For pretty much the same reasons I enjoy picking football games once I have enough past performance & odds data to work with, I’ve plunged into the world of handicapping horse races by analyzing the past performance data in The Daily Racing Form. Once again, I get to look over a bunch of different and often competing variables and try to determine the outcome of a sporting event I’ll enjoy watching anyway. Once again, I get to see if I get it right as if I’m solving some sort of gigantic complex puzzle. And once again, perhaps I might get some money out of it – not enough to retire on with my cheap betting, of course, but enough to pay for celebratory dinner or to add to the Wagstaff yardsale shopping fund.
I started out with Brad Free’s excellent introduction to deciphering the racing form tables, Handicapping 101. Every horse bettor weighs the different categories of comparison their own way, and Free explains all the important ones to look for & offers solid advice for how to consider each one.
Think of everything going on here for a moment – what surface is the race on, turf or synthetic/dirt track? Much the way tennis players are markedly different on grass or clay, horses run differently on those surfaces. What is the class of horses running in this race? Has a major leaguer been slipped into a lower grade race, or vice versa? How fast does the horse usually run? How has the horse been running lately? Blinkers on or off? What’s the distance of the race? Is the horse better at short sprints or long distances? Are the oddsmakers and other bettors overbetting a particular horse or underbetting a real contender? What’s the trainer’s record in races like this, with horses like this? How about the jockey?
Free’s book helps you navigate through all of this without your head exploding. He also covers the Los Angeles area tracks for the DRF as well, so whatever subtleties of his own handicapping have been determined by the particulars of Santa Anita, Del Mar or Hollywood Park might have worked their way into his overall views on the subject. Fine by me, since those are the tracks I’d go to or pay attention to for the most part (except during any Vegas trip when the tracks I focus on are purely dependent on what time of day I’m in the sports book when live races are happening). As a back-up to the nuts and bolts of handicapping techniques, I also read Las Vegas racing columnist Richard Eng’s Betting On Horse Racing For Dummies, since I certainly felt like one the first time I hung out at a Vegas sports book one June, with no football to bet on, and began chatting with horseplayers over whatever methods they were using. One guy tried explaining the racing form to me, but he concentrated so much on his own narrow technique that I only wanted to know what all those other numbers and stats meant even more – after all, if he knew what he was doing, why the hell was he talking to ME?
Okay, maybe he thought I was hot.
So, I learned how to read the racing form, tried my hand at handicapping one day at Santa Anita last spring when I played hookey from an academic conference (this way I’d be happy with my decision even if I lost money, and I didn’t, so clearly GOD WANTED ME TO IGNORE THE CONFERENCE. HA!) The following June I was back in Vegas again, went to the sports book more prepared, and won a little more on a handful of races on a few different tracks. I wanted to improve my ability to pick the actual winners in a race, or get better at picking the order of several finishers – most of my money was made by betting on horses that ran in the money, but I was collecting a lot of place and show bets, which aren’t really cost-effective in the long run versus other choices. If I was good at narrowing a field of a dozen horses down to a few that had a good shot at running first, second or third, how could I hone those techniques, in addition to repeated practice and error analysis?
So it was back to betting school! I read Andrew Beyer’s Picking Winners and Beyer On Speed, both interesting books that are mostly useful for understanding the mindset of a regular horse player, as well as for understanding what goes into the indispensable Beyer Speed Figures for horses that are part of the past performance tables. Most recently, thanks to one of those “Amazon recommends for you” emails, I discovered a truly excellent book on betting theory, Steven Crist’s Exotic Betting, where he outlines various strategies for multiple horse betting, both intrarace (extactas, trifectas, superfectas) and inter-race (pick 4, daily double, etc.). Covering all your angles in these bets can get a little expensive, but as I was reading, I came across this passage, and I decided that this was the greatest book EVER:
Playing the races is not a means to a reliable profit, but an end it itself, a uniquely fascinating problem-solving exercise more akin to completing a challenging crossword puzzle than to laboring for an hourly wage. Of course, it’s even better than a crossword puzzle when you add in the brave and beautiful horses, the thrill of the contest, and the many other charms of a day at the track. If you told me in advance that I would only break even for the next 12 months at the races, I would still play them for the sheer enjoyment of it, and I think most racegoers would too. (Crist, p.18)
Good GOD, this guy and I are on the exact same wavelength!!! Much like my attraction to parlay bets in football, I enjoy going for multiple horse bets in my egomaniacal desire to solve the puzzle to the nth degree and run the table.
So using the theories in his book, I virtually played the Del Mar races in the past week, going through the racing form and making out tables of bets in a notebook, reviewing my performance each day, making adjustments in both my handicapping & betting strategies, and I seem to be slowly putting together more consistent successful methods of both. So far I’ve “bet” $1,891 on 6 days of racing, and have won back $2,329.32, a gain of 23% or so. The ups and downs are certainly erratic, but I’d rather look for areas where I’m on the verge of improving (such as getting pick 3s and pick 4s) than worry about possible long-term losing streaks (especially when I’m not betting any real money!).
I’m not sure when I’ll actually put all this into practice using real money, though I’ll certainly feel more confident in my choices the next time I actually go to the track live or go back to Vegas without football to occupy my sports book time.
But wait!!! THROWING AWAY MONEY ALERT!!!! Unlike football betting, betting on horse races over the internet is legal in California…. <Shudder, the sequel…> Better put a padlock on my bank account… make that TWO padlocks.
Or not. I’m in no hurry to actually risk over a thousand dollars a week. There’s no guarantee of a 23% return on a regular basis, that’s for damn sure.
At the very least, to paraphrase Crist, I’ve found an enjoyable mental exercise that tops my New York Times crossword habit, helps develop analytical (especially self-analytical) skills and may actually net me some money some day. So – can I out-think the horse races? Only time will tell…
“Your move, chump!”
UPDATE: Holy should I quit my day job, Batman!!!! I just spent part of my afternoon of watching college football virtually handicapping & betting Belmont, and (on paper only, alas) won over eighteen thousand dollars by hitting the pick 6 along with a ton of 5 out of 6 consolation bets! I only called a winner in one other race outside of the last six, so I have the voice of Han Solo in my head yelling “Great shot kid, now don’t get cocky…” Granted, I had to lay out nearly $2500 for those Pick 6 bets, something I’d NEVER do in real life, but I suppose it’s a good start! Regular intrarace “betting” was putting out $207.20 and getting back $263.30, which is far more realistic for the sort of day I’d actually spend at the track.
But what was that I was saying about being able to bet online? Hmmmm…..