Finding Overlays By Eliminating Underlays

There are basically three ways to make money at the racetrack — two, if you’re averse to wearing a ski mask and passing threatening notes to the mutuel clerks. The first is by identifying and betting overlays and the second is by spotting and shunning underlays, or “false” favorites. Now, while both of these related strategies may sound as easy and breezy as a beautiful CoverGirl to apply, in reality, they require keen insight and, above all, patience to succeed.

The truth is clear-cut overlays surface about as often as the Cleveland Browns make the NFL playoffs (sorry Browns fans). Not only that, but determining what an overlay actually is can be equally confounding. Should the nondescript first-time starter with so-so works be 6-1 or 60-1? Often, it’s hard to tell. Yet, without a reasonably accurate assessment of each and every horse’s real chances of winning, finding overlays is next to impossible.

I’m reminded of a story I read once about a gambler named Joe, who bet a car dealer that a specific vehicle on his lot was a Dodge Challenger, even though the dealer insisted it was a Charger. Naturally, Joe lost the wager when the dealer produced paperwork proving the car in question was, indeed, a Charger.

“Why would you make such a bet?” One of Joe’s buddies asked the crestfallen gambler afterwards. “The guy’s been sellin’ cars his whole life. He knows what’s what.”

“Well, I was getting even odds and I had all the other automobile makes and models in my favor,” Joe replied. “It looked like an overlay.”

Of course, Joe’s sad story — rumor has it he later died taking 6 ½-to-1 on a game of Russian Roulette — is why I often prefer to isolate false favorites, or underlays, rather than overlays, in the races I handicap.

To begin with, rooting out false favorites is usually easier than identifying overlooked steeds and, well, I’m lazy. Secondly, by eliminating severe underlays in a race, one naturally creates a positive betting scenario, whereby dutching some or all of the remaining contenders becomes a viable wagering option. Thus, determining the fair odds on the aforementioned first-time starter becomes a moot point.

OK, I hear some of you saying, so how does one go about ferreting out false favorites? I have two primary recommendations:

  • Analyze trainer intentions, which is particularly effective in cheaper claiming races.
  • Look for heavily bet favorites with just a few lifetime starts.

Let’s discuss each one in turn.

The first race at Finger Lakes on Sept. 18, 2009, provides a perfect example of negative trainer intentions. Among the five fillies and mares entered in the $15,000 optional claiming event is Spa Princess, a heavy 2-5 favorite to win her fifth consecutive start. At first blush, the four-year-old daughter of Desert Warrior appears to be a worthy choice, as each of her last three Beyer speed figures dwarfs those recorded by her rivals over the past six months.

But look closer. Notice that, despite setting a very slow pace, Spa Princess lost ground down the lane in her last start. Worse yet, the mare that was eating into her winning margin that day (Swing Line) is also in today’s field — at a far more enticing price of 3-1, I might add.

In isolation, this case of the stretch staggers would not be a huge cause for concern. But when coupled with the fact that Spa Princess is being entered for a tag for the first time since she was claimed by the astute owner/trainer duo of Maggi Moss and Chris Englehart, it practically screams that our Princess is on the verge of turning into a frog.

And, indeed, that’s exactly what happened, as Spa Princess briefly contested the pace before fading badly to finish last. Worse yet, she was claimed.


Meanwhile, the winner was a very logical contender named Seasons Wise, a four-year-old Anthony Ferraro trainee that, in direct contrast to Spa Princess, was on her way back up the class ladder after capturing an allowance contest at Saratoga the year before.

Another false favorite to avoid is the lightly raced beast that is getting bet like its Secretariat. For an example, let’s take a peek at the fifth race from Aqueduct on Nov. 27, 2009, where, thanks to some late scratches, a field of five was left to face the starter’s call to post.

Despite just one lifetime outing — a solid second-place finish that earned a race-best 74 Beyer — City Wolf was bet down to 1-5 in this maiden special weight affair and attracted $34,947 of $47,583 in show dough.

Yet, in a survey I conducted of 870 non-coupled race favorites that had started less than three times over the past two years (this year and last), the return on investment (ROI) was a woeful minus 23.0 percent. That’s hardly the kind of return that’s going to lead to VIP invitations to the Sayers Club.

Not only that, but City Wolf had drifted out in his debut, indicating that the race may have taken something out of him — a conclusion at least partially supported by the 23 days that elapsed prior to his return to the racetrack for a four-furlong breeze on Nov. 2.

Needless to say — although I will anyway — City Wolf finished a badly-beaten second while drifting out once again on Nov. 27, this time causing interference in the stretch, which led to his disqualification and, likely, to a bridge jumper’s quest for an actual bridge to leap from.

So, remember, there’s more than one way to pump up your pari-mutuel profits: finding overlays is great, but eliminating dubious and/or overbet favorites works well too.

And, if all else fails, there’s always that ski mask.

Posted on