Three Categories of Contenders

Not so long ago at a local OTB, I couldn’t help but get drawn into a heated discussion between two horseplayers. One gentleman had bought a tip sheet for Churchill Downs, which listed three selections for each race. He was sharing it with another horseplayer and they were trying to figure out the best way to use this information. Neither one was having a winning day.

Naturally, I couldn’t help but find myself in the middle of this conversation. Since it was later in the day and more than half of the card had already been run, there was speculation and supporting evidence, albeit it from a tiny sampling, for both of their arguments.

The heavily debated topic of the day was how to define a contender.

The first gentleman contended that you had to play the top choice to win. The tout would have undoubtedly put the top choice first with the rest being more likely for second or third place. He pointed out that the tout had already nailed two winners on top with a couple of place and show finishes. He did have one exacta picked straight among those two winning races as well.

The second gentleman took the approach that the three selections were all win contenders. He boxed them in exactas and trifectas. While he had hit three small exactas, he had managed only one trifecta box. After admitting that he was losing for the day, he assured me that he was due to hit a trifecta on the final few races.

The two men stared at me with a look that screamed “Well, what do you think?” After exchanging some awkward glances during an even more awkward silence, I told them that it was not that easy. If you don’t know the mindset of the person from whom you purchased the picks, you’d never know how they were intended to be used.

The blank stares continued.

I asked what they did when they didn’t buy the tip sheet. They both agreed that they did some handicapping and came up with a couple of horses they felt could win the race, but both played the same way as they did with the tip sheet selections.

“Just horses that can win the race?” I asked. The first gentleman responded with a laugh and said, “Umm, yeah. What else would you expect us to pick, the maiden that always loses by a nose?”

His laughter slowly turned into a look of enlightenment. That maiden who always loses by a nose had not been a horse he thought could win, but showed up in the exacta and beaten him almost every time out.

This was his “aha moment”.

If you only are selecting contenders that can win, you are hurting your chances playing exactas and trifectas. If you are only selecting horses in the order you think they will finish, you are hurting your chances in daily doubles, pick 3’s, and other multi-race wagers. The key is to structure how you grade your selections to match your style of play.

I categorize each entrant in a race into three different categories before I assess how to structure my bets. I don’t just look for win contenders, I look for horses that have a shot to finish in the money with no real chance of winning the race. Regardless of how you handicap a specific race — pace, class, speed, form — you always encounter the horse that is good, just not good enough to win.


My definition of a contender is a horse that, through my analysis, has a legitimate chance to win the race. This can be via a positive angle or a likely pace scenario. These are the horses I use to win (depending on how probable the pace scenario is), in the top spot of exactas, trifectas, or superfectas and/or in doubles, pick 3’s or other multi-race wagers.


In my handicapping, a pretender is a horse that I do not think has a legitimate shot to win, but may figure in an exacta, trifecta or superfecta. They are not good enough to win, in my opinion. This may be for several reasons. In many cases, one-dimensional frontrunners who are pressured and fail still hang on for place or show. This could also be a horse that may benefit from the probable pace scenario but tends to run evenly or flat. A horse that is a contender in one pace scenario may be a pretender in another pace scenario.


These are horses that have no legitimate chance to win the race or figure into your exacta, trifecta or superfecta bets. While these horses may figure negatively on the pace by being a weak early speed horse or influencing the other early speed horses, they don’t figure to be a factor late. A great example of this type of horse is a habitual quitter. These horses don’t end up in any wagers.

While everyone’s approach to handicapping is different, the key is to be able to differentiate between horses that can win and horses that can place or show.

By doing so, you can tailor your wagering based upon the field in each race.


Stop Failing! Four Benefits of Doing a Premortem

Previously I have written about how doing a postmortem analysis of your handicapping is a useful tool in refining and improving your approach. Doing an autopsy on your performance is a great way to see what worked and what didn’t work, as well as what you may have overlooked.

But is there anything that one could do before the races to help not only one’s handicapping, but also one’s potential wagering strategy?

A study conducted in 1989 by Deborah J. Mitchell, Jay Russo and Nancy Pennington concluded that by envisioning that an event has already occurred, increased the ability to identify reasons for future outcomes by 30 percent. They used the term “prospective hindsight,” I’ll use the term “premortem.”

Rather than see what went wrong after the fact, a premortem is focused on trying to find out what might go wrong before the event.

So how can you perform premortem analysis?

Before the running of a race, you need to ask yourself one, important question:

“How could my handicapping approach to this race fail?”

For some races, it may be that you feel that your pace analysis is weak. Maybe that one-dimensional front runner you liked leaves some doubt in your mind?

Perhaps it is a maiden race and there are a number of first-time starters; or maybe the race features horses that haven’t run at this condition yet or were the victim of troubled trip. Regardless of the race conditions, there could be any number of race-specific items that gave you some level of hesitation during your handicapping.

So what are the benefits of doing a premortem?

  1. Identify the Weaknesses of Your Handicapping

No handicapper can be an expert on every aspect of the game. While some handicappers excel with pace analysis or their own speed figures, they may not have a great handle on class or form. By trying to predict what may be your downfall in a particular race will help to highlight the areas where you may not be paying enough attention to during your handicapping process. You will then know when and where to hedge you bets.

