t tell you how many times I like a horse underneath and forget to play it that way when I’m scrambling to put my wagers together. I’ve found having the grid can be really helpful in the clutch.
As someone who feels a “can’t lose” horse is far more rare than a “can’t win horse,” I always use a grid system, which I sort of view as a hybrid (general) odds line and a cardinal ranking system of my selections.
Let’s take the Hall of Fame Stakes on August 12 at Saratoga as an example (pdf – chart). Street Game is 8-to-5 on the morning line and is clearly a win threat, but I see him as a tremendous underlay as highweight with BY FAR the worst jockey in the field.
I’ll rank him a “C” in this case, as I would want to use him if there is a price horse elsewhere in the sequence that I rate very favorably. The thinking there is, if I get a $20 horse home I don’t want to miss a decent pick four by completely tossing Street Game. But if the rest of the sequence looks logical then I’d rather use value in a race I think the favorite is an underlay.
The same works with higher-priced horses. A horse who should be 10- or 15-to-1 but who is a complete bomb is one I’d move up to a “B”. I take the Dave Litfin approach to “A” selections in that I generally want them to have a better than 10% (9-to-1) chance of winning the race to really sink my teeth into them. Dealing with horses with less chance than that opens up variance. The difference would be on a spread race where I take a stand with 50%-75% of the field in equal strength because I really like something elsewhere in the sequence.
OK, new question, and I suspect not everyone will have an answer for this one, but I’m wondering how many of you make your own morning line? Or, if you don’t make a line for the full field, how do you determine what fair odds are for the horse or horses you like? I don’t make a line so I’ll just be awaiting your replies on this one.
I don’t make my morning line, but I do focus on value in relation to how much of a chance I give a horse to win. Typically, I’ll look at what a horse’s final odds were in prior races at the same class level to determine if they are worth the price I’m getting in a particular spot. If a horse that’s typically gone off at 4-1 or higher is 8/5 on the morning line, I don’t see them offering any value unless I think they have a distinct advantage over the rest of the field. If a short-priced favorite looks like they tower over the field, the value for me then becomes identifying which horse among those I see as contenders is going to give me the best payout in the exacta.
When I identify potential winners that are 5-1 or above, I put win bets on them and play them on top of small exactas. I’ll also hedge with them on the bottom of exactas and trifectas underneath favorites that I think have a decent chance of winning.
I don’t use a grid, I do make a line. Like Derek, my occasional Pick N ticket is limited to caveman play. Also, the line, which I started making after reading Barry Meadow’s “Money Secrets At The Racetrack”, functions similarly to the grid in that an A horse equals the line favorite (on my line, not the morning line or the actual odds), B horses the next couple lowest-odd picks, and so on.
I don’t do the grids much, mostly because I don’t play a lot of horizontals but I can see their utility. I do a rough-cut morning line. Then usually wait for the first flash, then the last flash.
I lack the discipline to make a complete line for every race. There’s a finite time I want to spend handicapping a race/card/day at the races, and that’s an exercise that gets left on the cutting room floor, but the Dana approach works for me. If you look at a race then you know about what you’re willing to accept price wise.
OK, lightning round final question, admittedly inspired by DRF’s Q&A with NYRA’s handicapper extraordinaire, Andy Serling. What factors do you consider most AND least essential, and why?
Here’s mine: Most essential = running style/pace scenario. Sometimes how the race unfolds can tip the scales in favor of an unlikely or well-priced horse.
Least essential = speed figs. We did a great discussion piece on speed figs that highlights some excellent strategies for usage, but generally speaking they’re the last thing I look at, if at all. They’re so widely used that I rarely feel like I’m uncovering anything or that they’re adding any vital information (despite the great suggestions given in our discussion about them!).
I hate to admit this about what’s most essential but for me it’s trainers. A handful of trainers at any given meeting are going to win the majority of the races. There are no better winning angles. They may not be all profitable angles but they are winning ones and some variations over large samples still are profitable in a black box today. I try to keep the trainer in the front of my brain when handicapping or figuring out who’s going to get bet. I agree with Andy on his point about jockeys being least essential but I think that’s a particular feature of the NYRA circuit. At Monmouth, for instance, the top four or five jocks are going to dominate and every one else is going to starve. It’s just something to keep in mind; it’s basically an automatic template for me when looking at races. What’s least essential for me are small sample sizes of any statistic. You can die on these small run stats.
