Off the Pace: 12 rules for handicappers

Handicapping is a tricky business, at least it is if you’re trying to make money doing it. Horsemen will tell you that to win a race, a huge number of things need to go just right, while to lose a race, only one has to go wrong. It’s like that for handicappers, too.

Still, it’s not too late for 2023 resolutions. Here are some suggested tactics to improve your handicapping this year.

1) Keep records

How many times have you asked a friend how they are doing at the track only to be met with a reply like, “I am about even”? Not only should you have an accurate accounting of your wins and losses, but more importantly you must also be able to segment that data. For example, what is your ROI per individual track, surface condition, distance and class conditions (etc.)? This will help you recognize your strengths and weaknesses as a handicapper so that you capitalize on what you do well and avoid or attempt to improve in areas where you are losing.

2) Limit the number of circuits you play

This will help you become a subject matter expert on things like biases and jockey colonies. A large percentage of handle at any track comes from bettors who are not as familiar with a venue as the individuals who watch every race and more importantly the replays of every race (multiple times ideally). If you play too many circuits, there will not be enough time to handicap thoroughly.

3) Handicap backwards the night before playing a track

Like you would do if you were studying for an exam, take breaks during your review of the form so that your concentration will remain crisp. In addition, handicap the races in reverse order. That is start with the last race first and then work your way through the card in reverse. There is generally more value in the last races of the day as bettors are often playing these races to get out from under their losses earlier on the card, and therefore overlays are quite common on some lower-price horses as bettors swing for the fences. Getting, say, 3-1 on a horse that should be 2-1 is a huge edge. You want to be sure your mind and analysis are the freshest when reviewing these races to spot and take advantage of instances when the final odds are more likely to be skewed in your favor. 

4) Make adjustments

On race day you should supplement your initial handicapping to take into account scratches, track conditions, odds (etc.). Don’t be so stubborn that you are 100% wedded to the previous night’s handicapping, but don’t ignore all that prep work, either.

5) Avoid jackpot bets unless there is a sizeable mandatory payoff

Jackpot wagers – bets that pay out only when there is one single winner – frequently advertise low takeouts, but since much of the pool usually carries over, the effective takeout is much higher. That offers no value to the winner unless by sheer luck you scoop the pool. But on mandatory payout days, especially when there is a sizable carryover, the odds swing to the bettor.

6) Look for carryovers in non-jackpot wagers

If the carryover is large enough, the extra money may offset the takeout and present the best chance for a fair return to the bettor. Takeout is a big challenge in playing the horses, and one way to even the odds is to find pools with plenty of OPM — other people’s money — before the day’s wagering starts.

7) Be your own handicapper

If you want to utilize paid or unpaid touts, only do so if they provide analysis with their picks and then strictly as a tool that may help you identify something you missed in your handicapping: Don’t play their picks blindly. Full disclosure: I generally avoid touts.

8) Look for races where you have strong opinions

Try to find a horse that you really like with fair odds, or better yet, races where there are vulnerable favorites.

9) Don’t bet the mortgage money

Handicapping is difficult enough without the added pressure of absolutely having to win. 

10) Put a cap on your losses

This can be done in several ways such as adjusting your settings on an ADW account or only bringing a certain amount of money to the track. Avoid the track ATM. Friends of mine call used to call it the “walk of shame” when someone headed to the ATM. Capping your losses allows you to avoid the truly disastrous day and lets you refocus on the next day when things aren’t going well.

11) Respect the streak

Increase your units wagered when you are on a winning streak and decrease them when you are cold. There is no quicker way to disaster then chasing your losses.

12) Skip more races than you bet

Your only chance to win over the long-term is by identifying races which offer value. In my experience this generally accounts for less than one-third of all races.

Like I said, handicapping is a tough business, and there’s no single way to ensure profitability. But following these simple rules will give you your best shot to let your good handicapping skills translate into profits.

Good luck!