Horse Racing Handicapping: Seven Tips for Better Systems

by Ray Wallin

For novice handicappers, there is often room for improvement in their horse racing handicapping as they try to start to track down the dream of making a living playing the races. Many, more seasoned, horseplayers may need a slight nudge to get them back on track. Either way, you can always strive to make your own approach or system better and gain a slight edge versus your competition.

Horse Racing Handicapping: Our Tips

Horse Racing Handicapping #1: Get the Basics Right

This sounds simple because it is simple. It all starts with understanding the information that you have to handicap a race with.

I was always amazed, when I would bet on the simulcast races at the Meadowlands with my friend Walter, that some of the track regulars still had no idea what certain figures in the track program meant. Wednesday nights featured the father son duo of Tony and Anthony. The two of them poured a lot of cash through the windows (and into Billy the Bartender’s cash register). Neither one of them really understood the conditions of the races, such as is a N3L (non-winners of three lifetime) a higher or lower class than a N2Y (non-winners of two races in a designated period of time)?

My advice? If you don’t know, just ask. Generally handicappers don’t have a lot of people to talk handicapping with and love to share what they know and are usually willing to help. I am fortunate to have learned a lot of what I know from my late Uncle Dutch and from reading every book I could get my hands on.

Horse Racing Handicapping #2: Stay Organized

This seems pretty obvious, but I can’t tell you the number of handicappers I know that are a total mess. When there is a scratch or change, they can’t react because their past performances are strewn all over the place, so they, more or less, have to start their analysis from scratch.

Make a couple of notes on the first or last page of each race’s past performances. Note your critical pace horse, how you see the pace setting up, and what horses you feel have an edge for one reason or another. Make notes on each horse in the past performances. Use multiple color highlighters or pens to note specific factors — either positive or negative.

Being organized in your approach to each race will result in a less stressful day at the track when it is time to bet or even worse, when there is a late scratch and the squeeze is on.

Horse Racing Handicapping #3: Have a Routine

One of my Seven Pillars of Sound Handicapping is create a routine. Sounds easy right? I guarantee that most handicappers don’t follow one. It can be as simple as a quick checklist to follow and will ensure that you don’t miss a positive or negative factor that you may need to know about.

What is my routine when I approach a race?

  • Assess the favorite as a strong or false favorite and determine my favorite likely factor.
  • Do a quick analysis of the pace based on the Quirin styles and points.
  • Select a paceline and analyze each horse for pace, establish a critical pace horse, and determine my probable pace scenarios.
  • Analyze the class conditions of the race to see how each horse fits the conditions and if any of them have an edge.
  • Assess pedigree if applicable.
  • Look for angle plays — both positive and negative factors.
  • Determine my contenders and if I deem the race playable.

Not every step will be applicable to every race, but “checking the box” ensures that you don’t miss anything that may change your mind one way or another.

Horse Racing Handicapping #4: Track What is Useful

There is a lot of information out there — more than you really need in many cases. The key is that you need to track what is most useful for you and your style of handicapping.

Do you project pace scenarios? Then you should be tracking the accuracy of your projections. This could be predicted call times and if the pace set up how you projected (weak or strong early pace).

If you are projecting your own speed ratings, how well does your top choice do? How well do your second or third choices perform?

The amount of information that you can track is overwhelming. Yet, if it is going to be useful to you in your handicapping, you should track the information to see how useful it is.

Horse Racing Handicapping #5: Have a Factor of Safety

In engineering, we often use a factor of safety in design to account for additional loads which may occur beyond the actual design loads. When I compute my probable pace scenarios, I use a factor of safety as well.

My probable pace scenarios are based on the critical pace horse. Sometimes he will force the lead and other times he will sit back off of the lead. Either way, there are a range of times that are probable. If I compute a half mile to be run in 46.0 seconds, I will often see that time fall in a window of 45-3/5 seconds to 46-2/5 seconds.

Analyzing the pace against your most probable time as well as other likely times will provide you with a better understanding of what may happen if your projection isn’t perfect.

Horse Racing Handicapping #6: Avoid Complexity

How many times have you heard someone say, “KISS — Keep It Simple Stupid”?

The more complex you make your handicapping system, the longer it will take you to handicap or assess a race. There will also be more interdependencies that will make evaluating the performance of a particular factor or figure even harder.

As Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Even if you have automated your system into a spreadsheet or software to save time, you need to be able to see how the raw data relates to your figure or projection.

Just because something is complex doesn’t make it better!

Horse Racing Handicapping #7: Get Help Where Needed

No one can do it all. There is no way you can track trainers, jockeys, sires, and track to track adjustments while trying to work a day job and squeeze some handicapping in as well.

I have written about this many times before but will repeat it again here. Dave Schwartz of provides a great set of track par times you can use to adjust times from track to track. Jim Mazur of Progressive Handicapping collects and publishes very thorough and detailed sire, trainer and meet-specific data. The cost of these resources is a pittance compared to the time you would need to create the same information for your own handicapping needs.

Whether you are a novice or veteran handicapper, there is always room for improvement in your system. By applying a couple of simple tips you can improve your performance and make better use of your time spent on each race card.

If you enjoyed this horse racing handicapping piece, check out other articles at our horse racing news section!

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