- Some things to look for when Handicapping
- Some common racing terms
- Using time management to enhance Racetrack profits
- Reliance on warm-ups a double edged sword
- An appraisal of warm-up assessments
- Using overlays for exacta profits
- Handicapping at the start of a new meet
- Some theories on Winter Racing
- An overview on Winter Racing theories
- Hints For Handicapping Trotters
GOOD FORM: Harness horses tend to be a fairly consistent breed. Horses that have shown the ability to race well at a certain class level are often the most likely candidates to win a particular race.
CONSISTENCY: Horses that have demonstrated that they can win consistently at a particular level often yield very solid selections to win a race.
TOP DRIVERS: The top four or five drivers at most racetracks will win a disproportionate amount of the races. A list of top drivers appears in the official track program and each driver's UDR (universal driver rating) appears next to the driver's name.
TOP TRAINERS: As with drivers, top trainers will often dominate in the win standings at a racetrack. The trainer's rating appears next to his/her name in the program and a listing of the trainer's standings is also contained in the program.
INSIDE POST POSITIONS: Generally speaking, the closer to the rail a horse starts, the better his chances of success. An inside post makes it easier for a horse to get good early position.
HORSES THAT HAVE HAD EXCUSES: Sometimes horses have had their chances compromised by a number of things beyond their control. Some examples: Poor post positions, interference, breaking, being parked out, being overmatched in class.
HORSES DROPPING IN CLASS: Often a horse will demonstrate poor form because it has been competing against horses that are superior in ability. There is a relationship between class and form, and a horse dropping in class often displays a marked improvement in form.
FORM: How a horse has been racing. Generally, good form is defined as close up finishes in recent starts - bad form is poor finishes in recent starts.
CLASS: The level of competition that a horse has been facing. Generally, the higher class level the bigger the purse and the stronger the level of competition.
CONSISTENCY: How often a horse is able to win/race well. A consistent winner can be defined as a horse that is able to win at least 20% of its starts. A horse that is able to finish in the money in at least 50%-60% of its starts can be considered to be a consistent contender.
PACE: The early fractions of a race, particularly the opening 1/4 mile and 1/2 mile. The pace of a race can effect how well certain horses are able to compete. For example... if a pacesetter is able to set a slow pace, horses that are far back early will have a particularly difficult time making up ground once the pace picks up in the latter stages of the race. Conversely, if the early pace is torrid, it will be harder for pacesetters to withstand the late challenges of closers who benefit from a relatively slow second half.
GATE SPEED: How quickly a horse is able to leave the starting gate.
POST POSITION: The position a horse leaves the starting gate from at the start of a race. The #1 post is closest to the rail and the #8 post is farthest from the rail. Generally speaking, the #1 post is the best and the #8 is the worst.
PARKED OUT: This term describes a horse that is racing on the outside, normally for an extended period of time. Horses lose ground while racing on the outside and depending on the circumstances (the amount of time spent racing on the outside, the pace, etc) can be adversely effected by it.
BOXED: This describes the situation that occurs when a horse is stuck on the rail with a horse ahead of him and a horse outside him.
SHUFFLED BACK: This occurs when a horse is stuck on the rail and loses position when outside horses advance past him.
BREAK: When a horse goes offstride. A harness horse competes at either a trot (diagonal gait) or pace (lateral gait). A break occurs when a horse goes offstride and into a gallop.
COVER: Describes when a horse is racing with a horse in front of him, especially on the outside. Live cover occurs when a horse has an advancing horse in front of him, dull cover occurs when the cover horse does not advance.
Ask a hundred knowledgeable racing fans to name the key elements for success at the races and you will hear the same answers time and time again. Handicapping skill. Money management. Identifying value.
While any of these things can serve as the cornerstone of a successful approach to betting the horses, there is another item that warrants attention as part of any serious betting plan. That item is time management, and it can mean the difference between success and failure at the racetrack.
A great many fans simply attempt to do the impossible at the races. They try to handicap, watch warmups, scan the betting pools, manage their bankrolls, cash and buy tickets and watch replays - all in the short time between races! The result is often a rushed, semi-informed decision that yields nothing more than losing tickets. This scenario can be avoided, however, by making a few changes in the area of time management.
A major mistake that befalls many fans is attempting to handicap between races. Handicapping should be done in a quiet place before the races begin. This ensures that the time and concentration necessary for effective analysis will be available. There is nothing more detrimental to the bankroll than a rush-job of handicapping, so avoid it by completing your analysis before first post.
