Saratoga Survival Guide Part Three – Ten Tips for Handicapping Horse Races
On Friday, the starting gates will swing open and thoroughbred horse racing will - for the 144th time - explode onto the Saratoga Race Course. Before you head up, do your bank account a favor and check out our ten tips for handicapping.
Everyone has their own strategy. Some bet jockeys. Some bet trainers. Some painstakingly sift through every detail of the Post Parade. And still, others bet on colors, or the fact that the horse's name contains two "E's."
If the pretty colors are your jam, by all means, enjoy it. But if you're looking for a more scientific approach, one that attempts to predict success based on something more than the resemblance of the horse's name to your favorite Jefferson Airplane song, then check out our ten tips below.
10 - Don't Bet What You Can't Lose: This from the unreasonably obvious department. This also from the be-a-grown-up department. The Saratoga Race Course is a place for limitless fun. Your bank account, however, not so much. If the choice is one more exacta or this month's rent, be a functioning member of society and go home.
9 - Jockeys: The horse does the work, but a jockey's importance is unspeakable. There's a reason names like John Velazquez, Javier Castellano, and Ramon Dominguez keep finding their way into the Winner's Circle. Negotiating animals this large through tight traffic is an art, and these three - most notably - are masters.
8 - Trainers: Like jockeys, the importance of trainers - who do so much more than don the impressive suits and saddle the horses - is unspeakable. Also like jockeys, there's a reason the same names hoard wins. Pletcher is the obvious one; others include Baffert, Brown, Mott, and Asmussen. Knowing a trainer's mentality can give you a big leg up, and the right pairing of trainer and jockey can be lethal - Pletcher and Velazquez, for example.
7 - Rely On Past Performances: There's an old saying in gambling: "Winners bet on trends, losers bet against them." I don't know if that phrase originated with horse racing, but it's certainly built a home there. In racing, there is no greater predictor of the future than the past. A keen eye - the kind whose skill has been honed over many a long night spent slaving over programs with the razor-sharp focus that only comes with an obsessive lack of sleep and too many cigarettes - can glean nearly all it needs to know by evaluating past races and finishes. Speed or closer, distance or sprinter, stud or show pony - it's all right there. So while there may be something to be said for the "Due Factor," in horse racing, your bank account isn't the one speaking up to support it.
6 - See the Whole Board: Often, amateur handicappers focus too intently on one evaluative criteria. They forget that handicapping is like chess - most of your focus should land on the King and the Queen, but to be the best, you need to see the whole board, to evaluate every permutation. In handicapping, past performances and jockey/trainer combination should garner the lion's share of your attention, but everything needs to be considered - breeding, distance, likely pace of the race, post position, track condition, etc. In a sport like this, you never know what will be the difference between first and last. Don't be the one who looks back and finds that he didn't even take it into account.
5 - Build the Race: It's the best way to see the whole board. So much can change race to race. An impressive winning streak needs little more than a hot pace to come crashing to the ground. You need to evaluate more than just wins and losses - you need to analyze each horse and decide exactly how the race will play out. Which horse(s) will be out front? Will the pace be hot and allow closers to run on at the end? Who are said closers? Where will each horse sit heading into the first turn, down the backstretch, at the top of the stretch, etc? Answer these questions and play the race in your head. Whomever you have hitting the wire first, there's your bet...Except...
4 - Play the Odds: ...When the odds tell you to stay away. Every bet is a balancing act - trying to find the optimum point between risk and potential return. It's a delicate cost-benefit analysis, but one that should play a crucial role in your gambling. A bet on an odds-on favorite has almost no risk, but almost no return. A bet on a 60-1 long-shot will provide great return, but carries insane risk. Both should be avoided in favor of a middle ground. Sure, you can rock a high winning percentage betting odds-on favorites to show, but if you're looking to win more than 20 cents a race, look elsewhere...
3 - Bet What You Think Will Happen: ...But don't reach for it (odds). Don't throw money at bets you don't believe in for the sake of the odds, the name, or whatever other alternate criterium you think of. The track already has a leg up; just by getting you in the door their halfway to claiming the contents of your wallet - don't help them out by making it rain on horses you haven't studied or don't believe in....Except...
2 - Box Everything: In exotics. Don't be the guy who plays a 2-3 Exacta and watches it come in 3-2. I've been that guy. You don't want to be that guy. Trust me, you don't want the kind of pain that brings. Finally...
1 - Trust Your Gut: Study, evaluate, analyze. But at some point, go get your daddy's shoes and just make the bet. Always remember, horse racing is a fickle business; there is no such thing as a sure thing, no matter how long you deliberate. Sometimes, the best you can do is just pull the trigger and hope.
Happy handicapping everyone. Check back with 1045theteam.com and follow me on Twitter for Saratoga updates and handicapping advice throughout meet. Good luck!