This series of posts comes out of a number of days and hours deciding on just how to present a segment of my knowledge in the science of horse handicapping. I only began placing wagers in 2007, but I am a fan of the sport since 1979. I have built some semblance of a system, tweaking at it as I go. More important than a system, I want for you to come away with seeing how I approach a day at the races, and a night of handicapping. I do have a system that you can use for managing your money during the race day, even if you have no prior experience wagering. I also present the most important variables that you should use, plus focus on those you’re not using, and away from the most obvious.
Given my druthers, I’d wager each Saturday a certain amount of money, and keeping 100% of profits, 100% at a time. If I approach the track with $50, I expect to get a $50 profit ($100 won) and keep that, not to be touched again. Every $50 after also gets frozen and into the bank or the wallet.
I don’t take many chances with wagering. I’ll spend $2 at a time on win bets, and a number of $1 exactas, or $1 part-wheels, where I’m taking 1-3 horses over similar, or otherwise the field.
If I have the $50 saved up, I’ll take a Saturday and go from first race to last, intending to turn a profit. If that last of the $50 wagered is gone, it’s gone. No running to an ATM for more.
Somewhere I’ve read that one should spend no more than 10% of one’s monthly income on entertainment-based matters. I’ve no issue with that. I don’t mind having a limit on my spending, if I know I can part with it. Of course, you don’t want to spend $ that should go toward the rent or other important expenses. Common sense, folks!
I figure I should have $2500-$3000 saved a year for wagering, which would require me to generate income of $25000 a year just to afford it. That’s not much, but still a goal to attain, and a worthy one.
Settling in for a night of ‘capping….
Truly, you want to make time for handicapping. Not something you want to do the day of the race unless you truly want to have 2nd and 3rd guesses on your 2nd and 3rd choices, and do more research than necessary when the inevitable scratches and changes come. Best you start out when the entries are rolled out. Generally for Saturdays, the entries are first posted overnight on Wednesdays. The only difference that one needs to catch up on between Wednesday and race day are the track handicapper’s official assessment of each horse’s chances, better known to you and me as the morning-line. It’s best presented as a guide, and nothing more. Ultimately you must pit those odds against your own line (more on that later) and how the public perceives the horses. I take 20-30 minutes per race with all the variables I work with, sometimes less if it’s a short field or if it’s a maiden race, more if a larger field.
First, note the projected weather. I like Intellicast or NOAA for details and radar. If there’s any threatened amount of precip, say 20% (which is actually coverage of precip, not the probability), factor in the Off rating. For sake of this blog, I use Brisnet’s Ultimate PPs with Comments
. There is a long-standing resource of free PPs at Cindy Pierson Dulay’s
page for about.com..PPs by trainer, owner and featured races by track.
Write out the number of the race, and the variables you work with, and put each variable (or groups of variables, as I do) in some sort of rank. Your most important variables will get the highest representative rank total, which should be divided up evenly when there are ties. Write the numbers out carefully, as you’ll need some space to write over them when changes occur.
My system has taken a number of forms, and it exists now as a spectrum, with lower points given to lifetime stats and pedigree, and more points relevant to what changes have taken place since the last race, plus the human factor. Ultimately I focus on what those changes are as having the most impact. I base my wagering skills on this theory. I won’t present the full system here but I’ll show you how I group the variables.
First, and lowest, are lifetime stats and pedigree (including AWD—average winning distance) numbers.
Next higher in importance are stats that point to changing pace form (bounce/rebound, forging) and overall pace numbers. Here I’ve used stats that come inspired from Dave Litfin’s great book “Expert Handicapping
”. It’s a book that points out the importance of both pace stats and trainer impact, among other variables.
Next I put variables that are relevant to what happened in the most recent series of races, along with a poor jockey/trainer’s connection. Here I’m introducing some negative variables into the mix, such as trips (forgiving a poor trip with a fast pace) and a sprinter’s lack of gaining the lead in recent races)
Next of importance is more of the human impact. Here I evaluate a trainer, plus introduce turn time. Turn time I thoroughly studied after reading James Quinn’s book “On Track/Off Track: Playing The Horses in Troubled Times”
. I also include track bias/trend stats, the ones you’ll find at the bottom of Brisnet races.
Finally and most important are particular angles based on call-point position, plus works, sprint/route changes, and speed in relation to par. For sake of this blog, I’ll point these out specifically. This isn’t a shortcut in order to ignore the other groups of variables, but it’s a good start.
1st call gain: This is one from James Quinn. Look for horses who are making their 2nd start following a layoff, and who are gaining in Brisnet speed since that last race, using the 1st call for sprints, or the 2nd call if a route. If there is no first call pair of numbers (this happens often with sprint races), go ahead to the 2nd call instead. This gain suggests there is more in the tank for this race.
2nd call gain: Note any horse that gains the lead or gains on the leader at the 2nd call.
Works: Here’s my mini-system evaluating work tabs:
1 point for a horse with 3 workouts since last race, 2 points if 4.