Next, learn to budget your time between races. The time between races is too valuable to spend it handicapping. First, watch the replay of the previous race and take notes - it may help you win at a later date. Then, make any revisions in your handicapping due to scratches, driver switches or changes in track condition. Next, watch the tote board to identify value plays. Finally, after deciding on your wager, place your bet according to your money management plan.
This time management system provides for the best use of the key elements of betting - handicapping, money management and value determination, by assigning an ample and orderly timeframe for accomplishing them. Adherence to this plan is sure to be an improvement on any incoherent, haphazard methods which often contribute to failure. If you don't have a time management play, try this one. It should help increase your productivity at the windows.
It's incredible how many fans rush into the track five minutes before post time, skim the program on the way to the window and force a hasty, uninformed bet. By using this simple plan, you will be able to avoid the pitfalls that spell defeat for most of these otherwise knowledgeable bettors.
An inquiry by a racing fan has prompted me to review a nearly forgotten segment of my handicapping portfolio - warmup assessment. Some longtime race goers rely on warmups as an indicator of performance while others hold warmup assessment in much lower regard.
Although I am in general agreement with the latter group, I am willing to admit that some handicappers are able to develop a certain "knack" for clocking the warmups. Overall, warmup assessment must be viewed as a double edged sword, benefiting some but hindering the prospects of others.
One of the biggest drawbacks of warmup assessment is the definition of what constitutes a "good warmup". Even those who rely on warmups for guidance have trouble agreeing on a definitive procedure for rating them. Although it is normally focused on speed, a favorable assessment in always the product of a subjective process, so, a good warmup is in the eye of the beholder.
A major problem arises from this. The problem is that warmup assessment is difficult to learn because there are as many different ways to rate warmups as there are people rating them. Virtually the only way to develop the ability to successfully utilize warmups is by a trial and error approach, finding out what works for you. Although for some this will pay dividends, for most it will not. After many years at the racetrack, I know of only a few handicappers who have been able to develop the "knack" I described earlier, and all of them have varying approaches to rating warmups.
In light of this information, it is easy to understand why reliance on warmups for selections is a risky proposition. However, some handicappers my be able to benefit by using warmups as part of their overall handicapping process. With this in mind, I can offer the following recommendations for rating the warmups.
1. Get to the track at least one hour before first post. The final and most important warmup occurs about an hour before race time, so if you intend to clock warmups, you must be at the track early.
2. Get acquainted with the warmup colors of the saddlecloths so you will be able to identify each horse. There will be many horses warming up at the same time, so proper identification can be difficult if you are not careful.
3. Have a program and a pen ready to take notes. It's hard to remember which horses deserved added consideration for an impressive warmup, so mark your program accordingly.
4. Get to know the warmup habits of as many horses as possible. This means becoming familiar with horses that normally have fast warmups and those that do not. Horses are creatures of habit and many will go through fast warmups then disappoint at race time, especially speed horses with a tendency to weaken. Knowledge of these inclinations will help you separate the pretenders from the contenders.
5. Put the most importance on the final warmup about one hour before post time. This is the time that any advantage from observation will be gained.
6. Be wary of horses that blaze the final warmup. Unless they are classy types that will be racing extremely fast, horses can leave their race on the track with an overly fast warmup. This judgment between a sharp warmup and one that is overly fast can only come with much experience.
7. Don't try to be a veterinarian. Too many fans are quick to eliminate horses that appear "gimpy" or "have a hitch in their gait". A good number of horses will exhibit symptoms of unsoundness at jogging or warmup speed but will race just fine when they leave the gate. Besides, there is a track vet whose job it is to prevent unsound horses from racing so it is best to leave that determination to her.
In the last installment I wrote about warmup assessment and gave some guidelines for handicappers who wish to try it. That having been done, I now would like to offer my appraisal of warmup assessment and elaborate on some of the points I mentioned in that article.
At first glance it may seem that those who employ warmup assessment would have a decided edge over those who do not. It would seem reasonable to assume that any handicapper who possesses information not know to the general public would have an advantage over them.
But is this really the case? The answer to that question is yes - and no. In short, the value of warmup assessment is as difficult to quantify as the process itself.
