Rome wasn’t built in a day, so if you’re planning to bet on horses it would be wise to analyze the four essential pillars on which race handicapping is constructed:
To paraphrase Damon Runyon, “The race isn’t always to the swift…but that’s the way to bet.” Obviously, since the horse that runs fastest wins the race, you have to know if a horse is fast enough to win the race. That’s why most professional horse players are “sheets” players, spending $25 per track, per day to obtain accurate speed figures. There are less expensive ways to get your hands on speed figures, including using the Beyer Speed Figures in Daily Racing Form.
Of course, the game is not so simple that you can just wager on the horse with the highest speed figure in his previous race. Speed figures tell you how a horse ran, not how he will run. Astute handicappers understand that horses are not machines and, like human beings, have their highs and lows. Speed figures help the bettor analyze whether a horse is on the upswing of his form or has peaked and will begin to decline.
One of the oldest bromides of the track is, “Pace makes race.” What that means is that how the race is run often determines who wins it. Take a look at the quarter mile splits for two fictional mile races, below:
:24.00, :48.00, 1.12.00, 1:36.00
:22.43, :45.57, 1:10.00, 1:36.00
Note that the final time in each race is the same, 1:36. The first race features a slow pace, with a half-mile in a pedestrian :48. This type of pace will benefit a horse on the lead or, at worst, one racing very near the front.
The second race has a much quicker opening half-mile and a much more tepid closing half-mile, including a painfully slow final quarter. This type of pace, almost certainly the result of more than one horse vying for the lead, will benefit horses who rated far from the front, those who were not engaged in the suicidal speed duel.
So, any analysis of a race should contain an attempt to decipher the event’s likely pace and which horses will benefit from it.
Least understood and most difficult to assess of the four handicapping pillars, track bias is the tendency of a racetrack to favor one running style or one portion of the track over another. Biases are caused by a series of atmospheric conditions, not the least of which is moisture on the track surface.
There are two types of biases, tactical and positional. A tactical bias means the racetrack is favoring a particular running style, such as on the lead or coming from behind. A positional bias affords an advantage to a section of the track surface, either inside or outside. Often the two biases unite to provide a track profile, such as “inside speed” or “outside rallying.”
Biases can change from day-to-day, even race-to-race, so identifying them accurately and quickly is essential. If pacesetters that have a history of folding quicker than tents in the wind suddenly are holding on in the stretch, which may be an indication of a front-running bias. On the other hoof, if horses that have bid and hung in prior starts now are finishing strongly, the track may be favoring closers. Positional bias is particularly important in sprints where jockeys rarely have the luxury of time to seek out the best portion of the racetrack. It’s worth noting that there is no positional bias on grass, where saving ground is essential.
Even professional horseplayers often do not uncover a bias until several races have been run. Nevertheless, there’s still great potential value in chronicling the results. Horses that have run well against a bias (closing on a speed-favoring track or holding on gamely under conditions more suitable to closers) may be excellent plays when they catch a track that favors their running style. Conversely, a horse that benefited from a favorable bias in his last start could be vastly over bet in his next outing, often in conditions much less favorable to success.
Suppose you have six marbles in a sack. Three are red, two are white and one is blue. The odds of picking a red marble out of the sack are three-in-six or even money. The odds of choosing a white marble are two-in-six (one-in-three) or 2/1. The odds of selecting the blue marble are one-in-six, or 5/1. Those are the true odds. But what if the odds of choosing the red marble were 3/5, the odds of picking a white marble 4/1, and the odds of picking the blue marble, 5/1?
Who do you like? The red marble, of course; it’s still more likely than either the white or the red.
But which would you bet? The white marble. It’s odds of coming up are greater than its actual likelihood, the very definition of value.
Think of the marbles as horses and you get an idea of how professional gamblers play. Value exists when the potential for victory exceeds the odds of victory.
Now go on and find out what are the biggest mistakes of horse handicapping you can make.