How to Handicap a Horse Race

Horse Wagering Handicapping

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Objective of Handicapping

Experts debate this fundamental question. You might think, "Well, it is obviously to predict the outcome of horse races." This very reasonable answer is largely correct.

But most track purists would quibble with it.

If you suggest that handicappers try to pick "the winner," the experts would say that you are off target.

The objective of handicapping is to examine horses, identifying those (note the plural) that have a chance (maybe large, maybe not) of winning a specific race. Then the objective is to quantify that chance, given the body of the race (the horses in the race), the track, the jockey and all other relevant factors.

What is the difference between these two approaches?

The second acknowledges that the betting odds as determined by the public may not reflect any given horse's promise of performance, and thus each horse must be examined separately in the context of the race and the pari-mutuel odds. Handicappers look for overlays amongst horses other than the expected winner. Predicting the likely winner of a given race is part of handicapping to be sure, but the task is by no means defined by that one pick. Much of handicapping relates to understanding how horses have run in the past, in order to predict how they will run in the future. All of this equips the handicapper to construct advantageous bets.

The true objective of handicapping, then, is to find betting propositions in which the public has made a mistaken gamble in the pari-mutuel odds.

How to Handicap a Horse Race

Assume for the moment that the fancier handicapping resources - the Ragozin Sheets, the Thero-Graph "figs" and the Equiform "Xtras" -- are not available and so the handicapping must then proceed in the old-fashioned way - from scratch.

Experts usually advise a person to start with a single track and get to know it well before trying to cover several tracks at once. This helps to limit by a little bit the large universe of relevant information. It is too late to start handicapping once you have arrived at the track or the book on race day. That time should probably be spent in structuring bets, based on last minute information coming in about the pari-mutuel odds, scratches, and cues picked up from the paddock and post parade. The job at hand is prognosticating how the race will go, not just who the winner will be. A win for a given horse is often more a product of how the race was run that just which horses showed up at the starting gate. Remeber that everyone devises a personal format for accumulating handicapping information and analyzing races. There is no "right way" to do it. Inevitably some approach using "pluses" and "minuses" will appear for unquantifiable properties of the horse or the race.

How to Handicap a Horse Race

  • Get to Know the Competitors - The first task in handicapping a race (not a horse, a race) is to look at the records and descriptions of the various entrants and decide which horses are likely to have an influence on the outcome. From the Beyers alone it may be possible to cull a few horses out of consideration who are just unlikely to run fast enough.
  • Visualize the Race - The second task is to try to visualize the likely shape or contour of the race from the racing profiles of the contenders. Is there a speed horse? If so, is there more than one? If so, is there a solid pace horse that would be strong in the finish? The pace of the race may be the single most important element of how the horses finish. A fast pace, set by a lone speed horse, will probably end with the speed horse winning. A fast pace, with a couple of speed horses, may cause them to fade, and open a chance for a stalker (or "pace horse") or perhaps a "closer"
    (come-from-behind artist). A slow pace will favor one of the faster horses, as they will surely not tire and be able to cover the distance faster than the others. This may seem obvious (though at times it is not all that clear): All that is required to win is to finish first, whether you are fast or slow. A "clunky pace" is more likely to cause a fast horse to win than in a fast-paced race. Who the "pace-setter" will be in the race is one of the first important decisions of the handicapper.
  • Consider the Jockeys and Connections - Consider next whether the respective jockeys will affect how the horses perform. Recall that the more "technical" the race (in terms of positioning and interaction of the horses), the more important the jockey is in the outcome. Give out pluses or minuses according to that. And while you're at it, do the same according to what your evaluation of the trainer's performance is.
  • Look for Unusual Items of Data - Look in the past performance data to see if there were any long layoffs, medication or bandages, or race comments that might suggest a physical problem. Look in the DRF or elsewhere for editorial content on the horse, the jockey or the trainer of horses in your spotlight.
  • Watch Out for Bounce - Also recall the concept of "bounce." If a horse has just run an uncharacteristically high Beyer, he may be underlaid, that is, overbet by the public so that the track odds are much stingier than they ought to be. He may "bounce" -- that is, return to his prior range of Beyers, or worse! A lot depends on how much rest the horse has enjoyed. Typically an unusually fast performance will really sap the horse's energy. Longer than normal recuperation is probably wise. In the same vein, if a horse has "bounced" in his last outing, the public money may be avoiding the horse, creating a possible overlay. By studying the pattern in the Beyers, as well as the strength of the competition, a horse that is prone to "bouncing back" may be a good prospect.
  • Consider the Track Surface - The shape of the race may be determined by the track surface, as some of the race entrants will do better (or less worse) than their competitors under certain track conditions. If the race shape turns out to depend on the relative speed of one or two horses, the track conditions may provide an edge to one or the other, or the track moisture may be a "leveler."
  • Does Post Position Change Anything? - Post position may be relevant in the outcome of a race. A high post position for a speed horse is usually a minus, as he gives up ground and has a harder time getting out in front along the inner rail. A relatively high post position for a pace horse (stalker) or a closer may be beneficial, as it helps keep traffic from potentially gumming up the plan for the race. Inside positions at some tracks are more affected by water than the outside, as the water drains towards the middle. An outside position on a muddy track may benefit some horses. Others might be bothered by an inside position on a muddy track, some not. It is also possible, that in a crowded field, a breaking horse will want to be in between two relatively
    slow starters, to give him more room and lower the chances of getting bumped off stride or caught in traffic. If the field is large, and the track supplements the usual starting gates with an auxiliary gate, the positions at the "seam" are roomier than the others.

Final Stage: Make Sense of the Research

Eventually, a pattern of preference should appear as among the horses entered into a single race. Many assign strength numbers or weights to the horses as a result of the process. It may be useful to try to convert this outcome into odds, like 6:1 or 3:2. The reason for this is two-fold. If the field has a complication in it, such as two speed horses, but no really reliable stalker or closer, then it may be hard to have a conviction about the order of finishing. By expressing this uncertainty in the form of odds, it allows the prognostication on one horse to be affected by feelings about another horse or horses. The second reason is that calculated odds can then be compared to, say, the morning line or the track odds. A big discrepancy between your handicapping and the public betting may disclose an overlay, where you may have positive edge or expectation.

Some handicappers like to cover up the morning line or track odds until they have arrived at their own prognostications. This is a question of discipline. Others will gladly consider
these third party numbers in arriving at their own judgment. This is a personal decision. It is always a good idea to see if the handicapper for the DRF has made
any commentary in print that is worth factoring into the calculus.

Confidence in the Conclusions

A big discrepancy between one's own handicapping and the public's betting might mean that the public is aware of something that you are not. It is always a good idea to review the bidding if the overlay seems very large. But a good handicapper should have confidence in work well done. Often the public is just wrong. Sometimes a horse can be "dead on the board" (meaning the winning odds are ridiculously high because no one is betting on it) and it nevertheless finishes in the money.

In this same line of thinking, you should notice whether the favorites are the type that seldom disappoint. They might be the favorites because the "smart money" is on them. But other favorites chronically appear because the public seems to like them, even though they disappoint with some frequency. When a horse was a favorite in a prior race, an asterisk appears in the PP data from the DRF. Before imagining that the public is right and you are wrong when you don't agree on the favorite, check the horse's past performance data. It could be the kind of favorite that breaks men's hearts. Whether or not one uses any more tools than logic, memory, "feel," observation, the DRF and the race book's summary sheet, the objective is to be more nearly right more often
than the public at large. Some of that public money just might be bet on a horse because of its name. That implies that even the beginning handicapper can find overlays to bet upon.