By Ray Wallin
Recently a reader sent me a question that I thought was easy to answer until I thought about it longer. Frustrated Frank asked, “What is a successful way to approach a race?”
Immediately I thought of how I run through a mental checklist. I have factors I look for that tells me within about a minute if this race is likely to present a favorable betting opportunity. While the weight of factors may change based on the conditions of a race, I am always looking at the same key factors.
But because those factors work for me, they may not work for everyone. So, I decided to pose this question to several successful horseplayers I know and trust. I knew that for everyone I asked, there would be a different and unique response.
The kids I coach at soccer know I love to start out our water break talks with a quote. Some may roll their eyes when I start saying “tonight’s quote is …” while other’s ears perk up. When Frustrated Frank sent this question, I could only think of one specific quote from my database.
“A wrong approach is a mistake, but repetition makes it a choice.” — Shahenshah Hafeez Khan
You can fix mistakes. You can adapt your strategy from something that loses to something that wins. Let’s see what the experts have to say but remember that the names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.
Walt The Whale – Jockey/Trainer Combos
Walt the Whale is a throwback to my late Uncle Dutch. My Uncle Dutch would keep a notebook of meet stats, many of which you find now in the past performances. During the early 1990’s though, this information was gold. Walt takes what you see in the past performances one step further. Not only does he track jockey and trainer stats, but he also tracks the same stats with jockey and trainer combos and weighs them against morning line odds.
Why is this important?
While a Journeyman Jock may win 30% of his races with Trainer Tim, it is more telling to take a deep dive into what plays off both of their strengths. What if Journeyman Jock is a lackluster turf jockey? If you discount the turf races is the combination hitting closer to 50%? How is this combination faring against the probable odds of winning based on the morning line?
While careful not to give away too much of his magic, Walt left me with the following nugget of information. Some of the most successful jockey/trainer combinations underperform since they are so over bet under the wrong conditions. He accounts for performance at different tracks and circuits and under a variety of conditions.
While it would take some serious data collection to figure this all out, our friend Walt has it down to a science and can scan through a ran to see if there is an overlay based on his data.
Cool Cat Cara – Pedigree
The most impressive fact about this successful female horseplayer is that she has a doctorate and wins consistently with turf and maiden races. She found that the everyday claiming and dirt races for older horses didn’t seem to garner her any profit, so she found her niche on the grass and with maidens and lightly raced horses.
I am the first to admit that I buy my pedigree data each year, but there are handicappers like Cara who live and breathe sires and bloodlines. Often our conversations get derailed after I say how much I love Tapit colts going longer distances, like the Belmont Stakes as she will give me a dissertation on how the dam sire influences the ability to get the distance, too. When the 2-year-olds hit the track, she is my go-to for first time starters, lightly raced runners, and horses stretching out for the first time.
What is her secret?
When she scans through a race, she looks for certain sires under certain conditions. She will then evaluate the rest of the horse’s information to see if it is a viable play or not.
Big Bucks Billy – The Right Running Line
Some handicappers don’t make their living playing the big races. To these folks the Belmont Stakes, the Breeder’s Cup, and the Grade 1 stakes are an automatic pass. Instead, there are handicappers that make their money playing the heart and soul of the horse racing industry, the weeknight claimers.
Big Bucks Billy is one of those guys who churn out a profit year after year playing the horses that go to post every two to three weeks at tracks like Penn National, Mountaineer, and Thistledown. While other handicappers are playing speculatively on pedigree or connections, guys like Billy are playing based on consistency. These lower level claiming horses run like clockwork for small barns and small trainers.
What does Billy look for when playing these races?
He is looking for the right running line. Most of these horses have run at this condition, distance, and over the same surface for most of their career. The trick for Billy is what the right running line is for today.
He looks to toss troubled trips and races where the pace was an anomaly, or unusually fast or slow. He looks to toss that race where a $5,000 claimer took a shot at $12,500 company or dabbled on the turf for a start to help the racing secretary fill a card. This may be a running line from the last race or five races back. On occasion it can even be the last running line showing in the past performances.
Billy is seeking the ability level a horse will be showing today against its peers or what potential this horse has given the conditions of the race today. His trained eyes can roll through a full field of 12 horses in about two minutes before deciding if he should pursue this race or not.
Chalky Chester – The Favorite
Chalky Chester is an interesting handicapper. He is one of the quickest and most decisive guys I know when it comes to assessing a race. He scours the past performances from at least five tracks a day to find his best wagering opportunities. His secret is looking at the favorite.
I have known Chester for over 20 years and learned a lot from him regarding how to read a favorite’s chances in a race. Based on some of his principles I established my own “favorite likelihood factor” which works out to a linear representation of a favorite’s chances in a race based on several factors from both the field and the favorite.
His approach is two-fold. Chester assesses the favorite as either strong or weak. If the favorite is strong, he will handicap the race and look to use him as a key horse in exotics or multi-race wagers like doubles or pick 3’s. If the favorite is weak, he looks to see how vulnerable he is versus the rest of the field. With favorites winning a third of the time, Chester has shown his strong favorites to win more than half of the time and pegs weak favorites that can only muster winning a fifth of the time.
While not for everyone, Chalky Chester makes his money playing the right favorites and beating the weak ones.
The important thing to remember is that if you are not having success with your approach to handicapping, you need to change it. By finding what works and makes you profitable will help you fulfil your dream of making your living by playing the races.