As I get ready to make a wager on this year’s Kentucky Derby, I think back to the first time I visited a racetrack. My dad took me to New York’s Belmont Park when I was about 12 years old. Even then, I sensed that every bettor has a “system” — that is, a methodology to guarantee a winning day.
And on that first visit, I learned about my father’s system — a simple strategy that called for placing a show wager on the favorite, meaning if our pick came in first, second or third, we were in line for a payout. It seemed a surefire plan: How could the top horse fail to eke out at least a third-place finish?
Naturally, we lost our shirts.
In the decades since that visit, I’ve employed many other systems when I’ve bet on horses. And yet, I can count on one hand — actually, on two fingers — the number of times I’ve made money over the course of a day. Clearly, this handicapping business isn’t for amateurs.
But there are professional handicappers, as in people who earn their living playing the ponies. And if you ask them for advice, as I’ve done, they’ll gladly share some of the tricks of the trade. So keep these eight tips in mind when placing your bets for this year’s Derby — or any races down the road.
Buy the horse racing bible (and read it thoroughly)
Investors have their go-to sources for information (including, ahem, this website). And so do horseplayers — namely, the Daily Racing Form.
What makes the Form so invaluable is all the information it offers on every horse in every race, including past performances, pedigree and the jockeys in charge. These facts and figures (and I’ll soon go into detail about some of them) constitute the basis for how every professional — and many a smart amateur — handicaps a race. Some handicappers will devote an hour going over the Form for each race.
Understand that pace makes the race
If there’s a single factor that handicappers say shapes their view of how a race will play out, it’s the pacing. When a race appears to be dominated by speed horses that are known to rush to the front, a horse that usually hangs back may have a decided advantage. (The theory is that the speed horses will tire each other out by the time they reach the stretch.) Conversely, when a race has lots of “closers,” a speed horse may be the best bet. (The theory is that while the closers are waiting to make their move, the speed horse will have already opened up an unbeatable gap.)
But how can a bettor determine the likely pace of the race? It’s about carefully reading the Form, which not only shows how horses have finished in their previous races, it also shows where they ranked at each stage (beginning, middle and end, plus other points in between) of those races.
Be a value investor (er, bettor)
For handicappers, it’s not necessarily a matter of betting on the horse that’s “best.” Rather, it’s about betting on horses that are a good value — the racing equivalent of Warren Buffett’s celebrated value-minded approach to investing. Handicappers are hesitant to bet on favorites because they typically go off at low odds (and they win only about a third of the time), so the risk-and-reward equation is not an enticing one. Nor do handicappers necessarily like long shots: What good is placing a 50-1 bet if there’s really no chance the horse will win?
Ultimately, the ideal horse is one that goes off at higher odds than the reality suggests: Think the horse that should be 4-1 but is instead offering an 8-1 payoff.
Know when to ask: “Who’s your daddy?”
You’ll hear a lot of racing industry folks speak about pedigree, as in a horse’s father and mother. The belief is that success breeds success — or why else would there be talk of “stud fees” in the tens of thousands of dollars? Handicappers will tell you that pedigree counts, but mainly in instances where there’s not enough hard data to suggest how a horse will run. For example, if it’s the first time a horse has raced on grass (as opposed to the more standard dirt track), it might be worth seeing how mom and dad handled grass.
If you’re just placing win, place or show bets, you’re probably not a professional. Serious handicappers like “exotic” bets — that is exactas (predicting the top two finishers of a race in exact order), trifectas (top three) and superfectas (top four). Another type of exotic involves picking the winners in multiple races — say, a Pick Three (three races in order), Pick Four (four races) or Pick Six (six races).
The attraction is obvious: The more complex the bet, the bigger the payoff (some winning Pick 6 wagers have paid in the millions). Given how little a straight win bet typically pays, those bigger payoffs are often the key to making real money. And as my first-time experience at the track attests, trying to make money on show bets is an even more daunting challenge.
Don’t forget the jockey
In racing, horses don’t live in a bubble — they need a jockey to guide them from start to finish. And while handicappers will generally pay more heed to the animal than the man (or woman) atop the animal, they don’t completely ignore the jockey, either. One handicapper told me to look for a jockey with at least a 12% winning record. It may not sound that high, but in a competitive field, 12% is “a good thing,” the handicapper advised.
Be fashionably (and profitably) late
Handicappers aren’t likely to be the first in line to place their bets. And there’s a reason for that — actually, two reasons. First, since odds are constantly changing, handicappers can’t fully determine the “value” until it’s fairly close to post time — like the final two minutes. Otherwise, that 8-1 value-minded bet might end up being a not-so-valuable 4-1 wager. (Which is not to say handicappers don’t do their homework hours in advance. Nevertheless, they’re ready to adjust their betting strategy based on those last-minute odds.)
Also, handicappers like to take a look at the horses as they come out on the track — about 10 minutes in advance of the race. That allows them to see if the horse is happy and ready to go (an arched neck is a good sign) or if the horse is stressed (sweating or “foaming” is a worrisome warning).
The smartest bet may be no bet at all
Sure, it’s fun to play every race. But handicappers are a selective group — they favor races where there’s value and skip others where they just don’t see a risk worth taking. Of course, this advice best applies if you’re spending a day at the track and have several races ahead of you. With the Derby, you’re talking a single opportunity. Still, proceed with caution.