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Monday, August 27, 2012
Easy Pickings

By Jay Cronley
Special to ESPN.com

Some kidding aside: Bad "expert" pickers continue to serve as a valuable handicapping tool.

And much of what is thought to be important in horse racing winds up inside quote marks, suggesting sarcasm, meaning it isn't important after all.

Take the Travers Stakes. Please. Take it and others like it to the bank.

This race was a classic example of the perils of being an "expert" picker. Picking the winner of a football game is hard, and that's only two teams. It's why during a bad streak with horses, a handicapper's thoughts drift to the Cowboys plus three with the Giants. Come on, it's only two teams, what's the worst that could happen, besides a less than even-money payoff over the long haul?

Imagine having to pick the winners of half a dozen football games to get paid. That's something like horse race handicapping.

Sitting alone and picking a horse race winner is difficult enough. Put yourself in front of an already angry public with Internet nicknames like Insanely Upset, and trying to pick horse race winners becomes one of the most difficult endeavors in sport.

Saratoga's standing back story is it's the graveyard of champions, of favorites. But like everything else in wagering, once a handicapping angle becomes obvious, it's endangered.

The coverage of the Travers had two themes running through the "expert" ranks, which extend from the barns to the microphones -- all that "inside" info -- the first being what a lousy favorite Alpha was, squeaky chalk against the blackboard of insight, to be sure. According to one "expert," not only would Alpha fail to win, but, moreover, it wouldn't finish in the top three. Some speed figure handicappers seem to have lost the ability to deduce and reason, elementary my dear horse players, when it comes to picking beyond the obvious. Listening to big, fat bold-faced speed numbers that say "Pick Me" or "Forget Me" is easier than thinking.

Alpha was said to have been too slow, even in winning efforts, to be a factor in the Travers; more deceptive numbers.

Reason number two for avoiding Alpha like the fake cheese dip was, get ready for this, weight. The horse was thought by some to be too light to carry what amounted to three more pounds than it had hauled around before.

Though numerous "amateur" handicappers like former NFL coach Bill Parcels and chef Bobby Flay said they were playing Alpha, the professional handicappers wouldn't lower themselves to even consider such a common favorite.

The "experts" liked Nonios and Neck 'n Neck, which were mentioned only as afterthoughts by the race announcer, as the tagalongs wound up in the middle of the pack and, judging by their exertion, were fortunate to finish that well. Apha closed hard on the outside and appeared to win, and did, but in a dead-heat with a long shot. Photo finishes can make nuts out of handicappers. I have seen people win $100 on betting the horse race, and lose $250 betting a neighbor on who won the photo. The cameras are usually up the track and appear to favor the outside horse.

Being able to throw out an "expert's" picks often still leaves you with half a dozen or more horses to consider.

"Experts" who regularly offer three-horse exacta boxes and super selections are invaluable when it comes time to run thick black lines through names in the program.

Here's when you go with a pick an "expert" has dogged: When the professional picker acts like the game is easy.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.