1 point if the horse’s last 2 works are at the track he’s racing in, 2 points if 3 such works. Half-point if 1 such work
Half-point for each work since last race where the horse’s rank on the day falls in the top 3rd of all running that day.
Sprint-route: Another tip from Mr. Quinn: Horses with a big gain in class moving from sprint to route should be avoided unless his last pace number is 5 points above the par score. Par is located in the upper right of the PPs for each race. I also like horses who return to routes after a few sprints. A third approach: Consider horses who return to route who already have a route win, returning with the same jockey, and has good works.
Par: Take note of horses whose last race exceeds par; one to play against.
This set of variables will give you a starting point for determining who to play and who to play against.
I do my studies the day or two before the race, and check on the morning of the race, at least 2 hours before post time, when scratches/changes occur. You’ll want to have backups, or otherwise move up your own selections in response. Odds can be somewhat unpredictable when this happens. If you’re at the track, be sure to be there in the same 2 hour time frame, ready to anticipate the changes, or otherwise follow on your phone or tablet. I like Equibase for tracking changes. While you’re at the track, keep watch of the odds to see who is being favored by the public and who is 2nd and 3rd in those rankings. In small tracks (small handles) or non stakes races, or even in small fields, the odds can shift pretty quickly. Otherwise, some numbers are just dead on the board. If there’s not much movement, you might want to bet earlier, instead of waiting for the last minute like the masses do.
If you have no access to some or any past performances and you’re at the track, you can buy one of the simple programs and still have some ammo to work with. In this case, here’s how I approach handicapping, especially if you have an Equibase program:
Make note of the leading jockeys (top 3), and owners and trainers (top 5). Find the Betting Rank column. This ranks the personnel by ROI, suggesting which ones will have the most value in comparison to their win and $%. It doesn’t always figure who wins the most. But when you spot owners, trainers and jockeys together, or 2 of the 3, and there’s value (worse than 4-1), it’s a possible key play. Also you can rank horses in this regard with a few variables I borrow from my list of trainer angles:
Which jockeys have been substituted in to ride that horse whom he/she has won on before?
Which horse is waiting the longest to stretch out?
Which horses have won on this track at approximately the same time of year, give or take a month?
Answer these questions, use the Betting Rank column, and you can easily construct your top 3 for each race.
Watch those odds! Dave Litfin suggests looking at the odds as they first appear. If the morning-line favorite opens higher (read: worse) than initial odds, then that horse has the ‘kiss of death’, and should be avoided.
Especially watch those odds 15 and 10 minutes, then 5 minutes up until 1 minute to post. If the odds aren’t changing that all that much, get to the betting window with about 10 minutes to go. Definitely get there by the 5 minute mark. Yes, odds will change a bit even at that point but you must commit to your wager once you have figured which side of the ledger the odds will go. If horses are on the proverbial fence for me at 4-1 and 6-1, on the borders of value and win betting, and gettting worse or are otherwise dead on the board, I’ll take the benefit of the doubt and play those value/win bets. I can safely assume I’ll get something for my patience, unless there really is a lot that does come in on those horses, or there is a late scratch or two.
I like having a top 3 for each race, and it helps me evaluate which races might be money races. This is very helpful for those of you playing multi-race wagers, your doubles, Pick 3s, Pick 4s, etc. If you can eliminate the favorites (top 3 by public and/or morning-line) from at least the win column, even the top 2, you can make a big score. This is the most critical matter with wagering for profit. You must be able to answer yes or no to this question: Can the favorites be elminated from the top 2 positions? Sometimes you can’t, in which case you can overbet the fave (instead of $2, do $5), or you can pair a favorite with an overlay.
And how do you spot an overlay? Here’s how I do this
When I group my variables, I assign 2 sets of points. The first one is for all positive variables, broken into groups as I outlined above. I give 1 point to the horse whose number appears most in the lowest category, or split it evenly if there are more than one. I do likewise with groups 2 through 5, assign 2, 3,4, and 5 points. I add the point totals together. This should equal 15 points, unless a group has no entry at all. I divide each horse’s total into 15, then take the number and divide it by one, then subtract by one. The result is the approximate odds the horse is truly worth based on my handicapping. 3 points into this scale would equal 4-1, 5 points 3-1. 7.5 is even money. To spot an overlay, we are looking for horses whose public odds are offering at least 4 more dollars payout for win per dollar wagered. In other words, if I think a horse is 6-1, the public odds should be 10-1 or worse. For 4-1, I need to see 8-1 or worse. For any horse whose public odds is 20-1 or worse, I want my odds to be better than 10-1. After all, there must be some reason why the horse is a longshot!
My approach with overlays is to play straight win bets, and play under the top 3 favorites (up to 7-2) in exactas.
My standard way of playing are with wins and exactas, just simple $2 win bets on any of my top 3 horses that are worse than 5-1, and then using up to 4 of the possible top 6 combinations between my top 3 in exactas, adhering to the Quinn exacta limitations. I also play overlays to win and under the top 2 public choices.
