Handicapping 101: Introduction
Ray Cotolo
August 18, 2014
One of the most daunting tasks when it comes to handicapping for a newcomer is reading the program. Many times on this column I have referenced my experiences with a teenage population (a majority prefer to act lazily) not understanding the statistics within the program. The flood of numbers, fractions and abbreviations at first glance make reading the racing form seem like a boring experience. This series will review angles within the handicapping spectrum that I use, as well as others that my fellow competitors choose to use, too, all in the hopes to raise wiser gamblers and handicappers.
The main issue with teaching handicapping is that it's an art, where there are certain themes within every artist's (handicapper's) work that are jumbled into the final product. In turn, there is no wrong way to approach handicapping. Yet, before a baby can walk he must crawl. Translating to before we can interpret the program, we must learn its language.
Here is an example from a past performance program. Color-coded are the different aspects of the racing program, most of which are significant in the development of a wager. We'll begin from left to right.
Yellow - The yellow numbers refer to the date of the race in which said horse competed. Time of year can influence a lot in a horse's performance, including fraction times and, in the case of Foiled Again, form. A wide gap between races always deserve a second glance.
Red - This refers to the driver of the horse (not jockey, rider or some other "relevant" term). Drivers, on occasion, can be used as a handicapping angle. Though, they're all out to win, so a lot of times it's insignificant (unless you want to say hi when he passes). Sometimes, certain drivers can get more out of a horse than others, but it's nothing to get tangled up on when handicapping. Next to his name are his age (in the case, 25) and his silk colors (to assist in watching the race if the saddle color goes out of sight). After that is his record at the current track's meeting (Starts-1st-2nd-3rd).
Blue - The track in which the race was contested. This is a vital element in handicapping, as each track has its own horse colony, driver colony and classification system. Some tracks are faster than others, while others are more even. There are tracks of different sizes as well, which can affect a horse's performance. The sizes include circumferences of a half-mile, five-eighths miles, seven-eighths miles and a mile. There's also Colonial Downs, known as a thoroughbred track, but is a mile-and-a-quarter in circumference. Horses compete on a one-turn mile at the West Virginia track. The size of the track will usually follow the track's abbreviation.
Purple - The purse of the race. This can be used when looking at smaller tracks as a judgment to a horse's movement in class. This method, of course, is putting a lot of power into the track's race secretary. It's all hope that they know what they're doing.
Orange - The track condition. Common conditions include fast (ft), good (gd) and sloppy (sy). Occasionally, slow (sl) and snowy (sn) are also track conditions. What dignifies a track slow is not to my knowledge. As for snowy, I shouldn't have to explain.
Neon Green - One of the most significant pieces of information to a handicapper: the class of the race. The class is a level of competition. Mixed with the horse's performance in the company, it gives the handicapper an idea of where the horse would fit.
Pink - The fractions of the race. Fractions can explain certain moves by horses, including a horse fading drastically or hanging in his/her bid. Final times should never be used as a judge for a horse's capabilities, as there are so many other factors that go into that number. Yet, fast horses will always beat slower horses. Look around before picking the fast one.
Brown - The MOST important element in handicapping: the horse's trip. The trip gives the handicapper an idea of the horse's strengths and weaknesses. It also influences the fractions and the horse's classification. Also in the highlighted section are the numbers :27.2 and 1:51. Those refer to the horse's final quarter time, as well as the time he went the mile. Theoretically, a half-length equates to a fifth-of-a-second. Lengths can be found next to the big numbers in the horse's trip, which refers to the horse's position in the race (first, second, third, etc.). Also highlighted is the number 9.90, which is the price the horse was sent off in his last start (9.90 per dollar return, $1 bet pays $10.90, $2 pays $19.80).
Grey/Gray - The driver and the trainer of the horse in his/her last race. This is helpful when looking for driver and/or trainer changes for a horse, which are sometimes significant.
Dark Green - The horse's record, kind of like how in football a team would have played ten games, with four wins, five losses and one tie (10-4-5-1). Records are divided by the current racing season (defined by the year). The number on the far left refers to the horse's total starts, with, to the right, the number of times he finished first, second or third. After the record is the amount of purse monies that the horse earned this season or in his life. After that is the fastest mile he went for the season or his life, as well as the track at which he went said mile.
Darkish Blue - The top three finishers of a race. This can be part of an edge a handicapper can develop, as when following a track, most horses will compete week-week. Handicappers usually have an idea of the horse colony and can classify said horses. The top three finishers can also distinguish if a certain race was tougher than it appears, which goes back to following the horse colony.
White - To assist in the specific area of white, the area where Tr-Erv Miller is written. This refers to the horse's trainer heading into the race. This will confirm whether the horse has a new trainer or not. The numbers to his right refer to his record for the track's season (number of starters-1st-2nd-3rd).
It's a ton of information to fathom, but it's like learning a language (except easier). Those who enjoy puzzles, riddles and any other sort of mind game will appreciate the art that is handicapping, for in those instances where every angle aligns into a wager that doubles, triples or multiplies your investment by 1000% creates a feeling of genius, at least until your next bet, which could be another winner. The mystery of the outcome in which even most professionals cannot fully predict is what keeps handicapping interesting, as well as a never-ending line up of puzzles waiting to be solved.
Join me on my analytical journey so that one day, you too can achieve these feelings of superiority (responsibly, of course, and humbly, no one likes a show-off).
Ray Cotolo, long time follower of the harness racing industry, is a presenter on North American Harness Update.
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