The advantages that can be gained from clocking the warmups are fairly obvious. A handicapper can uncover "wake up horses" and horses that appears to have a condition edge on their competition. Often the values lies in horses that show mediocre form but warmup in such a way as to suggest an effort contrary to their charted lines is in the offing. Because the public relies heavily on past performance records, one who carefully rates the warmups can find winners that are ignored by the public, usually resulting in long prices. Based on these descriptions you may feel that reliance on warmups is the way to go for racetrack profits, but beware. Warmup assessment has it's downside also.
The biggest negative in connection with warmup assessments is that to be done properly it is VERY time consuming. The largest part of any racing day must be spent watching, rating and recording warmups. This is not a problem if warmups are the single most important aspect of the handicapping process. It is a problem if, as I recommend, importance is placed on watching replays, searching for value and revising handicapping after scratches, driver changes, etc. There is only so much time between races and to successfully employ warmup assessment one must be willing to sacrifice many of the basic principles of wagering. In my opinion, this is too great a price to pay for most handicappers.
In summary, the use of warmups can benefit some but the benefits will not come without a cost. First, a method of rating the warmups must be developed. Then, a great deal of time must be spent to implement the method. Finally, sacrifices must be made at the expense of basic wagering principles to gain and advantage from warmups.
My opinion of warmup assessment is that the potential for harm outweighs the prospects of gain for most people. There is no guarantee of advantage and a handicapper can actually suffer by ignoring form, class and speed factors that can be used reliably to determine contenders in favor of warmups. With this in mind I advise those who wish to employ warmup assessment to proceed with caution. It is a double edged sword that can swing against those who are not careful.
Betting on overlays is one of the oldest and most effective weapons in the battle for racetrack profits. An overlay occurs when a horse's odds are higher than it's actual chances of winning. For example, if a horse has a 1 in 3 chance of winning (represented by 2-1 odds), and his actual odds are 5-2 or more, it would be an overlay. The logic of betting on overlays should be obvious; anytime you get more for something than it is worth, you are sure to profit.
Although overlays can occur in any betting pool, the standard method of overlay betting involves win wagering. Place and show overlays exist at times but are more difficult to predict because odds are dependent on other horses that finish in the money. Your payoff for win, on the other hand, can be known by looking at the odds on the tote board.
The problem with this is that a great many racing fans prefer exacta wagering to any other type. Luckily, I have a method that combines overlays with exacta betting. In fact, some of the most generous exactas I have had have been picked by this method.
Here's how it works:
1. Handicap the race and identify the four most likely horses to win, regardless of their probable odds. Ignore all others.
2. Watch the odds board and, as close to post time as possible, determine which horse of the four has the highest odds.
3. Use the horse with the highest odds as the key horse. Make exacta boxes with each of the remaining three horses. (3 boxes in all). If more than one of the horses is tied for highest odds, key the horse that you have rated most likely to win.
You may be wondering why this method relies on win odds to determine the key horse when exacta payoffs are separate and unaffected by them. The reason is that we want to make our wagers as close to post time as we can, and it isn't always possible to determine the best exacta payoffs when we need to know them. It's much easier to determine the highest win odds of four horses than the best exacta payoff out of twelve. In the long run, the results are close enough to justify substituting the easiest way for the most accurate way.
You may also wonder why any horse should automatically qualify as an overlay simply because it is one of the four most likely to win. The reasoning is this: A good handicapper is likely to have a solid overlay in his first four choices because one or two of those choices are normally overbet. With rare exception, the public is able to identify the one or two best horses and use them as key horses. The wise thing to do is the opposite - key on a longer-priced horse with a good, but not necessarily the best, chance of winning.
How well does this method work? In the past I have been able to tab many exactas ranging from just under $1000.00 on down, with a great deal of exactas in the $50.00 to $100.00 range.
A few words of caution. You must remember that the success of this method hinges on your skill as a handicapper. I can't stress enough the need to identify the four horses most likely to win REGARDLESS of the probable odds. Don't fall into the trap of picking your contenders based on price - the odds will take care of itself. Also, you must realize that this is basically a longshot method. Accordingly, you cannot expect to hit three or four big exactas everyday. However, the prices should make any wait worthwhile.
There is an old saying, "A person can only hit what he aims at". If you are tired of getting the $15 and $20 exactas, give this method a try. It aims for the big ones.
