In this new weekly series, handicapper and author Bobby Zen examines the art and science of handicapping horses.

by Bobby Zen

handicappingzenThere are dozens of ways to handicap the horses.  You might be a speed handicapper, or maybe you focus on pace.  Some folks build their game around class, trainers, or jockeys.  Others may use trip handicapping, or use their visual assessments of the horses in the paddock and as they warm up.  Some punters only look at breeding or workouts.  Or, heck, numerology.

You see this list can go on for a while, and I’m not here to knock any of them.  But you should have an understanding of your own handicapping style or process, and, more importantly, whether or not it works.  To answer that, I think you need to have results compiled over at least several months (or hundreds of races). We all know that anyone can have a good day and hit several winners, just as you can whiff an entire day.  So, get a good long sampling before passing judgment on any process.

Then, you need to sort out where your best performances are.  Once again, there are many angles to consider with these measurements, and you will want to track all of them.   These include surfaces: dirt, turf, all-weather, and off tracks. They include distances, class levels, track size (ranging from five furlongs around to 1 1/2 miles) — even the tracks themselves.  Some bettors thrive at one track they play and die at another; you need to know if you’re one of them.

I think it’s critical to know where your strengths and weaknesses are in this game, even though it may seem obvious. In the heat of the moment, it is easy to forget what you are best (or worst) at.  The fact is that if you are going to win over the long term, it will probably only be by a small margin.  So, one or two poorly placed bets can throw a winning day into the red.  I’ve been there and so — let’s be honest here — have you.

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  • TODAY: Understanding your own handicapping process
  • NEXT WEEK: Bobby Zen’s evolving process[/boxify]

There is another important reason to understand your style of handicapping.  You are going to go through streaks of winning and losing, and depending on what odds you accept, these streaks may last a long while. This has little to do with luck (in my opinion); it’s simple statistics.  Flip a coin ten times, and you might get heads nine of them, even though over the long haul, heads-tails is a 50-50 proposition.  So it is with wagering; your smart bets might all hit for a while and then all crash and burn for a while.  When you hit a winning streak, you may get cocky and careless with your bets. When you go through a losing stretch, you may be tempted to panic and throw your process out the window and start grasping for straws. Having solid beliefs in the process you follow will prevent this from happening.

I floundered with my handicapping style for a very long time, and am big enough to admit that I had more losing days than winning ones.  Okay, that actually translated to months and years of similar results. I started keeping good records about fifteen years ago, and wish it had been a lot sooner. I have a solid process of handicapping that works for me, and a good discipline of betting that I follow, to go with that process. Do I win all the time? Please! I am pretty conservative by nature, and my betting style matches that.

The fact is, if I go four or five bets on a track and get none of the results I expected, then I fold my tent and live to play another day. That doesn’t necessarily mean winners; it means the results I expected.  When I handicap, I will have an idea how the race will be run from start to finish, and when that fails several times in a row, I’m done for the day.  I don’t give up my process; I just understand it isn’t correct right now and concede to regroup for the next time.

In the next article, I will begin to cover that process as it stands for me today. Stay tuned, and we’ll see if we can help each other out.

Bobby Zen holds an MBA and is a professional handicapper and author.  His win percentage has exceeded 40 percent in each of the last five years.  Learn more at

(Featured photo by Laurie Asseo.)