Most people refer to George Elsworth Smith, a.k.a. Pittsburg Phil, as the father of modern handicapping, yet we have all had influences in our lives that have led us down the path to love (and sometimes hate) handicapping.
One of my major influences was my late Uncle Dutch.
Born Julius Muller in Philadelphia, he married his second wife, my aunt, in 1985. He got the nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life when he lied about his age and enlisted in the Navy during the Korean War when he was just 17 years old. Since he was from the Philadelphia area, his Sergeant called him “Dutch,” as in the Pennsylvania Dutch country. The name stuck and that was what we all knew him by.
Dutch served a tour in Korea for the Navy and then later a couple of tours in Vietnam for the Army flying reconnaissance. After rotating back stateside, he rounded out his career with twenty plus years working at Fort Monmouth, a mere stone’s throw from Monmouth Park. He honed his game on long lunch hours and late afternoons before the advent of simulcasting.
The summer of 1990 would be one that would change my life forever.
My parents were in the midst of a messy divorce and needed someone to keep an eye on me during part of the summer. Recently retired and up for the task was Uncle Dutch. The prospect of getting to spend time with a man who loved to fish, fix things and gamble was an absolute dream for a 14-year-old boy!
At first, the track seemed overwhelming: the hustle, trying to process all that information in the program and being on the clock between races… but to be outside and hear the sound of the horses running down the stretch was like music to my ears. By the end of the summer, I had found my passion for horse racing.
There were many things I learned that summer. Here are just a few of the “Racing Maxims and Methods of Philadelphia Dutch:”
#1 – Racing is an ever-changing game
Your edge today may be gone tomorrow. Dutch played Monmouth and only Monmouth. He had a notebook that, by the end of the meet, was battered and beat up with every page dedicated to tracking the jockeys, trainers, horses and track bias. All this meticulously recorded information is now found in the past performances. If Dutch was alive today, I am sure he would be tracking things like key races and taking advantage of race replays to do trip notes while trying to find another metric that wasn’t published to use to his advantage. The bottom line here is that nothing that gives you an edge one day will give you an edge forever in this age of increasing availability of information.
#2 – Listen to Kenny Rogers (You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em)
Some days you can’t win and other days you can’t lose. Maybe the track is playing different than you anticipated. Some days, it is best to just cut your losses and go home with some part of your bankroll intact rather than run it into the ground trying to prove that you are right.
#3 – Always assess your horse in the paddock and post parade
I wish I had half of Dutch’s ability to assess the conformation of a horse. I can remember looking at the program at a horse that had won three straight races and telling him a dozen reasons why he should win today only to have Dutch point out a few flaws in his physique and ultimately seeing that horse lose that day. The more you see the horses, the easier it is to pick out when something looks off. Most of us are relegated to playing the races off-track and never get a chance to see the horses in the flesh. It can be quite an advantage to those players who are on track.
#4 – The program is like a woman in a bikini
Dutch would always point out that the past performances show you a lot, but not everything. You need to read between the lines and figure what the trainer’s intention was in that last race. Was it just a public workout for that sprinter to run a solid half mile in a route last out before quitting? Why is he dropping three class levels today? Not everything is going to be black and white.
#5 – Sometimes the favorite may be worth betting
Face it, the favorite wins about a third of the time. Sometimes it is a solid play, other times it is not. There is no shame in playing the favorite if you feel it has a huge talent edge or pace advantage. If the favorite is that strong and the odds are too low, consider playing a straight exacta instead of a win bet or try to couple it with some value in a daily double or multi-race wager.
#6 – Know your meet
Dutch was a student of Monmouth and could rattle off from memory what jockey rode first for what barn and what jockey primed horses for the big run. Even as riders and barns fell in and out of favor with each other, he was on top of it. Knowing the local horsemen, the track bias and the horses that are running day in and day out at certain levels will give you an edge over the casual bettor that does follow the meet that close.
#7 – Stick with what you know
If you are successful with claiming dirt sprints, stick with them. While you may handicap each race, you should triage the races (see my article Rapid Race Triage Assessment) and go with the race conditions you are most comfortable and profitable with first.
#8 – If your head is not in it, you shouldn’t play
We have all handicapped a card without any enthusiasm, whether we are sick or distracted and the lack of results speaks for itself. When you are not on top of your game, you should just avoid wagering. It is a recipe for disaster. Clear your head and come back for another day.
#9 – Horses are people too
It sounds more like it came out of the mouth of Yogi Berra, but regardless of how strong its running lines may be or its conformation appears in the paddock, horses have off days too. We’ve all gone to work with a cold or with our minds consumed by other things. People walking past our office don’t know or can’t tell we are sick or that our mind is somewhere else. Those are the days that you may not do your best work — and horses are no different. Instead of just scratching your head about why your horse didn’t run as predicted today, sometimes you just have to chalk it up to the horse being “human.”
I can still picture Uncle Dutch on the grandstand apron at Monmouth Park sitting on the edge of his cooler with his wavy white “Ted Kennedy hair” blowing in the breeze with a lit Winston in his mouth and a can of Budweiser in his hand while perusing the Racing Form from behind his mirrored aviator sunglasses.
While I miss my late Uncle Dutch, his words of wisdom resonate in my head every time I handicap the races. However you got into this game, it is important to remember that someone who took the time to teach you a few things along the way.