Day At The Track

Handicappers discuss wagering strategies

08:56 PM 02 Aug 2012 NZST
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While the handicappers participating in HANA Harness' The Pen vs. The Chip Handicapping Challenge sponsored by the Hambletonian Society, Meadowlands, Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs have been providing their selections on specified contest dates for those following the harness racing competition, the standings do not necessarily reflect each handicapper's ability to make a profit wagering on harness racing.

Let’s take a look at the standings in the contest through the first twenty-five wagering legs.

Position   Name                        $ Won             ROI

1st      Mark McKelvie               $737.10         1.050

2nd Chatsworth Consortium      $666.80          0.950

3rd        Pandy                       $639.70          0.911

4th     Mr. Trifecta                   $600.30          0.855

5th         Bobby Z                   $568.30           0.810

6th        Scott Alberg               $547.10          0.779

7th        Ray's Robot              $518.20          0.738

8th        Earl the Pearl            $490.90          0.699

Looking at this contest, you may be wondering why some of the handicappers are not doing as well as you would think they should be doing. Well, the truth is the handicappers are being constrained by the rules of the contest. First of all, our contest scores the handicappers based on a mythical $2 wager on each race when in reality, these handicappers may not be wagering on every race for various reasons such as their first choice turns out to be an underlay, another horse ends up being an overlay worth wagering on instead of their top pick, or the race is not one they typically would wager on; conditions which can’t be determined a day or two before race day when their selections are being made and they don’t have the benefit of seeing how the wagering is going.

Now, let’s take a look at the above standings, this time determining their rankings based on the percentage of winners selected instead of Win ROI:

Position        Name                      $ Won                 ROI             Win Pct

1st      Scott Alberg                     $547.10               0.779             35.90%

2nd     Mark McKelvie                  $737.10               1.050            35.33%

3rd      Bobby Z                          $568.30               0.810             31.62%

4th   Chatsworth Consortium         $666.80             0.950              31.05%

5th        Earl the Pearl                  $490.90             0.699              30.48%

6th        Pandy                            $639.70             0.911              28.49%

7th         Ray's Robot                   $518.20             0.738              27.35%

8th          Mr. Trifecta                   $600.30             0.855              25.36%

Looking at the win percentage, you see Scott Alberg at the top of the standings instead of his current sixth place position. Mr. Trifecta, who is fourth in the official standings, would be on the bottom of the standings if it was based on win percentage. So what can be ascertained from looking at these two sets of standings? While having winners is nice, it is quality over quantity.

While the contest participants are very good handicappers, what makes them successful is their ability to be successful gamblers. Make no mistake there is a difference between the two. A handicapper is a person who does a good job determining who the contenders are and which one is likely to win the race. A successful gambler is a person who is able to use their handicapping and money management skills to determine which horse(s) are value plays and determine when and how to wager using this information. Not everyone is a good gambler as there are plenty of cases where you may be a great handicapper but a lousy gambler. For example, what good is it to have eight winners on the card if at the end of day you end up losing money?

The nature of the contest requires the format which is being used and explains why many of the handicappers are showing an ROI of less than 1.000. So we decided to give the handicappers an opportunity to discuss how they decide what races and wagers to play. Here are some of their views.

Bobby Z. tells us how he plays his selections: Normally I would check the odds board around one minute to post and decide whether to play the top pick to win & exacta keys OR if my top pick is not one of the top three favorites, I tend to box all three of my selections in the exacta. On occasion, at tracks like Mohawk/Woodbine and the Meadowlands, I tend to play the multiple race exotics like the Pick-3 and Pick-4 using the top pick in the first leg and the remaining picks in the rest of the legs.

Earl the Pearl offers the following advice: My computer program is great for finding the logical contenders in a race. Picking the exact order of finish is not its strong suit, though. The difference between winning and finishing second or third is usually just who had the better trip. For this reason, I like to box my picks. My favorite bet is the triple, but knowing that there are many ways that a horse can find trouble in a race, I usually box my top 4 choices and hope that the one with the shortest odds is the one that has the worst trip.

Pandy is one that typically plays only certain races on a card. With my regular selections I focus mostly on my Best Bets or key plays. However, if I like a card at a particular track that I follow, such as the Meadowlands, I’ll look over my picks and check the odds board to see if there are any value plays. On my Meadowlands picks that are published by, I include my own personal odds line on my top 4 contenders, so it’s easy for me to spot a horse that appears to be a good bet based on the odds. I don’t always bet my top pick.