For my sanity, I put horses in classes of odds. Any horse 2-1 or better is FF, a strong favorite. 5/2, 3-1 or 7/2 is a basic F, a basic favorite. 4-1, 9-2 or 5-1 is M, a middle price horse, not enough for win bet but enough to use with others.
6-1 through 9-1 is a W, a win bet. Use liberally.
10-1 and worse are longshots, which should be used with care. Examine the spectrum of races via the morning line to see where your favorites are, and bet accordingly.
Again, if you play Pick 3s, and can eliminate the favorites in your top 3s, you have the makings of a good score. Avoid betting multi-race wager when you feel 2 favorites in one race have a good chance to win. Take careful note of any race you’re watching where there is one horse better than 4-1. You can bend my rules here and use 2nd/3rd favorites in such a case. The challenging matter is that you won’t know how the public is going to bet in the latter stages of a multi-race wager once your $ is in. Trust your instincts but don’t be afraid to play an extra win or place bet when there is one solid public choice.
Predictem.com has a nice approach to playing such wagers. Bet 1 horse in one race, bet all in another ,and bet your contenders in a 3rd. Mix up that order twice more so the sequence is different (1, some, all, then all, 1, some). It’s a good cost-effective way to play this wager, if you have the $ to make it happen. You can take the same approach with Pick 4s or 5s.
Frankly my favorite wager are the exacta wheels, so long as you know which are the favorites and which are the contenders and overlays.
Another tip from James Quinn’s book: Never bet the 1st/2nd or 1st/3rd public selections together, and never bet longshots together. Also, no baseball: Don’t play all 6 combos in a 3-horse box or 12 in a 4-horse box. Save the value horses for win bets instead of on top of faves.
An even simpler, and more fun way to wager is the parlay system. It’s the ‘let it ride’ approach. My spin on it takes into account favorites.
Get friends together and decide upon a top 3. Set up 2 parlays, one for 2 races at a time, the other for 3.
Divide the wager amount equally between the top 3, and wager them to show.
If you score, take all the money (or bankroll, say, half) and wager the rest on the next race.
If you score in the 2nd race with the 2-race parlay, bankroll that, and start fresh with a new amount. If you lose, start over anyway. If you’re doing the 3-race parlay, and you hit again, then the excitement level should be pretty strong as you go for a 3rd straight score. Bankroll your winnings after that 3rd and start over once you lose. Rinse and repeat through the entire card.
What I would do is this: Get $72 together, and put $36 in a 2-race show, and $36 in the 3-race version. So you should wager $12 to show for your top 3 in that race in both parlays. My adjustment for favorites in your wagers (top 3 public choices):
1 favorite: Wager $45 ($15 per horse)
2 favorites: wager $54 ($18 per horse)
3 favorites: $21 per horse, for $63.
Or if your pockets aren’t as deep, try $12 per parlay ($4 per horse per show bet, no longshots). For 1 favorite, wager $24 ($8 per), 2 favorites would be $36 (12 per), 3 favorites $48 (16 per)
Finally, here’s an examination (not the pass/fail kind) about what variables get overbet and those I use that most don’t see or figure on.
The overbet ones are the ones that stand out in most programs. Those are weight, pace figures, jockey influence (win %, etc), horses under reclaim, and workouts. Those horses will get more $ by the public. Doesn’t mean that will make it easier for that horse.
The underbet variables are these:
Layoffs…..who has won first off layoff, or those who won their debut race who are coming off layoff
Recovery angle (Litfin): Look at horses off layoff, watch for the first bounce and recovery since the layoff and play that horse within 8 weeks of recovery if under 4YO, or 12 if at least 4YO.
False sprinters (Quinn) Downmark any Brisnet-rated sprinter (E types) who do not get the lead at any call point in the last 3 races.
Turn time (Quinn) A complicated process but easy once you’ve done it a number of times. Look at the most recent race. Pay attention to the horse’s lengths behind the leader, looking at the 1st 2 call points, and subtract .2 seconds from the leader’s time to get your horse’s true fractional time. Compare the 2 call points, calculate the time between. Do this for the next most recent race. Note 3 items: who has the fastest turn time last out, the best gain in turn time between last 2 races, and who had a slower figure in pace rating among those who gained in turn time.
Trainers: Lots can be gleaned by watching trainers meet by meet to see what kind of moves they make. I check about 13 of such angles per race. The angles that seem to be ignored are these: Any horse who is subtracting or adding 4 or more lbs and has won with that angle before; horses who have won at the meet at the same point in the calendar, give or take a month; those who are waiting the longest to stretch out. There are many ways to go with this. Litfin’s book puts a great emphasis on trainers.
First call after layoff (see above)
2nd call gain (see above)
Next up: Quick Enlightened Trails update, and a writeup of 8 races out of 10 I’m handicapping at Emerald Downs for Sunday