The first time I visited a racetrack, I quickly realized that just about every bettor has a “system” — that is, a methodology to guarantee a winning day.
And on that first visit, I learned my father’s system — a simple strategy that called for placing a show wager on the favorite, meaning if our pick came in first, second or third, we were in line for a payout. It seemed a surefire plan: How could the top horse fail to eke out at least a third-place finish?
Naturally, we lost our shirts.
In the three decades since that visit, I’ve employed many other systems when I’ve bet on horses (and I typically make it to the track at least a couple of times a year, plus I sometimes bet online). And yet, I can count on one hand — actually, on two fingers — the number of times I’ve made money over the course of a day. Clearly, this handicapping business isn’t for amateurs.
Which may explain the rise of “professional” handicappers — bettors who actually make a living out of playing the ponies. In fact, there’s now even a reality show, Esquire Network’s “Horseplayers ,” that documents their successes (and their struggles).
So, with the Belmont Stakes — the third leg of racing’s fabled Triple Crown — set for this Saturday, I decided to find out how the pros do it. Top handicappers may not reveal all the tricks of the trade, but they will certainly share some basic tips. I took what I gleaned from my conversations with them and boiled it down to these eight ways to increase your odds at the track.
Buy the horse racing bible (and read it thoroughly)
Investors have their go-to sources for information (including, ahem, this website). And so do horseplayers — namely, the Daily Racing Form. “It’s essential,” says Jonathon Kinchen, a handicapper who’s been in the top ranks in the National Handicapping Championship (the horseplayer equivalent of the World Series of Poker).
What makes the Form so invaluable is all the information it offers on every horse in every race, including past performances, pedigree and the jockeys in charge. These facts and figures (and I’ll soon go into detail about some of them) constitute the basis for how every professional — and many a smart amateur — handicaps a race. Kinchen says he typically devotes an hour going over the Form for each race.
Understand that pace makes the race
If there’s a single factor that handicappers say shapes their view of how a race will play out, it’s the pacing. When a race appears to be dominated by speed horses that are known to rush to the front, a horse that usually hangs back may have a decided advantage. (The theory is that the speed horses will tire each other out by the time they reach the stretch.) Conversely, when a race has lots of “closers,” a speed horse may be the best bet. (The theory is that while the closers are waiting to make their move, the speed horse will have already opened up an unbeatable gap.)
But how can a bettor determine the likely pace of the race? It’s about carefully reading the Form, which not only shows how horses have finished in their previous races, it also shows where they ranked at each stage (beginning, middle and end, plus other points in between) of those races.
Be a value investor (er, bettor)
For handicappers, it’s not necessarily a matter of betting on the horse that’s “best.” Rather, it’s about betting on horses that are a good value — the racing equivalent of Warren Buffett’s celebrated value-minded approach to investing. Handicappers are hesitant to bet on favorites because they typically go off at low odds (and they win only about a third of the time), so the risk-and-reward equation is not an enticing one. “In the long run, you will cash more tickets but lose money,” says David M. Reiss, a California-based psychiatrist who has owned racehorses and follows the field closely. Nor do handicappers necessarily like long shots: What good is placing a 50-1 bet if there’s really no chance the horse will win?
Ultimately, the ideal horse is one that goes off at higher odds than the reality suggests — say, the 4-1 horse that’s offering an 8-1 payoff.
The horse can be a favorite — indeed, some handicappers thought that Triple Crown contender and Belmont Stakes favorite American Pharoah was a relatively good value when he went off at nearly even odds during this year’s Preakness. By contrast, at the Belmont, odds makers already have American Pharoah as a 3-5 bet (and the odds could go lower by post time). “He’s not a win bet because he doesn’t offer any value,” says Matt Bernier, a handicapper with the Daily Racing Form.
Know when to ask: “Who’s your daddy?”
You’ll hear a lot of racing industry folks speak about pedigree, as in a horse’s father and mother. The belief is that success breeds success — or why else would there be talk of American Pharoah’s stud fees starting at around $60,000 (or roughly $6 million a year if you add up all that “studding”)? Handicappers will tell you that pedigree counts, but mainly in instances where there’s not enough hard data to suggest how a horse will run. For example, if it’s the first time a horse has raced on grass (as opposed to the more standard dirt track), it might be worth seeing how mom and dad handled grass.
But once a horse has a literal track record, pedigree matters less, handicappers say. “Progeny is most important when they’ve run only a couple of times,” says Peter Rotondo, vice president of the Breeders’ Cup, a prestigious series of races.
If you’re just placing win, place or show bets, you’re probably not a professional. Serious handicappers like “exotic” bets – that is exactas (predicting the top two finishers of a race in exact order), trifectas (top three) and superfectas (top four). Another type of exotic involves picking the winners in multiple races — say, a Pick Three (three races in order), Pick Four (four races) or Pick Six (six races).
The attraction is obvious: The more complex the bet, the bigger the payoff (some winning Pick 6 wagers have paid in the millions). Given how little a straight win bet typically pays, those bigger payoffs are often the key to making real money. (And as my first-time experience at the track attests, trying to make money on show bets is an even more daunting challenge.)
Don’t forget the jockey
In racing, horses don’t live in a bubble — they need a jockey to guide them from start to finish. And while handicappers will generally pay more heed to the animal than the man (or woman) atop the animal, they don’t completely ignore the jockey, either. As a rule of thumb, Rotondo says he looks for jockeys who have at least a 12% winning record. It may not sound that high, but in a competitive field, 12% is “a good thing,” says Rotondo.
Be fashionably (and profitably) late
Handicappers aren’t likely to be the first in line to place their bets. And there’s a reason for that — actually, two reasons. First, since odds are constantly changing, handicappers can’t fully determine “value” until it’s fairly close to post time — like the final two minutes. Otherwise, that 8-1 value-minded bet might end up being a not-so-valuable 4-1 wager. (Which is not to say handicappers don’t do their homework hours in advance. Nevertheless, they’re ready to adjust their betting strategy based on those last-minute odds.)
Also, handicappers like to take a look at the horses as they come out on the track — about 10 minutes in advance of the race. That allows them to see if the horse is happy and ready to go (an arched neck is a good sign) or if the horse is stressed (sweating or “foaming” is a worrisome warning).
The smartest bet may be no bet at all
Sure, it’s fun to play every race. But handicappers are a selective group — they favor races where there’s value and skip others where they just don’t see a risk worth taking. And races like the Belmont Stakes can be especially problematic because of the aforementioned problem of very low-paying favorites. The bottom line is to pick your targets carefully. “You are much more likely to win if you invest more in a horse or a race that you really like as opposed to spreading your money thin over several races,” says Darin Zoccali, a handicapper with New Jersey’s Meadowlands Racing and Entertainment track.