Commentary

Busting bad streaks in the boondocks

Updated: August 25, 2014, 12:50 PM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

When a person who makes horse race picks on TV runs bad, there's no quick cure, no refreshing quart of beer to chug, no losers to survey for rotten selections, there's no place to hide.

Pickers on TV have only to throw cold water on their faces and put on fake happy expressions and get back up there after their top picks runs last and start trying to sell what feels like another lemon. It's like the TV weather person coming back on the air after an unpredicted deluge with this expression: Flood, what flood?

Bad picking streaks that center on the biggest thoroughbred races are hard to shake. A 10-1 prayer pick runs last. A favorite runs second in a photo. Now what? Handicapping beliefs become doubtful. Inside info sound iffy. And now let's go to our expert handicapper hitting his head on the rail. You're what? You're boxing five of them? Early in a bad streak, public pickers are prone toward becoming defensive. That's right, I might have missed the last nineteen predictions, but don't forget those two I hit in the spring of 2010. Public pickers find it difficult to take solace in the fact that they're providing a valuable service in tabbing losers, just about guaranteed. Being able to throw out a consensus pick of a race favorite from TV experts is golden. Horse race pickers who work in a print media have it much easier. They can cuss. They can hide. TV pickers on a bad streak have one of two choices. They can make fun of their misfortune. Or they can pretend that they have no memory of the most recent failed selection. Then, either way, they have to start picking favorites until something at 3-5 gets there by 20 lengths and the streak is, if not artistically broken, dented.

Here is the best bad-streak buster I have ever seen: Going cheap.

For some odd reason, many handicappers consider something like a turf race featuring ten horses that look exactly the same in the Daily Racing Form to be a "betting race." No solid favorite equals a "betting race." Four similar 5-1 horses says "betting race." Since when? That's a losing race that pays off on lucky number players. To me, a race that's impossible to handicap is more bad streak material.

Being able to throw out a consensus pick of a race favorite from TV experts is golden.

Here's a real betting race: It's a six-horse $5,000 claimer wherein the trainer of the favorite says, "I wouldn't bet that thing with your money," wherein two of them have front wraps that look more like little casts, whereby the second morning line choice is trained by a rummy, whereas the third choice appeared to have nodded off in the paddock, leaving me with only two horses to figure.

Here's a frequently asked horse race handicapping question: Why would anybody in his or her right mind play a small track?

There's one good reason.

It's easier.

Small tracks have a unique set of tells, or tendencies.

The last time I was at a live meet at a small track, I heard a trainer say to a friend, "I wouldn't bet him with your money," and turn and walk directly to a liquid refreshment stand. His horse went off at 5-2, broke last, found that location to be relaxing, and stayed there all the way around.

Sometimes a small track is like a D League basketball game. You can hear stuff from across the way.

It's true, strange things happen at small tracks. Here's what's often a winning move: a gate scratch. A friend of mine had a perfectly healthy horse scratched from the gate that was located way out yonder, on the other side of the track. The reason for the scratch was the jockey said the horse was acting nutty. The horse knew differently. The eventual winner broke first from the gate and had little competition in winning easily for the maiden special purse at odds of even money. The next time out, we walked as near to the gate as we could get to watch the loading process, and my friend's horse won easily. The angle, first back after weird gate scratch, is money. Here's another frequently successful small track winning effort: first time back after jockey falls off. Jockeys at small tracks will ride most anything once, but are not gluttons for torture. Any jockey who is bucked off and gets back on the same horse next time out is saying don't count us out just yet. For some reason, handicappers regard a lost jockey as being an indicator of slowness. What it is, is major trouble. New jockey, forget it, same old rider, it's a play.

You can multiply the negative side of bad stats by two at a small track. A rider or trainer with a 1-for-15 win record in the sticks is the equivalent of 1-30. Bad becomes horrific in the boonies.

Here's another winning tell. When a horse that can't win wins, there will often be another racer or two from the same barn that pull off miraculous upsets. I don't necessarily know what it means when a horse that can't win wins. I don't particularly want to know. People who play small tracks are aware that the odds of winners that can't win from the same barn go from something like 50-1 to 25-1 to 15-1. So it's important to play miracle-worker trainers early in their miraculous runs.

Here's something you can't do a thing about at small tracks: late money.

Late money is not smart money.

There's no such thing as smart money at small tracks. Smart money doesn't come from connections. Smart money comes from talented handicappers with lots of cash. They're watching more reliable horses. Hopeful money comes from connections and their friends and relatives. Small track hopeful money is based on what the rascals think their horse will do. Small track connections are often frightful handicappers. They know only their horses, not the competition. Plus, karma will always run you down over the long haul.

Sometimes late hopeful money will knock a 5-1 horse down to 6-5 and they'll beat you. Money is easy to bet late at a small track. It's like tie goes to the bettor: get the cash bet before the bell stops ringing, it's a legit wager. All you can do here is make a note of the chicken salad trainer and see if it's a pattern.

So the next time you're stuck in bad luck, think like you should have been thinking in the first place, think cheap.

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