By Ray Wallin
The only thing harder for a horseplayer than deciding which horse to bet on is when the right time is to place their bets. There are a lot of factors that go into selecting a contender and structuring a wager, but there are an equal amount of factors that weigh into when to pull the trigger.
Recently, a reader we will call Hesitant Henry sent me an email asking about when I know it is a good time to place a bet. While I wish there were a black and white answer, there are a lot of factors that play into the right time to place a bet.
With the advent of online wagering in many states, a lot of horseplayers are playing the races from the comfort of their living room. From home you can stream the live feed from the track, so you can place your bets in the precious seconds while the horses are loading into the gate.
When you are at the track, OTB, or your local casino’s racebook, you need to assess the crowds and means for betting. While you may still have the ability to use your online wagering platform through an app on your smartphone, most horseplayers will still be looking to put in a wager either with a live teller or a self-betting terminal.
The number of tellers and self-betting terminals, coupled with how busy the venue is, will dictate when you should get on the line to place your wagers. While most horseplayers are respectful of the others around them, you do occasionally get stuck behind the old lady who decides to pay for $10 worth of bets with change that she will slowly count out from the change purse she is carrying that is the size of a small country. Other times you will get stuck behind Last-Minute Lenny who has no idea what he is playing until it is his turn with the teller.
The best advice is to get on line a little early and be prepared with what you want to wager. You can always let the person behind you go ahead of you. See how the first race of the day goes. It will only get busier, but you can start to gauge the timing you need to get to the windows.
Depending on the types of bets you are playing or your style of play this may be the hardest factor in your decision.
Unlike sports betting where you get fixed odds at the time of your wager, horse racing has a pari-mutuel pool that changes based upon the pool size on each horse. The pools will update from simulcast facilities even after the race is off. You will often notice that the horse odds change during a race. So that 5-1 shot you were salivating over may end up being a 2-1 shot once the final pool is tallied.
For horseplayers that play horizontally, or multi-race wagers, this is not as big of a concern as it is for vertical horseplayers. The odds impact straight wager payouts like win, place, and show. Horseplayers will often project “value odds” for a contender and look to play only when their contender is an overlay or is going off at longer odds than expected. For example, if I projected a horse to have a 50% probability of winning a race, his value odds would be 1-1. I may set my value odds a little higher and make my condition of playing that horse that he be no less than 7-5. If I see him dip to 4-5, I pass on the play since the risk doesn’t justify the reward.
Ideally you would love to know the final odds before punching your tickets within seconds of the gates opening. This sounds great in theory but is not reality. You will need to gauge how much you feel the odds may move or how close you think the final odds will be to your value odds, which leads into the next factor.
When it comes to pari-mutuel pools, size does matter.
What’s the difference between a racing card at Saratoga on a Saturday in July versus a Penn National card on a fall Wednesday evening?
About $22.4 million in handle is the difference. In 2019, on the day of the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga, the total handle for the day was nearly $23 million, while on a Wednesday night in November, Penn National managed $638,000 on an eight-race card.
I don’t think you need to be a brain surgeon to figure out which track’s pools could be swayed quicker and easier by late betting.
Check the pool totals to get a feel for how much the odds may move. If you think a $100 win bet would significantly move the needle, you are going to be making a much riskier wager than with a bigger pool.
We’ve all been at the track with someone who bets almost every race. They didn’t plan on playing every race, but like our good friend Rail Guy would say “ya know, I wasn’t gonna play dis one, but da five hoss is now 8-1 so I might as well take a shot at dis.”
Folks like Rail Guy may have a value odds number in their head, but are they confident in a horse that has only become a contender in their mind due to the longer odds? When you find yourself falling into the trap of being overconfident due to a horse showing long odds that you were lukewarm about at best, you need to stop and ask yourself one question.
If the answer is a resounding “no” or even a “maybe” then you know to stay away from this bet. If you think he is a legitimate contender, then you have established value odds on this horse, and he is worth the risk.
While I love to assess the likelihood of a favorite in every race, I enjoy handicapping a race without knowing the morning line. This helps to avoid odds bias. Simply put, many handicappers will be biased to select a lower odds horse based on the morning line since they feel that picking a longshot is a waste of money.
Depending on your confidence and type of wager, you may not care about when you place this wager.
There is no perfect answer to when is the right time to place a wager, other than before the gate opens. Be aware of your surroundings and leave yourself enough time to navigate the crowds or have online options if you choose to try to wait until the last moment. Being smart about how and when you get your wagers in will help you on your path to making your living playing the races.
Ray Wallin is a licensed civil engineer and part-time handicapper who has had a presence on the Web since 2000 for various sports and horse racing websites and through his personal blog. Introduced to the sport over the course of a misspent teenage summer at Monmouth Park by his Uncle Dutch, a professional gambler, he quickly fell in love with racing and has been handicapping for over 25 years.
Ray’s background in engineering, along with his meticulous nature and fascination with numbers, parlay into his ability to analyze data; keep records; notice emerging trends; and find new handicapping angles and figures. While specializing in thoroughbred racing, Ray also handicaps harness racing, Quarter Horse racing, baseball, football, hockey, and has been rumored to have calculated the speed and pace ratings on two squirrels running through his backyard.
Ray likes focusing on pace and angle plays while finding the middle ground between the art and science of handicapping. When he is not crunching numbers, Ray enjoys spending time with his family, cheering on his alma mater (Rutgers University), fishing, and playing golf.
Ray’s blog, which focuses on his quest to make it to the NHC Finals while trying to improve his handicapping abilities can be found at www.jerseycapper.blogspot.com Ray can also be found on Twitter (@rayw76) and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.