Handicapping Tips for a New Track – By Ray Wallin
If you are like me you are a creature of habit. You have a meet or two that you follow and play religiously and rarely deviate from that. For me, that is the New Jersey circuit. For years I would get excited for Garden State Park, Atlantic City Race Course, Monmouth Park, and finally the Meadowlands. Occasionally I would play Philadelphia Park, which is now Parx Racing, or Delaware Park since so many horses would ship in from those meets.
What do you do when you are planning to be away, either planning to visit a new race track or spend a night at a casino? What do you do when a pandemic shuts down everything you are used to playing?
During this coronavirus pandemic I have been playing the major tracks as more close every day. To fill the void, I am playing the likes of Fonner Park and Will Rogers Downs. What have I learned in the past that helps me to be successful now as the betting options become fewer?
It reminds me of a trip my wife and I took for a weekend away in Atlantic City while my usual tracks weren’t running but I still wanted to play the races.
I had to pick another track or two to play. Sounds easy enough, right?
I remember the first overnight trip we took to Atlantic City. We checked in to Caesar’s and had a great dinner at the now closed Bacchanal where the wine flowed freely, which was included in your prix-fixe dinner cost. After a filling dinner, my wife and I parted ways. She was off to play the one-arm bandits and I was going to waddle down to the race book.
Friday nights in the winter months offer a different group of tracks than what I played during the day. Tracks like Penn National, Mountaineer, Charlestown, Delta Downs, Sam Houston Race Course, Los Alamitos, Australia, and a wide array of harness tracks were awaiting my bankroll.
How many of these tracks did I regularly play? None.
How many of these tracks did I prepare to play? None.
You can only guess how well I did that first night. Nothing seemed to work. My angles and figures that crushed the NJ circuit were doing abysmally. While my wife was hitting progressive jackpot after progressive jackpot, I was hemorrhaging money in the racebook on our first night there. I knew I had to preserve some bankroll for the full day I planned to spend there on Saturday with tracks I played more regularly like Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Tampa Bay Downs, and Laurel Park.
I learned a valuable lesson that night. When it comes to playing a new track for the first time there are a few things you should do before you jump in with both feet to be successful.
It is like my theory on all-in-one printers that copy, fax, print, and scan. They can do it all, but none of it well. Pick one or two tracks, not all seven that are running that one night you are getting the in-laws to watch the kids so you and your spouse can get your first overnight away since they last one was born. I know it can be exciting, but it will be overwhelming and your bankroll will suffer.
Aside from my disastrous trip to Caesar’s, I had another occasion that I was better prepared for. Several years ago my wife and I decided to take a trip down to Baltimore a week before Easter to see the Inner Harbor. We had planned it far enough in advance that we figured on a day to visit Pimlico for the first time. I knew that they would have live racing so I made sure to focus in on them for a few weeks prior to our trip. This trip turned out much more profitable than my Caesar’s experience because I was prepared.
Whether you are planning a weekend away to a casino or a trip where you are going to be able to visit a new racetrack, look at the simulcast schedule or live racing schedule that is offered. Select a track or two that will be running. Focus on them only.
One other reason my trip to Pimlico yielded better results was that I decided to handicap a couple of cards during the weeks leading up to our visit. I handicapped as I always did and played on paper. There were a lot of early lessons learned. How did shippers from various tracks perform? What was the track bias in terms of post and running style? Is this track a mile oval or is it a bullring?
If you have the opportunity to play a few cards in advance, take it. You will learn a lot about what from your handicapping arsenal works and doesn’t work.
Take some time to get familiar with the local trainers and jockey colony. Who is winning a lot of the races? Which trainers and jockeys hook up to win at a solid clip?
This is much easier to do now then 20 years ago. The stats appear in the past performances to help you figure out which trainers excel under certain conditions like first times starters, first off of a claim, or with different classes. Jockey stats now include how they perform on the turf or how they perform with a specific trainer. This information is often overlooked by the general betting public, so use it to your advantage.
Whether you can play the races on paper in advance or not, it is important to also look at the charts. You can see how the races breakdown or if there is a noticeable bias that jumps out at you. What are the typical distances and conditions that run at this track? What is the rock bottom claiming price here versus other local tracks?
All this information will come in handy when you are playing the race with your real bankroll.
If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, a video is worth 10,000 words. Many track websites offer replays or you can find them on YouTube. You can see how the races set up and the tactics of the local jockeys. Which jockeys can control a front runner who wants to bolt early so he’ll have some gas in the tank later? Which jockeys are just aboard for the ride? Is there some nuance of the track that you need to account for like awkward late afternoon shadows that spook the horses?
Most tracks offer the same wagers. Win, place, show, exactas, and trifectas are almost standard on each race. If you play horizontally, you’ll want to know if the track offers rolling daily doubles and pick 3’s. How many Pick 4, 5, or 6’s are offered on a card? Are there any guaranteed pools on those wagers during the week?
By knowing what is offered you can play the card to your strengths.
Whether you are on vacation or getting a much needed night away from the kids while the in-laws cover for you, remember why you are there. When I visited Pimlico it wasn’t all about making money. It was to see a new track and take in all the local culture and the history. Make sure you check it all out. The statues, the tributes, the pomp and circumstance of the different ways different tracks do the same things.
If you are on vacation, be on vacation. Spend time with your spouse or family, not glued to a simulcast monitor or finding the local version of Rail Guy. Have fun. Relax. You’ll be back to grinding out your usual tracks soon enough. Anything that you win on this trip is gravy.
So whether you are trying a new track for fun, are on vacation, or are in isolation during a pandemic, by following a couple of simple steps you will be successful. You can grow your bankroll and continue working towards making a living playing the races.
If you enjoyed this piece on handicapping tips, check out other articles at our horse racing news section!
Ray Wallin is a licensed civil engineer and part-time handicapper who has had a presence on the Web since 2000 for various sports and horse racing websites and through his personal blog. Introduced to the sport over the course of a misspent teenage summer at Monmouth Park by his Uncle Dutch, a professional gambler, he quickly fell in love with racing and has been handicapping for over 25 years.
Ray’s background in engineering, along with his meticulous nature and fascination with numbers, parlay into his ability to analyze data; keep records; notice emerging trends; and find new handicapping angles and figures. While specializing in thoroughbred racing, Ray also handicaps harness racing, Quarter Horse racing, baseball, football, hockey, and has been rumored to have calculated the speed and pace ratings on two squirrels running through his backyard.
Ray likes focusing on pace and angle plays while finding the middle ground between the art and science of handicapping. When he is not crunching numbers, Ray enjoys spending time with his family, cheering on his alma mater (Rutgers University), fishing, and playing golf.
Ray’s blog, which focuses on his quest to make it to the NHC Finals while trying to improve his handicapping abilities can be found at www.jerseycapper.blogspot.com Ray can also be found on Twitter (@rayw76) and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.