I find trainers to be a useful angle too, particularly hot/cold streaks. For example, so far at Saratoga (half way through the meet) I’ve been downgrading short-priced Babe (Rick Dutrow) horses, so far, so good.
On a macro level the most important thing is speed. Speed is class is speed, but on the micro level of each race, I’m most interested in pace because I see that as the variable most likely to affect speed. Plus, speed is readily available. Whether something as rudimentary as lengths behind/in front + raw time or more complex speed figures, judging speed is something everyone can do. Judging pace is too, but that at least takes a little more work to look at the whole race.
The least important factor for me is jockeys, which I realize is funny since I just said Curatolo scares me on Street Game, but overall they’re just not a factor. I’m not looking at two otherwise evenly matched horses and then looking at Maragh versus Leparoux as the deciding factor.
In general I agree with jocks as non-factor angle, particularly in a place with a deep or just evenly matched talent pool, but I’ve found that knowing the strengths/weaknesses of individual jocks to be an extremely helpful angle on occasion. Anyone who knows me know that 1) I’m a huge Javier Castellano fan, particularly on a front-runner and/or turf and 2) the opposite of a huge fan of Garrett Gomez on a front-runner (stalkers and closers are a different story). C.S. Silk in the Jenny Wiley (replay) with Gomez up (9th) and next out winning Just a Game with Castellano up at 12-1 (replay) is the perfect example of this angle. There was a small distance cutback as well but in this limited circumstance the jockey was a huge factor for me. (I had her as an A+ and played accordingly!).
Lightning round answer — who fits/who’s fit? I always look first at the class of starters — who’s running at the same level, who’s running at a higher or lower level? And then at who’s ready to run — which means looking for patterns among established horses’ records, and for juveniles or firsters, at trainer stats. Then it’s about speed and pace.
I love work patterns, and I would say that itâ€™s my most essential angle for first time or lightly raced starters, but I always factor it.
The speed gurus will tell you that class doesn’t matter, and I generally agree (“speed is class”). A horse capable of running a hole through the wind will do so at any level. He doesn’t know what kind of race he’s in; she doesn’t know her odds; etc.
But class IS important because better animals affect the dynamic of the race. An every day example occurred in today’s fifth race at Saratoga (August 12, 2011). Settling Seas streaked to her second consecutive victory after four consecutive losses (pdf chart). The two things in common with the two wins is that they both came against $20,000 claimers and they both came near gate-to-wire.
So what accounts for the turn around? Softer competition? The pace? Probably a combination of both. If she steps up in class she’s likely to face horses with better gate speed. But I wouldn’t ignore her against better competition if the pace is favorable for her since we already know she can go gate to wire.
This is a great time to point Jessica’s Introduction to Class and Ed’s Introduction to Speed for a more in-depth look at these concerns and their intersections. We also have an Introduction to Pace!
Lightning round answer: I’m with Dana on this. Most essential is running style as it relates to how the track plays. If I look at a speed-favoring track like Gulfstream, and evaluating two horses who I think have equally good chances to win, I’m going to lean towards the horse that has the better early speed. Lots of good horses win chances can be negated by track bias. To Ed’s point, on the Saratoga turf course, the closers, even if they have better form/speed figs on paper, are loosing races to horses with inferior form but a propensity for running well on or just off the pace.
Least essential for me is trainer stats. For example, as much as people want to tout Bob Baffert’s 31 percent win rate with shippers, he still loses with that angle more than he wins. These figs will often move bettors away from a logical first time starter if it’s not an angle that the trainer wins with very often (see Bill Mott with Star Torina on June 24) (pdf chart). The only time I give these stats extra weight is with horses debuting in maiden claiming races. There are several trainers who specialize with this, and it’s a stat that is often overlooked. Trainer stats are very subjective and open to interpretation – why a trainer rides a certain jock that he doesn’t often use, why he’s putting a seemingly over matched horse in a stakes race. Leaning on those numbers opens the door for the bettor to guess intent and takes away from more objective analysis of the horse’s chances to win in a particular spot.
And there you have it, a variety of approaches that could give even the most wizened player an idea or two. We certainly could go on about more angles, tools, observations and war stories but weâ€™ll save something for future posts about handicapping particular angles! Have a question or want to share an observation? Don’t be shy, leave a comment, particularly if you have experience capping with a tablet other than an iPad (e.g., what apps do you use, etc).