  1. What Factors Play a Stronger Role Under Today’s Conditions

Coupling some record-keeping with your premortem and postmortem analysis will clue you in to what factors are more important under different conditions. Is your pace analysis working better in routes or sprints? Is your assessment of class more accurate in conditioned claimers or allowance races? Where does your analysis of speed or your homemade speed figures seem to perform the best? Tracking your initial feelings versus your results via postmortem analysis will provide you with fascinating results.

  1. Finding Your Niche 

Where are you the most confident and successful with your handicapping? Are you almost automatic in claiming sprints, but can’t buy a winner over the turf? Assessing your confidence level before a race and validating it post-race will help give you confidence regarding what types of races you excel in. In the limited time we all have to handicap, this will help become the basis for our Rapid Race Triage Assessment.

  1. Prevents You From Chasing Sunk Costs 

This is the biggest benefit. Sunk costs are defined as costs that have already been incurred and can’t be recovered. It is human nature to continue down a path that is not performing well because we have invested either a lot of time or a lot of money in the process.

I have tracked hundreds of angles only to find a small fraction that have stood the test of time and proved themselves to be profitable. I am as guilty as any other handicapper in that I will still run figures that are not producing in the hopes that I will find a way to make them useful or that, one day, they will become profitable. Sometimes, you need to know when to cut your losses and give up on a “sinking ship”.

Coupling premortem and postmortem analysis of your handicapping can give you a unique perspective. It will highlight your initial risks and worries before the race and either confirm or disprove your original handicapping.

Either way, it is important to be aware of the vulnerabilities of your own handicapping and find a way to overcome them!


The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Handicappers

Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” has sold over 25 million copies since it was first published in 1989. Covey’s book has helped a lot of people achieve their goals and become better people in the process — including yours truly.

So, it got me to thinking: What are the seven habits of highly effective handicappers?

#1 Be a Sponge

Absorb as much information as possible. I was fortunate to spend the summers of my formative teenage years with my Uncle Dutch at Monmouth Park, where I learned everything he had to offer about handicapping. A lot of what he taught me is the still the basis for how I approach handicapping today.

Read every book you can get your hands on. The first book I read cover to cover and took copious notes on was “Ainslie’s Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing”. There are some books that you will find more informative than others, but you will at least see a different approach and you will likely take away and idea or two from everything you read. No matter how big or small, it could positively impact your handicapping.

Join online forums like or Facebook groups like “Talking Handicapping with Dave Schwartz.” Interact with other handicappers through social media. You’ll find a wealth of information in these forums, groups and amongst other handicappers.

#2 Keep Records

Want to know what is working or not? Check your records! Keep track of angles or how figures perform under different conditions. See why your predictions were correct or not by doing a postmortem analysis on your selections. By keeping good records of your handicapping and wagering, this will allow you to triage a race card and focus on race conditions that are your strengths.

Microsoft Excel is a quick and efficient tool to track and analyze data. Best of all, there are a lot of tutorials and online help sites that will guide you to how to set up formulas that will work for you.

#3 Stop Reinventing the Wheel

I used to maintain my own track to track equalization figures. One day I realized how much time I was spending on maintaining those values for the NJ racing circuit and a handful of local tracks that routinely shipped in at the time. That was time I could have better spent focusing on my actual handicapping.

Whether it is statistics about sires, trainers, and jockeys, or track to track time equalizations, there are several reasonable products on the market that do all the dirty work so you don’t have to.

#4 Develop a Procedure

I do well with structure. I have handicapped enough races that I approach them all in the same methodical fashion each time. I go through a mental checklist to make sure I look for all the information I need from the past performances to handicap a race.

I approach each race by looking for strong or false favorites and computing my Favorite Likelihood Factor. I scan the entrants for a list of angles before selecting pacelines to figure my pace-based speed figures and develop the probable pace scenarios for each race. On an as-needed basis, I will assess sire data for younger horses and new turf runners.

By methodically working through a handicapping checklist, I ensure that I don’t miss anything I need to select my contenders.

#5 Keep it Simple

As Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” If you are handicapping by hand and trying to compute your own speed figures, you need to find a way to keep the time spent performing this calculation to a minimum. This can either be through automating the process in a spreadsheet or reviewing the process you are using for computation and eliminating factors that may not have an appreciable impact on the outcome.

My own pace-based speed figures can be cumbersome to perform by hand, yet importing the data into an Excel spreadsheet to do the calculations for me saves a lot of time. My spreadsheet also alerts me to potential angle plays which I can then quickly validate.

#6 Innovate

Try new things. Refine how you compute your own speed figures or the conditions of an angle. Horse racing is an ever-changing game. What worked well ten years ago may not work today. You will likely find a lot of things that don’t work, but turn them around to help eliminate horses instead of selecting contenders.

Just remember what Thomas Edison said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

#7 Be Positive

Don’t have a defeatist attitude before you start. Be positive when approaching your handicapping. Don’t let a condition or factor of the race make you feel you can’t figure it out. Break the big problem down into smaller problems and solve them. You will be more confident in your handicapping. If you say “there is no way I am going to get this pace right,” you probably won’t.

These are seven habits that I use and have been successful and profitable with my approach to handicapping.

What other habits do you have that make you a highly effective handicapper?

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