By Ray Wallin
If you have hung around the track long enough you know all the characters. You know the perennial losers and the folks who are there making their living playing the races. Everyone has a story to tell about that near miss that they could have retired on or that big payout they hit once. But for every angle that worked for those crusty old horseplayers, there are dozens of things that they will claim didn’t work.
The human mind is fascinating. Often it will take the first information it receives, regardless of how limited or biased, and draw a conclusion. That opinion will then be hard to change regardless of how thorough or compelling additional information may be.
Horseplayers are no different.
Everybody has a story and an opinion. Our good friend Rail Guy will be the first to tell anyone that “dat bum Jersey Joe Bravo can’t win wit maidens on da grass, ever.” When you ask him what Bravo’s win percentage is with maidens, turf races, or maidens on the turf, he can’t tell you. What Rail Guy can tell you is “dat bum Bravo burned my cash dis one time I was alive in da Pick 4, shoulda paid me a couple of g’s but he couldn’t get him to da line.”
Rail Guy pins his belief on that one time that Joe Bravo didn’t win the big ticket for him. In fact, Joe Bravo is very skilled with maidens and on the turf. His career stats back that up.
When I polled some of my horseplaying acquaintances, other than Rail Guy, about other adages or myths they have heard at the track that some people believe as gospel, I got the following list.
We’ve all been left scratching our heads after a tough beat. Your handicapping was perfect. You laid the pace out and it could only have happened one way. Early Foot Ernie was the lone early speed in the race. None of the other horses showed anything to make you think they would be within the same area code of him by the half mile call. Yet when the gate opened the next horse over, Plodding Patty, slammed into him hard and nearly put him into the rail. By the time Early Foot Ernie had overcome this initial trouble he found himself in an unusual spot, five lengths off the lead. He ended up burning whatever gas he had in the tank trying to get near the lead by the far turn only to be flat late and finish out of the money.
Luck will play into the game occasionally. No angle or system is 100% foolproof. Handicapping is not black and white; it is some shade of gray. If we’re dealing with humans and horses, there will always be some element of surprise. When I am projecting a pace scenario, I always reserve a percentage likelihood for “chaos.” This is for the troubled trip that upsets the project pace. It could be traffic out of the gate or that Zippy Chippy horse who is 0-for-100 but decides today is the day he wants to try to set a blazing pace for the first time. Remember that in the long run, sound handicapping will outplay luck.
If you believed this statement, you’d almost never place a bet. As we watch the latest crop of 2-year-olds start making their debuts at 4 ½ furlongs we are also amid the Triple Crown. For their first two years on the track a horse may try something new in every race. It could be a distance, class, another circuit, or surface.
Yet if you see an 11-year-old bottom level claiming sprinter trying a turf marathon at Saratoga for the first time in allowance company, chances are you are safe betting against them.
For as long as people have been on a quest to find the Holy Grail, handicappers have been on a quest to find a system that beats every race. While it is hard to say exactly what percentage of handicappers either make a living playing the races or at least breakeven each year, it is a figure that is dwarfed by the number of people who lose money every year.
Hang around any track long enough and you will hear someone say, “you can beat a race, but you can’t beat the races.” If you are like the track regular Every Race Eddie who bets on every race on the card, you are not going to win in the long run. By being selective in your wagering, using sound money management and being disciplined you can turn a profit in the long term.
Favorites win about a third of all races for roughly a 17% loss on the wagered dollar. By identifying the vulnerable favorites, you can bet against them and back the strong favorites. I love to find a strong favorite when I am looking at a Pick 4 or Pick 6. If it is a strong enough play to key it allows me to go deeper with more contenders in the races, I feel less confident about where the most value lies.
During my days as an online tout, I was routinely criticized by a few of the paying customers for picking short-priced winners. I agree that blindly playing the favorite in every race is a losing proposition, yet if you play the right favorites and in the right way you can turn a profit.
Maybe this held true 40 or 50 years ago when horses ran almost every week, but there are a lot of horses that come back and win off extended layoffs.
Does the horse only compete on the local circuit that doesn’t run all year? Has the horse shown the ability to win first off the layoff in the past? Is today’s race the right surface, distance, and condition? Does the trainer excel with horses coming off the layoff? Is the horse getting his regular rider, a positive jockey change, or a negative jockey switch?
While it is easy to fall into the trap of believing the adages of the horseplayers you find at the track, you need to keep an open mind. Many of their statements are based on adages they have been told without being backed up with statistics or any data. Sometimes they are reliving a bad beat or have limited exposure to a specific handicapping situation which skews their perspective. Take what they say with a grain of salt and continue to do your thorough analysis of each race. Pick your spots and look for the advantage, even if it goes against what Rail Guy keeps telling you.
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.