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An Essay on Handicapping

You often hear the term handicapping in reference to the act of determining which horse or horses a bettor prefers in a particular race. But the word itself probably derives from the long-time practise in horse racing of assigning weights to horses. To make the race more appealing to the bettors, the racing secretary would give more poundage to the better horses, thereby handicapping them. It’s an easy theory to understand. You might be able to run the length of a football field in less than half a minute; not so easy a task with an Amana refrigerator strapped to your back.

The great racehorse, Man O’War, won 20 of 21 career races and was often forced to carry 138 pounds, conceding as much as 32 pounds to the horses he would defeat. When racing secretary Walter Vosburgh informed Man O’War’s owner, Sam Riddle that, as a four year-old, Man O’War would have to carry more weight than had ever been put on a North American race-horse, Riddle elected to retire the colt.

When you handicap a race, you are, essentially, creating mental weights for horses, penalizing them for a wide variety of circumstances. Maybe the distance is wrong, or the post position makes it more difficult. The track surface many not favour a particular horse or a jockey/driver change is significant.

There are several things that sway me before I make a bet and the very first one is...the odds. Every time you put down your money, there is the very distinct possibility of losing it, so the most important thing is to get value for your bet. I almost always find a way to toss the favourite. The favourite is the horse that has attracted the most money from the crowd. If it wins, it pays the least because many shareholders get to cash on it. When I play, I want to have the biggest possible slice of the pie.

I will eliminate a favourite if it won its last race. I know that sounds counter-productive – after all if a horse won last time out, it must be good, right? Well, statistically, horses repeat their wins about 1 out of 6 times. If the favourite, coming off a big win is 2-1, you will cash $6 about once every 6 bets, which computes to a loss of $6, if you’re following. So if not the favourite, who else?

Check out how fast the favourite ran and see how many horses in the race ran reasonably close to that. If you use Beyer figures (for thoroughbreds), the difference between a 90 and an 80 is sometimes less than two lengths. A horse can lose two lengths in many ways:

  1. He gets bumped at the starting gate
  2. He gets carried wide into the turn
  3. He gets buried at the rail with nowhere to go
  4. He gets squeezed between horses
  5. His jockey is texting while riding and not paying attention.

Choose the horse you like from among the horses whose numbers are close to that of the favourite. Horses very often defeat the ones that beat them last time out. Shared Belief is a great example. In the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic, he was creamed twice in the first furlong, first by the eventual winner, Bayern and a few strides later, by Toast of New York, the eventual runner-up. The third place horse was California Chrome, who hit the wire almost a length ahead of the battered Shared Belief. When California Chrome and Shared Belief met again, it was Shared Belief much the best in the stretch, because this time he had not been pummelled like a piƱata.

When a racehorse is asked to win two weeks after running its most brilliant race, often around the far turn, the horse will turn to its jockey and say,
“Hey, I gave you everything I had...last time!”
Like most of us in the two-legged species, a horse’s physical and mental well-being is either going up or going down. Very few horses can win race after race after race. Often a horse bounces after a very good result, but because everyone who can read the form sees the terrific last time out effort, that horse’s odds get lowered and the value becomes unappealing.

One good thing to do when handicapping is try and figure out which horse is about to run a good race. A horse’s best race often comes after a race in which he didn’t quite have it all happening. Maybe he took the lead and lost it late. Maybe he ran evenly, but ended up three lengths back of the winner. Maybe he led for most of a seven furlong race andtoday he’s running at six. Maybe he was just ashamed of his losing effort and intends to atone today!

Now the beautiful thing about betting the horses is the wide variety of selection afforded the player. Betting to win is fine, but you can also sample the exactor, triactor, daily double, pick-3 and other more exotic wagers that offer wonderful payoffs. Each race can be analyzed to determine which bet is the best.

Say, for example the horse you like is 5-1. That means a $12 payoff for $2 if it wins. But if you look at the daily double prices and see that horse paying over $100 with everything in the second race, you’d be much wiser to handicap the next race, select a few horses that could win and take the intelligent gamble that after two races you will be much more enriched.

Being ‘alive’ in the double, by the way is one of the greatest thrills of horse betting. It’s 25 minutes of near ecstatic anxiety, especially if you have 3 or 4 horses on your ticket.

You can use a similar tactic with exactors. All racetracks show you the probable payoffs in exactors several times before a race. The horse you’re going to bet may be 5-1, but it could easily be paying $80 with several likely horses on the bottom. The great thing about tossing the favourite is that it allows you to bet several combinations with horses offering good odds and every one of those combos promises a greater payoff than you’d get with the low priced spread.

Above all, resist the urge to bet any horse that is under even money. Let me give you the perfect example:

In the fourth race at Tampa Bay, Harumi was the 1-5 favourite; she was a gut cinch and was paying just $2.60 to. And Harumi ran a brave race, resisting a vigorous challenge in the stretch to get to the wire first by a neck. Those who bet lots to make little breathed a huge sigh of relief...for about 30 seconds. The rider of the horse that came fourth lodged a foul, the stewards looked at the video and determined that Harumi interfered and placed her fourth. You can have the best horse and it wins and even then you might not get paid!

Summing up: Handicap as if the favourite wasn’t in the race. Choose a horse that will at least pay for your dinner if it wins.


(c) 2015 Ontario Horse Racing

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