Commentary

Valueless

Updated: July 28, 2014, 3:24 PM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

The "value" picture has taken on a life of its own and it is turning into a horror story.

For some while now I have written of the perils facing any handicapper searching for winners from the dredges of the "value" pool. "Value" hunting is simple. You forage through the sale racks and discount tables for the best prices. Whereas going cheap might work when shopping for Aunt Minnie's 80th birthday, it doesn't work in horse race handicapping. In a sport and wagering opportunity that places a premium on creativity and intelligence, it is unbelievable to find so many horse race handicappers, pros and rail riders alike, who base real-money selections on "value." It is elementary to deduce that horse ability should guide the eye of the bettor, not the need of the handicapper, not his or her desire to get even. Rule one in the Rules of Handicapping handbook, which contains four or five rules that must not be broken, is: Pick winners, not odds. Odds suggest how much to wager, not which horse to play.

All winners have "value."

The "value" bug has taken on epidemic proportions. Suddenly the mere mention of making a pick and a wager based on "value" carries with it the vibe of a hex, a curse. When I first began writing about picking horses, not prices, there was something of a confrontational element to it. People actually tried to make a case for playing a 10-1 dog over a strong 2-1 favorite, chiefly because winning $6 wouldn't pay their bills, never mind the fact that three 2-1 payoffs and a 5-1 shot in a 50-cent pick 4 almost always gets you well into triple figures. Gamblers who refuse to change their losing ways wind up filing the courage of their convictions.

Bayern runs to victory in the 2014 Haskell Invitational.
Equi-Photo/Bill DenverBayern ran himself into the 3-year-old championship picture with his victory in the Haskell on Sunday.
At the recently run Haskell, the place of "value" hunting in horse racing was on shocking yet predictable display. Rather than take satisfaction in the misfortune that befalls professional handicappers who mention "value" in a nationally televised race, I felt trepidation at the first mention of looking for a price. Four pro handicappers were on display at the Haskell. All four mentioned "value." The desire to make more money than what the past performances suggested caused two pro handicappers to offer exactas as their touts. By the time I heard "value" mentioned for the last time, an eerie sense of loss seemed to have settled over the race track.

Here's what happened.

The Haskell had a nine-horse field. One expert exacta that was offered for its "value" potential featured horses that finished fifth and sixth. Picking two horses that finished worse than fourth in a nine-horse field? Nearly impossible. The other exacta looking for "value" had runners that finished fifth and ninth, which is impossible, as this tout contained the 1-2 betting choices in the race.

There's nothing harder than picking horses with a nation of fans needing a few bucks. Picking in public requires courage and is a great public service, as numerous bettors will race to bet somebody else once a picker running bad has made a selection.

But at the Haskell, the mention of "value" was the quadruple whammy that handicapped the four experts.

The easy winner of the Haskell got to display beautiful uncontested speed.

Here's another place where speed on the lead occasionally works and rewards the unbiased handicapper. The difference in smart handicapping and "value" shopping is intent: looking for winners, no matter the odds.

Horses running free on the lead occasionally run much better than expected at one mile on the grass.

What could be more difficult to handicap than a mile race on the grass? Maybe the Soap Box Derby. A mile is a long sprint or a short route, flip a coin to pick the best running style. And I am one bad turf handicapper. I went to the machines after I noticed tellers whispering and grinning after I made bets on grass races. Big-time turf races feature horses and jockeys far too near the tops of their games to suit my eye, riders looking like electric horsemen flailing around in the saddle, deep closers galore turning on as many Photo lights as Quarter Horses. Then once upon a number of times I noticed that, despite all odds, speed often held at a mile on the turf, pure sprint speed stretching out a little, mostly, often first time dirt to grass. When you're in front on the grass, all that's thrown in your face are the screams of many: Please for once in your life don't quit! Something classier might catch it late. But sprinter speed first time on the grass at a mile usually pays, across the board, what the "value" players dream about. It's all I have this week, and it's a little something.

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