The Seven Pillars of Sound Handicapping

I am often asked what it takes to be a successful horseplayer. I always go back to the same fundamental principles that were ingrained in me at a young age by my late Uncle Dutch who made his living playing the races in his retirement.

#1 Do Less, but Do It Better

I am a huge fan of the Pareto Principle. Basically stated, 80% of your results come from 20% of the races. No one is a master of every race, but certainly we all have types of races or situations that we feel more comfortable with. By focusing on the 20% of the races that create 80% of your results, you will optimize those results.

This sounds so easy, but how does one do less, better?

Nothing is going to replace hard work and a lot of recordkeeping. You will eventually find the type of races where you perform the best – by class (claiming, allowance, stakes, maiden), by distance (routes, sprints), surface (dirt, turf, synthetic), or some combination of the above.

Once you find where your handicapping is the strongest, you need to triage your approach to a race card to focus in where your likely have the best opportunity to make a profit.

#2 Reject the Notion You Need to Do It All

There is a lot of information out there to process. Par times, track biases, trainer stats, jockey stats and sire stats. All are great tools to help your handicapping. Do you have time to work a day job, keep all these stats and make a part-time living playing the races?

The short answer is NO! Accept the trade-off. You don’t have to track all this information if you don’t choose to. Make your handicapping time more productive and outsource the data.

I don’t have time to track what my Uncle Dutch did in his battered notebook each meet at Monmouth Park. A lot of what he tracked is now a footnote in most past performances. How a trainer performs second off a layoff, first off a claim, dirt to turf, and so much more. Personally, I use par times created by Dave Schwartz of instead of computing my own (which Uncle Dutch used to try to do, based on the charts he could get in the Daily Racing Form). I like Progressive Handicapping for sire data, trainer data and meet-specific data. I have talked with Jim Mazur in the past and appreciate his passion for the game and how he presents his information.

Long story short: Save yourself the trouble of making and keeping these stats. If you figured out what it was worth per hour of your time versus just purchasing the data, you’d realize how much of your life you’d be getting back! Instead of doing a lot of things, focus your time on doing a few things well, instead.

#3 Question Yourself

Any life coach will tell you that life is an evolving process. Handicapping is no different. You need to decide what matters and what is important. Is what you are doing today working? How are you prepared for the ever-changing game that is evolving as we speak?

You need to keep stats on what you are doing now, so you can start to tell when it is no longer working.

Is what you are doing no longer working? Then it is time to change your perspective. Read a handicapping book, revisit some of the classics; challenge yourself to change or tweak some of the angles or approaches you are using. Sometimes changing your perspective on a topic is what you need to turn the corner to profitability. Do a postmortem or premortem on your handicapping.

The minute you feel comfortable with what you are doing is the minute you become complacent and the game changes on you. You don’t believe me? Ask Andy Beyer how profitable his Beyer Speed Figures are these days.

#4 Ensure Changes Stay in Place

Once you have kept statistics and found out what works, you need to stick with the changes to your handicapping. This is all part of a constant, ongoing improvement process. Stick to what is now working and keep yourself from reverting back to your old ways.

#5 Play for Inspiration, but Don’t Forget to Recharge

Face it, you wouldn’t be handicapping if you didn’t love the game. Appreciate it. Love it. Enjoy the experience of being at the track once in a while. As much as I love horse racing, though, eventually I need a break. I love to spend a day out on the water fishing, reading some thought-provoking books or just catching up with old friends. You need to take a break from time to time. Do something else you like and come back to your handicapping fresh.

#6 The 90% Rule

If you aren’t at least 90% confident in playing a race, don’t play it!

Often, when I construct pace scenarios, I come up with between one and three scenarios that I feel are probable with the rest being chalked up to “chaos”. If you don’t have confidence in what you are playing, it is only going to hurt your bankroll in the long run.

If you have a plan, stick to it. When I play the ponies from home or on-track, I have a plan and stick with it. Deviating from the plan often results in losing money.

#7 Create a Routine

Once you have a winning combination of handicapping procedures the best thing you can do is to stick with it. I use a template worksheet to list out my daily plays and a checklist to make sure that I check for each angle I am looking for. This ensures that I am consistent in my approach to each race. A sample of the sheet I use for a daily race card can be found here.

You will find that by applying these few simple pillars of sound handicapping will improve your handicapping and increase your profit at the windows.

Posted on