Now that Freehold has opened for it's Summer/Fall meeting, it's time to consider some of the problems that confront handicappers at the beginning of a new meet. For a couple of weeks from the opening, a few adjustments to usual handicapping principles can improve one's chances of success. Here, then, are a few suggestions that may prove useful in the opening weeks of the new Freehold meet.
The central problem at the start of a new meeting is that the most useful of handicapping tools, namely form and class comparisons, are extremely difficult to accurately achieve. Horses that have remained in competition during the summer months have been racing at a number of tracks and these ovals vary in size, surface and quality of competition. Therefore, in any given race at the start of a new meet, the entrants will often show lines that make comparisons especially tough. A little educated guesswork can make the task a bit easier, however.
First, horses that have been competing for the biggest purses will have a class advantage over those that have raced for less money, even if the class conditions are the same. A NW2 race at Woodbine or the Meadowlands will invariably attract stronger horses than the same class will draw at Yonkers or Pocono. By the same token, The NW2 event at Yonkers or Pocono should prove somewhat tougher than the same type of race at Rosecroft or Monticello. Although these comparisons hold true at any time of the year, they can be especially useful at the start of a new meet when there is little to compare on a head-to-head basis.
In keeping with this purse-value theory, form assessments should be adjusted, also. A horse that has demonstrated mediocre form when competing for higher purses can be expected to show vast improvement against competition that has shown relatively good form in lower purse-value events. There is normally a relationship between class competition and form and this, too, can prove useful in handicapping a new meet.
Also, a bit added consideration should be given to speed horses. Freehold is a speed-favoring track, so any horses that have demonstrated good speed elsewhere could have an advantage here.
Another approach that can help in identifying winners is the "horse for a course" angle. A good many horses with exceptional local records may spring to life, regardless of their form elsewhere, when they return to the Freehold oval. Regular readers of this column know that I recommend keeping notes and those who have followed this advice stand to benefit greatly in identifying these prospective winners.
Finally, some thought should be given to those horses that have been rested during the summer break. While it may seem that fresher horses would have and advantage, caution should be exercised. Each individual should be treated separately. A few horses may be able to reach top condition through training and, hopefully, will demonstrate this in a qualifier. Still others will need at least one race to reach top condition. At this point a freshened horse may have an advantage over those that have been racing for months without a rest.
Now that winter has descended upon us, it seems like the perfect time to discuss winter racing from a handicapping aspect. The theories are many and varied, and some of them can improve one's chances of success in the winter months.
Sub-freezing temps and harsh winds have an effect on the outcome of races. For example, a horse racing uncovered into a 20 m.p.h. headwind when the temperature is 20F faces a wind-chill factor of nearly -30F. Under this scenario, pacesetters and first-over horses have the worst of it. This leads us to theory #1.
Theory #1: Added consideration should be given to horses that were first-over or cut fast fractions under harsh weather conditions. Under this theory, horses that seem to have quit first-over have legitimate excuses. Although it is difficult to predict which horses will race uncovered in advance, a look back at a horse's last race can give valuable insight into why he was unable to race well due to weather conditions. Generally speaking, the faster and longer a horse had to race uncovered, the greater excuse the horse had. Also, a horse that was able to race well DESPITE being uncovered in harsh conditions deserves even more consideration.
Theory #2: Geldings should get preference over mares and horses in cold weather. The theory behind this is that geldings, because they are less affected by hormonal changes, can adapt better to the fluctuations in temperature. In some way they are "desensitized" and less likely to suffer adverse effects from the cold.
Theory #3. Down-under horses race better than their American counterparts in winter. The basis for this theory lies in the belief that because Australian and New Zealand horses come from a land that has seasons that are opposite of ours (our winter-their summer, etc.), they handle winter weather better because of some sort of "climatic memory". In short, from years of racing in warm weather during our winter months, their bodies are somehow able to handle cold weather better.
Theory #4: Some horses benefit from, and therefore race better in, the cold. This theory is fueled by the knowledge that some horses with breathing problems have an easier time in colder, drier air than they do in the warm, moist air of summer. Also, some horses benefit from the cold air on their race-weary legs. It acts as a natural anti-inflammatory, cooling and tightening sore joints and tendons.
In our last installment we examined several handicapping theories that pertain to winter racing. In this article I would like to render my opinions as to the value each one has to improving handicapping during the winter months.
