For Better, For Worse

June 1, 2011

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Monday turned into a mixed bag for this handicapper.  Thanks to some overmatched fields at Lone Star Park, I was able to pick a much higher percentage of winners.  But they were so much the better and such solid chalk that they failed to yield a profit.  Some helped with pick-3 or pick-4 exotics, but they are the kind of winners which will eventually break and disappoint the player.

When I first came to the racetrack and listened to players in the arena, I was amazed by the people who claimed to have cashed an unusually high number of tickets, yet came away busted or nearly so.  They were needing to borrow money for gas or a cab or a meal. After days like Monday, I think I see the trap into which they've fallen.

Some days produce such overmatched fields that the profit margin is very tiny.  Trying to beat favorites of that kind is an act of looniness.  Thus you are left in a pickle.  How do you make a profit on a day like that?  Clearly that sort of situation was the genesis of such plays as pick-3, pick-4, pick-5 and pick-6 (or CLASSIX as it is called at Oaklawn).  But you'll discover that the overmatched fields produce pretty small payoffs even in those multiple wagers, so you still have to look at other prospects.

One interesting play and one which requires some lengthy research is what we at Oaklawn call the "Steve Duell" play.  Named for a former employee, Steve liked fields of 8-10 where there was a decided favorite.  For the morning line folks, it means something around an even-money shot where the next lowest play is somewhere around 5-2 or 3-1 at the lowest.  Those favorites hit at a high level, so they are the most dependable of favorites.  They are the kind which lure heavy show wagers that create minus pools.

But the key here is to hook them in exactas with the runners in the field at odds of 10-1 or higher.  This past weekend, where there were very heavy favorites at Lone Star Park there were only two occasions where the basic rules applied and in neither case did the "Duell" system work.  But it's worth noting that when it does work, the payoffs are pretty good.  Here, as in all plays, the handicapper must apply some discipline.  You can't fudge and use a 7-horse field or an 11-horse field.  The system is for 8-10 horse fields.  It's fun and gives you more chance to score for a real payoff than just a win ticket.  However I'll be the first to tell you that I've not taken a long time to research this system.  I do know that you have to wait to play this system until there are just a couple of minutes left to post time.  Odds change alot in the last couple of minutes at many tracks.  I've seen it work recently, but mostly I've been disturbed by the short fields in so many races which don't allow the application of the system at all.

Short fields with heavy favorites often occur because of the short-priced favorite.  Horsemen know who's coming in for the race and often refuse to enter against them unless they owe the Racing Office a favor or if the race is a graded stakes and they're looking for some improvement in the horse's potential catalogue page.  At the marketplace buyers are enamored by stakes-placings even if they were in a race with a heavy favorite and a handful of "allowance" runners who have been added by the Racing Office to make the race go and save the graded status.

Nevertheless we're all seeking a way to deal with the hand we're dealt these days.  I know lots of believers in the various multiple plays, but I haven't found the Holy Grail of plays.  I do agree with the longtime player I most admire, who says "you have to hang your hat somewhere."  Where there are fields large enough to play, it does require you to "single" a horse to succeed.

It also means that you have to work the big tracks which have enough handle to create value whether you're playing a more traditional multiple ticket or doing something like the Duell System.  I cut my eye teeth at the smaller tracks of this country, but now I know that a player has a difficult time making a profit by spending his or her money in those spots.  The art of handicapping only pays off where the value can be created and it can only be created at tracks where the average starters top 8 or 9 per race.  Unfortunately often that leaves out California.  Bt they are very smart players in California, often play small fields and create little value, unless you're a whale playing huge tickets in the Pick-6. California is the one place where the Pick-6 has held its attraction over a quarter of a century.  Most of us aren't players at that level, so I'm inclined to pass playing at California even though I like to watch the races.

The conclusion, then, is that, while picking winners is important, making money should still be the goal of the horseplayer and there's more to it than being the best handicapper.  You will never play enough on a winner, but you can maximize the potential of your budget by finding a way to play that gives you a real chance.  Show wagering will never do it.  Win wagering on underplayed horses has a chance.  Multiples have a chance if you apply some real discipline.

But the difference between horse racing and many of the other forms of gambling is that it requires the player to develop a style.  Now my season total for picking winners is 40 winners from 122 races.  That is a solid percentage.  However the better than 30% winners has yielded a profit of under 9%.  In the last two weeks I have picked 14 winners from 37 races or very close to the desired 30% mark.  But those winners have shown a net loss of $4.10 for a $2 win ticket on each.

If we keep working at it, we may develop a style which works by the time Oaklawn 2012 comes around.  We'll try again this week.



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