Talking Track Part 2: Handicapping and Reading the Program
Playing amateur horseman at Saratoga can be confusing. What does all the random gibberish in that book mean? Why do all the horses have ridiculous names? Is that trainer really named McGillycuddy (Yes)?! Well ladies and gentlemen, with the track opening on Friday, I’m here to answer all your questions and teach you how to become a money printing machine. True, you may be printing for the track, but you’ll know what you’re doing at least! This is Talking Track: The Novice's Guide to Saratoga.
So I thought we’d start out with the basics. <--That's a horse.
What? You want to go less basic? All right let's move past that, but it’s important to always remember we’re betting horses here, people – no donkeys. Horse races are measured in furlongs. One furlong is an eighth of a mile and should be run in around twelve seconds by a decent horse – no word on donkey intervals. Races are run on either dirt or grass. It's important to check the condition of these surfaces before betting. Horses are temperamental and are known to check-out if on a surface they're not used to. Depending on the weather the dirt track could be in 'Fast' or 'Sloppy' condition, with the turf in 'Firm,' 'Good,' or 'Yielding.'
THE BOOK: Now, the best tool for any handicapper is “The Book.” Also known as the Past Performances book, it is available for purchase for just a few dollars. It is an absolute must for anyone who wants to pretend like they know what they’re doing. The problem with the book? It appears to be written in some sort of Elvish, or Klingon that you can’t understand. Seriously. Looking at the book the first time is best relatable to trying to see what’s going on inside the Matrix by reading the numbers. It can be confusing. But rest assured patrons of the ponies, I’m here to help!
This is a scanned copy of a book from last year. I used my arts and crafts magic to strategically place letters and help me explain its most important parts. So when you're through, you'll be able to look through it all and actually see what Neo is doing in there.
A. This is the type of race about to be run. This example happens to be a claiming race – one of the more common. Other common races include Maiden Races, for horses who have never won a race before, Stakes Races, which are the best races and are graded, with Grade I (Kentucky Derby) being the top flight races, and Allowances. The “Purse” will always be listed next to the type of race. Theoretically, the higher the purse, the more quality the horses.
B. As you should be able to deduce from the illustration, this is the explanation of what surface the race is run on and how long it is. You know what, if you can’t understand this one just start picking names out of a hat - this is as easy the book gets.
C. This area of the book tells you which bets you’re allowed to lose your money on in that race. What do those silly words mean? That’s in our next installment (tomorrow).
D. This section is going to be very important to many of you. This is where you’ll find the name of the horse – which is where you’ll go to find a horse to bet on after you’ve given up on actually handicapping.
E. This marks the name of the jockey. John R. Velazquez, named in this program, is one of the best jockeys in the world. Other names to look for? Keep reading, we’ll get there.
F. Letter F gives you the name of the trainer of your horse. Trainers are interesting. They’re like the Navy SEALS. You never know what they actually do, but you know they’re very important and you want the best ones on the job.
G. This represents the horse’s morning line odds, meaning the odds that your horse will win before anyone starts betting. Bigger numbers means your horse has a worse chance to win. For example, if a horse starts north of 30-1, chances on they’ve only got three legs…or something.
H. We’ve covered the basics, now we’re getting a little more specific. Feel free to check out if you’re the type of person who fills out their NCAA Tournament bracket based on colors and mascots. Letter H represents the horse’s past races - their dates, tracks and track conditions. Abbreviations for tracks and track conditions can be found in the front of the book.
I. Here we find the distance and intervals run in each of those races. Remember, a furlong should be run in twelve seconds, so keep that in mind when looking here.
J. Along the same lines as I, J gives you race statistics, but J shows you where in relation to the leader the horse was throughout the race. For example, at the end of the race (the last number) Cullinan was in third place and ¾ of a length behind the leader. The race before that, he finished second, one and a half lengths behind the leader. To the right of that number you can find the jockey who rode him in that race.
K. K brings us the top three horses in each race run (useless to anyone but a professional handicapper who would actually know each horse named) and a brief comment on how the horse did in that race. Look for comments like “finished gamely,” or “came on strong.” Avoid comments such as “tired.”
L. This section of the book will give you the date, track, distance and time on the horse’s last workouts. Remember again, a furlong in twelve seconds, so three furlongs in 37 seconds is a little slow but not reason for concern. Now, if he ran three furlongs in 46 seconds or something, you'll want to avoid that horse like the plague...because he might have it.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: As you work to dissect the book, there’s always a couple things you want to look for (without getting too far into specifics). Look for horses that are stepping down in class. If a horse has been running in $40,000 races and finishing well and is moving to a $15,000 race, look for him to be around the front. It’s also important to look for horses that have raced at the "Graveyard of Favorites" before. The surface and surroundings could be enough to spook some horses, so some experience at the Spa is preferable. A good jockey is also very important. It’s not always the case in sports that in crunch time you trust the smallest person on the field, but we do here. J. Velazquez is always a great bet. And never shut out Kent Desormoux – BET THE RENT ON KENT, BABY!
Trainer-Jockey combination is also important. For example, if you ever see a 7 furlong race or shorter with the combination of Todd Pletcher and J.Velazquez you bet it and you bet it hard. I don’t care if you saw another horse that you like in the race. You’re wrong. It’s a lock. Finally, you may want a good name. I mean hey, we’re all guessing here, no matter how much you study the book. Occasionally it may be the better idea to bet the horse named Pizza because you had Sbarro’s for lunch and it hit the spot.
WHAT TO AVOID: Avoid gray horses. The color gray has long been associated with mediocrity – horse racing is no different. Come on. <--That's not a winner. Also avoid horses stepping up in class. A horse moving up in competition is a good bet to get worked. Additionally, pay careful attention to the statements from the last race (remember, avoid "glue-pot"). Finally, never EVER bet Jean-Luc Samyn. Some people will say that you’ve got to bet Samyn on the Green. They’re wrong. WRONG.
So once you’ve studied the book and you’ve checked out the race from every angle, what do you do? Well, check in for tomorrow's article and find out the ten steps on making a bet.