As for theory #1, I agree that added consideration should be given to horses that either raced on the lead or raced uncovered on the outside in their last race. It should be fairly obvious that these circumstances provide legitimate excuses for poor performances in harsh weather conditions and, furthermore, the faster the fractions, the greater the excuse. Also, any horse that was able to finish well under these conditions deserves even more credit when assessing past performance.
With regards to theory #2, I don't find any evidence that geldings, by virtue of their lack of hormones, handle cold weather better than horses or mares. Generally speaking, geldings tend to be a bit more consistent, regardless of weather. With this in mind, the advantage that geldings seem to have in cold weather has no more importance than the advantage they have in any other type of weather because their consistency is generally uniform under all conditions. In addition, I seriously doubt they are any less sensitive to extreme cold than are their male and female counterparts.
Theory #3 is another that, on the face, seems to be true but under closer examination a different reason becomes evident. While a great deal of down-under imports demonstrate an exceptional ability to race well in cold weather, the reality is that they enjoy similar success in all weather conditions. They tend to be classy and consistent performers, as a rule, and no real connection can be made between their winter success and their bloodlines. The notion that the cold weather success of imports is due to some sort of "climatic memory" is, frankly, ridiculous. Once acclimated to our weather, down-under imports react to the conditions the same as their American counterparts.
The fourth theory deals with the concept that some horses can actually benefit from cold weather. While I feel certain that this is the case, a problem arises when this knowledge is attempted to be put to use in handicapping. While a trainer may be able to tell when a horse benefits from the cold, it is not so easy for a handicapper to ascertain when this is this case. The best way to make use of this is to keep notes and try to identify those horses that improved because of the cold.
Many handicappers who have no problem analyzing a pacing event suddenly find themselves stymied when it comes to handicapping the trotters. That which works perfectly well for pacing seems to be less effective when applied to trotting. There is a valid reason for this. The difference between trotters and pacers entails more than just gait. These differences, once understood and accounted for, can be used to improve handicapping performance in trotting races.
Every horse that has stood on all fours has been able to trot because it is a natural gait. Nature intends, however, for a horse to go into a gallop long before reaching the speed necessary to compete in races. This explains why many horses have a hard time trotting a mile without breaking. Trotting is a difficult gait to maintain at such advanced speeds. Many horses, even those with strong trotting bloodlines, can never sufficiently master the gait for racing purposes.
This difficulty causes problems other than breaking. It also makes bursts of speed, or brushes, difficult for most trotters. Movement in trot races tends to be of a slower, steadier variety as compared to pacing events. Leaving quickly from outside post positions is also troublesome for most trotters.
Given the host of problems that arise with training and racing trotters, it is not hard to understand why there is a shortage of these horses. This shortage accounts for the limited number of trot races and the fewer classes available for them as compared to pacers.
In addition, drivers take on greater importance in trotting races. Expert handling and strategy are necessary for success. Mistakes are often very costly.
This information can be used to formulate certain general "rules of thumb" for handicapping trot races. They are "general" because there are always exceptions to rules, especially when it comes to handicapping.
With this in mind, I recommend the following for improved trot handicapping:
1. Be especially wary of horses that break. This the most obvious and important point. I will normally eliminate horses that show breaks in three or more races, unless the breaks were not recent.
2. Make sure that a trotter with an outside post position is capable of overcoming the handicap before you back him. I tend to favor trotters from the inside because from outside starting slots a speed horse will often get parked and a stretch runner will have to come from far back - both particularly difficult propositions for trotters.
3. Be aware that differences in classes can be critical. One class up or down usually means quite a difference in quality and speed of competition. A trotter dropping back to a class at which it has had past success will usually be capable of a substantially improved performance.
4. Give added consideration to lightly-raced horses at the bottom class level. This grade is normally loaded with chronic losers that can be beaten by a newcomer with little more than average talent.
5. Favor top drivers who often compete in, and win, trot races. Driving trotters is a specialized job requiring a high degree of skill. Try to make sure your choice will be handled by a capable reinsman.
6. Be willing to excuse poor performance more readily than with pacers. There are generally more valid reasons for a trotter to race badly (breaking horses, dull cover, etc.). Many longshot winners of trot races have had valid excuses in their recent starts.
7. Allow a little more leeway with idleness when assessing a trotter's chances. A pacer will normally hold its form for 10-14 days. Trotters tend to hold their form for longer periods and some can win with as much as three weeks between starts.