Once I find a value play I’ll decide how to attack the race. I like races where I feel there are only one or two horses that I have to worry about so I can bet exactas, but I’ll also play Pick 3’s when I feel that there is a false favorite in the sequence.

Ray Schell (Ray’s Robot) tells us patience is a major key to success. This game has three parts: choosing which races to play; establishing an odds line for playable races; watching the tote board (Win and Exacta) for value.

Two year old filly trotting races are fun to watch but not good for wagering. To be playable, you need races that are highly competitive and where several past performance lines are available for each entry.

If you feel a race is playable, you need to set some Minimum Acceptable Odds on your picks whether betting into the Win pool or on Exacta. The nature of the game today makes for rapid changes on these tote board odds in the three minutes after the track tells you there is 0 minutes to post [talking about those tracks which are known for delaying post times]. This means the timing of your wagers has become as important as handicapping. The Cardinal Rule is “If in doubt PASS, the next opportunity may be juicier and you can raise your bet. Scott Alberg, who provides Meadowlands selections for likes the more difficult races to handicap and he offers this advice for playing the Pick 4. The trick to making money as a handicapper is to rate each race in terms of difficulty. Obviously, the more difficult the race, the more likely you’ll receive a significant return on your investment.

So, for example, if you are betting the Pick-4 and the first two legs are extremely difficult, this is a beautiful thing. Let’s say you can easily narrow down the 3rd and 4th leg to two (2) specific horses each. Perfect! Unfortunately, however, these two horses won’t likely pay much; that’s not a problem. Let’s go back to the first two legs now. In leg #1, you like six (6) particular horses. Three are 8-1’s or better, two are 4-1 and 5-2 respectively and one is your likely 3-2 chalk. In leg #2, you like five (5) particular horses. Two are 10-1 or better, two are 6-1 and 7-2 respectively and one is your 6-5 favorite. Remember, since the first two legs very difficult races to handicap, it only makes sense to toss out the prohibitive favorites. Why? Because favorites win only 33% of the time and when a race is especially difficult on paper, get rid of the chalk because it will surely hurt the price of your Pick-4. In fact, it will considerably hurt your price.

So now you narrowed the field down to five horses in leg #1, four horses in leg #2, and two horses in legs #3 and #4 each. You’ve eliminated the favorites in the more difficult legs which is HUGE insofar as your ultimate payout is concerned. So… 5 x 4 x 2 x 2 = $80 Pick-4 ticket. With two likely favorites out of the money, your Pick-4 price can very realistically range from $500 to $1,500 or more!

To sum up, eliminate the chalk in the more difficult legs of a Pick-4 and don’t be afraid to go 4 or 5 deep in two of the four legs. With the Meadowlands Racetrack guaranteeing Pick-4 pools at $50,000 or more, the savvy handicapper can walk home night after night with a considerable profit by simply betting the Pick-4 utilizing the guidelines just discussed.

Mr. Trifecta provides some guidelines in determining which races to wager on: I typically handicap entire cards, not only specific races. This doesn't necessarily mean I bet all of those races I handicap. I need value on my picks. I want at least 3/1 on all my straight win picks. If I am not getting at least 3/1, I will not place a win bet. However, exotics are a different bird entirely. I will go down to say even money on my favorites as long as I am tying some nice prices 4/1 or better horses on the bottom end of my exotics or if I am boxing all three.

Beyond the odds of my top choice, I follow and watch the pools closely. If my top pick is coming in at 2/1 but the money wagered in the place pool on them is say 3rd from the lowest, I will put a place wager on that horse; the reasoning being if my horse does fall to 2nd, it may very well pay more than what his win price would have been. It isn't likely, but can happen.

The bottom line is handicapping is the easy part when it comes to wagering. How you wager is the key to success.

As a reminder, the contestants in The Pen vs. The Chip Handicapping Challenge will have their selections for the Hambletonian Day card at the Meadowlands available for view no later than Saturday morning at The next contest date after the Hambletonian is Monday when the Battle of Waterloo at Grand River is on the docket.

FFI – Contact Allan Schott at

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