Thursday, February 22nd, 2018

10 Handicapping Myths That Won’t Die

Published on April 11, 2014 by   ·   No Comments

As we close in on the Triple Crown, it seems like a good time to offer sort of a review of basic handicapping concepts for newer players that will also serve as a memory-jogger or reminder for more experienced players that plan to bet on Kentucky Derby races this year. You know if that’s you, and you also know we all need a little mental poke like this every now and then. This list is not an exhaustive one, but points out some of the more flagrant racing mis-beliefs that just won’t go away.

MYTH # 1: The fastest horse always wins the race.
In a sense this has to be true, but I’m talking about the trap that every handicapper has fallen into at least once in his or her racing experience: betting on the horse that has the highest speed figure in the last race or two without taking into account other factors that can negate those figures. What can go wrong?

Form cycle indicates a less than top run today. Physical condition. Racing way over the proper class level. Unfavorable distance. Unfavorable surface. The list goes on.

I’ve been playing this game since 1992 and I’m still amazed today when I hear the bellyaching of players with more years in the sport than I have, complaining “Dammit, A beat B last time and B beat C last time, so A should have beaten C today! The race must have been fixed.” But I bless them anyway, because without them, the odds wouldn’t be as good on The Right Horse!

MYTH # 2: Class always beats speed.
A seemingly sacred platitude that has been diminished by both time and the economy. $7,500 claimers may be really $12,500 or $3,500 animals. Over the last ten years or so, the value of horses has been inflated just as the value of many products and services has been inflated. Trainers run their stock less according to claiming value than where they can place their animals for “conditioning” races to keep them in shape or against fields which they “handicap” that their horses can beat when they’re at the top of their game.

Because of difficulty in filling fields at many tracks, lower-level allowance races are including conditions that admit less-accomplished horses simply to avoid short fields with ridiculously low-paying mutuels or even negative pools that result in tote boards being lit up with multiple payoffs of $2.10.

And in claiming and maiden races, class is muddied even further with the influx of decent-sized purses at smaller tracks with casinos, dumping really good money into purses for not-so-really good cheap runners. As an owner (or trainer), reading the condition book, you’re going to shoot for the largest purses. “Claiming 6,500” at one track and “Claiming 10,000” at another with the first track offering a purse of $10,000 and the second, $7,500 will definitely affect placement of horses. Without such knowledge, traditional class handicapping becomes more mysterious and sometime seemingly illogical as well.

MYTH # 3: Just follow the top trainers to make money.
Follow them where? To the betting windows? Good luck! The tote board often says what everyone already knows about top trainers’ most recognizable training patterns. Constantly betting favorites almost never ever produces meaningful profits over the long haul.

The headlines spotlight “hot barns” and “top trainers” who year-in and year-out win between 20-25% of their races. Just turn the numbers around. The best trainer lose between 75% to 80% of every 100 races they enter. Not so sweet-sounding, is it?

MYTH # 4: Just bet on the top jockeys in each race.
The basic concept detailed for top trainers also applies to top jockeys. Jockeys are human; they have their good days and bad days. Health, mental condition, personal events in their life, and even the occasional clash with fear of major injury of death aboard their horses in troubled races can all contribute to hot and cold cycles. We’ve seen some of the biggest names fall victim to tough, sometimes losing battles, with drugs, for example.

MYTH # 5: Horses who race well on muddy or sloppy tracks will probably do better on turf than horses without proven “off” track ability.

The theory says that a horse’s turf-running ability is inherited from bloodlines that do well on turf, and tied in to that is the concept that hoof conformation makes great turf horses. If this is true, the chances for horses who run well on “off” dirt tracks to run well on the grass are simply nonexistent.

A horse may run well in the mud and hate the grass; or run well in goo because the trainer is smart enough to pay the farrier’s fee to put the right shoes on the horse to have traction in the slop. Generalizing a myth like this is sloppy in and of itself!

MYTH # 6: A lone front speed sprinter is the best bet to win when he is entered in a route with no other sprinters.
Lone front speed wins and wins often. But to ignore one of the few constants in racing-that each horse does have a preferred running distance-is usually dangerous and foolish.

MYTH # 7: Sprinters who show closing ability in a sprint are great bets when they route.
It takes an exceptional horse at any level of racing–claiming through stakes competition–to run well at different distances. A good racing TRUTH to remember to note and follow the few horses who can win at varying distances, carefully noting the conditions under which they win.

MYTH # 8: Pace figures using beaten lengths are superior to speed figures for handicapping because they are more accurate.
The proliferation of pace handicapping in the ’90’s to a large degree used compounded numbers and figures that were essentially nothing more than speed ratings for different segments of a race.

The problems with “accurate” measurements for race times should be obvious: different run-up times out of the gate before the first timer starts recording running time; the non-uniform reporting of times in fifths at one track and hundredths at another (with measurements that should be rounded down instead of up when you’re converting to fifths, but usually aren’t); the never-ending argument over the speed figure methodology of the Daily Racing Form; and the various theories over the length of a horse for handicapping purposes and the “value of a length” as well.

Truth is, the best anyone can do is a reasonable and consistent estimate, basing decisions on clear-cut advantages rather than accepting that a horse rated at 52.89 is seriously better than one in the same race who rates 52.11.

MYTH # 9: Weight is important as a handicapping factor.
If there’s one factor that could be called the least important, most negligible fact of handicapping, this it IT!
The real-world history of racing is filled with examples of this myth, and the on-paper world of statistical studies that have been replicated many times, show how big a myth this one really is!

The immediate challenge of myth-preservers, of course, is the response, “Then why do trainers pay such close attention to it, and why is a factor in the conditions of racing such as weight-off allowances?”

The answer is: tradition and complete ignorance of what the facts have shown. Amazing? Maybe not that much. How much of your own life that was shaped by your parents do you still carry around today? Didn’t the sun used to revolve around the earth? Wasn’t the world flat once? It took years before people accepted the notion that eating wolf apples would not poison and kill you. Maybe it was after that was finally accepted we stopped calling them wolf apples and started calling them tomatoes.

MYTH # 10: All races are fixed, anyway!
Perhaps we should include as 10-A the corollary “NO races are fixed!”

All races are not fixed. If they were, handicapping would be a total waste of time. To say the opposite, though, would be to ignore the reality that surfaces from time to time, usually in the form of news that perpetuates the image of racing as a seedy enterprise.

In his excellent book, Handicapping Magic, Michael Pizzolla uses an original to explain why the best-reasoned, insightful handicapping fails when a horse that just doesn’t figure knocks your handicapping down: SW3.
SW3 stands for Some Will. Some Won’t. So What?

You win or you lose. A horse performs the way you expect or he doesn’t. A race runs the way you think it should or it doesn’t. So what?

Honest or fixed, there’s another race, another day. In the long run, whether you lose because of an intentional stiff, because a horse is not in top shape although he may look great on the track, because the jockey misjudged the running of the race, because the speed figures you used weren’t accurate … so what?

Taking into account the fact that you will always have some things that are beyond your control is an important handicapping guideline in itself.

Remembering that and the handicapping myths that won’t die will help your attitude towards the game, whether you’re a new player or a seasoned veteran.

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