Monday, September 9, 2013
By Jay Cronley
Special to ESPN.com
Sometimes handicapping turns out to be this simple: The more time you spend on a race, the more likely you are to hit it.
As the Breeder's Cup dates begin to loom and lure, this is a good time to think about the art of handicapping; and it is a skill, a talent, like anything creative. The witless and dullards have little chance, sorry. But unlike math or music genes, the horse race picking talent is environmentally generated.
To handicap horses to the best of your ability, you need to find a race that fits your eye. Golfers talk about that all the time. A golf course that fits my eye tilts severely to the left and has no trees, snakes or out of bounds areas. A race that fits the eye is usually one that evokes a winning memory. True, all races are different. As true, there are only a limited number of winning patterns.
The characteristics that are conducive to handicapping as well as possible are: imagination, guts, a sense of humor, and patience.
Patience is underrated. What's the rush? The next stop light will be red anyway. Technology is speed-based. It takes your computer 18 seconds to reach full stride? That's 18 seconds you'll never get back. Smart phones, smart pads, smart TV's, smart glasses, smart watches: dumb weekends home alone.
A betting race is not what they say it is on TV. A betting race is not one wherein all the horses look alike and can't be handicapped except by the stewards upon further review. There are two kinds of horses that make the experts look bad: value horses and horses in betting races. When you hear a public picker say it's a betting race, that's a strong endorsement of the favorite.
A betting race can have a 1-1 favorite in it if it keys a great Pick 4.
Having patience means analyzing every line in a race several times over.
The first question the patient handicapper must deal with is: Is the alleged favorite worth a bet?
All favorites are alleged because they start with the maker of the morning line. Guess what, sometimes people who set the morning lines bet. So who is to say what might motivate a morning line in the sticks.
It's probably human nature to play favorites. Most favorites are coming off wins. And the same thing happens so rarely in sports, there's even a technical NFL betting angle that relates directly to the game's unpredictable nature. Technical wagering angles usually appeal to the empty-headed. They're about charts and graphs and involve teams with players no longer on the roster. But the angle of opposite trends colliding is worth a thought. Gaming houses want more than the ten percent commission charged on losing bets. They want as much as they can get. They want 90 percent of the wagering public to be on lame favorites. Here's the NFL opposite trend theory. If an NFL team covers a point spread at home and goes on the road to play a team that just got blasted on the road and is returning home, take the bum. That will be the team that just got obliterated on the road and is coming home to take on somebody that was very impressive in its own house. Sure, this involves taking some really rotten football teams. Gambling takes an open mind and wallet.
Exercising patience with a horse race sometimes involves taking a break and returning to the Form in a different mood.
Here's an example of what focusing on one race can do.
Ten days ago at Penn National, I found almost everything a handicapper could want in a horse race: A bad favorite. A bad second choice. A bad third choice. It was a turf race that had attracted horses with fair performances on the dirt and below average outings in limited grass races. The top three or four horses didn't know whether to eat the grass or run on it. When animals with little to no experience on a particular surface are favored, it's a green light to keep handicapping. The one I like went off at 16-1. It had had a lousy post position and had run in the back half of its only turf race, which had been a lot better than this mix of wishful thinkers.
I looked at this race inside out, upside down, six ways from Sunday, and couldn't envision a single situation in which any of the top three or four horses could beat my 16-1 animal, which figured to close the deal like one of those Malibu Realtors on reality TV.
But as the horses entered the starting gate, The Feeling wasn't so good.
Every gambler gets The Feeling right before a contest is to take place.
You just feel that San Francisco will kick a field goal late to get out against Green Bay.
The Feeling can't be simulated. It's spontaneous. It's why the writer of a novel doesn't know a sorry effort is bad on page 4. The writer doesn't know a book is bad until page 404. You'd think somebody would say a movie was terrible on day one of a production. But sometimes nobody knows the truth until it's too late to turn back. With horse handicapping, The Feeling usually shows up when they're in the gate.
As my 16-1 horse stood attentively in the gate, I felt: I have been pretty unlucky lately. I felt: I sure hope some junk doesn't beat me by an inch.
The junk broke like it was in a land run.
It shot to the lead by five.
The race was immediately down to the junk versus mine.
It was one of those races where junk gets an uncontested lead. It could have been running on railroad ties and would have been hard to catch. It was one of those races where the best horse, mine, closes and closes and closes. And the junk slows and slows and slows. You know where the wire will light: on their noses.
We ran so much farther than the one on the lead, it was almost comical.
It was of course a photo. It had to be a photo from the middle of the back side onward, when it was obvious that we would either win by an inch or lose by an inch. There was no head bob to it. The one out front appeared to be so tired, its head seemed to sag lower and lower.
We lost by an inch.
This is an example of how you can be exactly right and exactly wrong at the same time, the curse of the game.