How To Make Handicapping A Success: Make A Plan; Do The Work

By Ray Wallin

Winning horseplayers execute with both intention and action. Losing horseplayers don’t.

Think back to your days of sitting in Mr. Burke’s math class. I am sure you remember the kid that sat behind you talking all period of the two lovebirds on either side of you that made you pass notes all class long. While you were busy passing sappy love notes you may have caught a little of Mr. Burke discussing Venn diagrams.

What’s a Venn diagram? So, maybe you were too busy flicking the ears of the kid in front of you and passing love notes to remember. A Venn diagram is a diagram that shows simple set relationships between two or more factors in probability, logic, and statistics. Picture two large circles overlapping, each circle means something on its own, but the overlapping area is elements common to the two larger sets.

If I had to draw a Venn diagram to sum up being a successful handicapper, the overlapping area of intention and action would be success. Anyone who makes their living playing the races approaches the races with both intention and action.


What does intention without action look like?

Big goals with no plan

Think of our good friend Rail Guy. Every time you see him down at Monmouth Park he is always telling you how he is “gonna take down dat big Pick 4 every weekend at Saratoga.” Taking his bait, you ask how he plans on constructing his ticket. With a rather dumbfounded look on his face, he replies slowly, so you can understand, “by picking da winners each race.”

Having chased and played a lot of Pick 4s in my career, you need to have a plan. Not every Pick 4 is playable, either due to confidence in the races or the number of entrants you need to feel confident in each leg. There is no worse feeling that winning the Pick 4 and still losing money. You are not going to hit every one you play so you need to think carefully about your bankroll and the number of combinations that you are going to play to turn out a profit worthy of the risk you are taking.

Having big goals without a plan is a recipe for disaster.

Has the know-how, doesn’t do the work

I remember when I started going to the track on my own after my senior year in high school. My Uncle Dutch had taught me how to read the past performances, how to take trip notes, and how to read the horses in the paddock. It was a lot of work, but I was winning a lot of cash. I started thinking that I could skip the paddock and hang out with my track friends a little more; it wouldn’t hurt my bankroll, right?

Wrong. I found that while I was still winning, I wasn’t doing as well as I had been. I was left scratching my head after some races with no clue why I was getting beat. I’d often see my horse gimping a bit post-race or showing signs of being unfit while they were being loaded into the gate.

I knew what to do and what to look for in horse, but I didn’t do it. I got lazy. If you have the know-how or the training, you need to do the daily work.

What does action without intention look like?

Repeating the same thing over and over

Handicapping takes a lot of time. Every handicapper I know has a routine and a schedule they try to keep. My typical day consists of getting up, looking at results from the night before and downloading what I need for the next day before my “day job” starts. I’ll handicap on my lunch hour and look at scratches and changes for afternoon races. I’ll do more handicapping after work to be ready for the next day.

Albert Einstein was quoted as saying “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” He was right.

The difference in my routine just lather, rinse, repeat, is that I review my results weekly and look for upward and downward trends and opportunities for either improvement or for a new factor to track. Simply doing the same thing day after day without looking to the future or tracking your results is pure insanity. You need to do more than doing, you need to think, analyze, and research too.

Going through the motions

I like to keep my handicapping sharp, and I am not always some place I can legally place a bet very easily. In those rare cases I will play on paper to stay sharp and keep collecting more race data.

Playing on paper has its merits. You can test out ideas and accumulated data to help you make a more informed decision.

Playing on paper also has some disadvantages. You often find yourself going through the motions since you know that whether you try hard, there is zero impact to your bankroll. You have no skin in the game, so it doesn’t matter how the results turn out.

I had a friend we called Superfecta Sam. He claimed he had a surefire way to beat the superfecta based on odds movements and morning line odds. Problem is that he did all his research on off odds, not where the tote board was with two minutes to post. We have all been burned by that horse we bet breaking from the gate at 3-1 and crossing the wire at 4-5 due to the late money from simulcast partners trickling in.

There is no substitution for playing in real time, even if it is only on paper.

What does having both look like?

Clear Goals

Do you want to cash in on big Pick 4s? If so, then what is your plan? Are you going to look at how to optimize combinations and how this impacts your bankroll? Are you going to figure out when and where your targeted plays will be? Will you start getting familiar with those circuits, so you know the strengths of the jockeys and trainers?

Having intention and action means that not only do you have clear goals for the short-, mid-, and long-term, you have a plan to achieve them.

Schedule with time for learning

It is OK to have a handicapping routine, but you need to build in time to bring feedback into your handicapping. The only way you are ever going to develop better skills and become more profitable is to constantly evaluate what is working in your handicapping and you have more opportunities to grow. The truth can sometimes be a tough pill to swallow, but if you continue down a path with no feedback or improvement you won’t have a bankroll for very long.

Intention means nothing without action. Action is nothing without any intention. Success at the races will only happen when your intentions and actions become the same thing.

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