April 12th, 2019
A Win is A Win
By: Jonathan Stettin
In these times of most wagering being done off track through ADW’s and simulcasting, we miss a lot of the true day to day racetrack experiences. As someone who went to the track literally every racing day for decades, I can say confidently it was a world within itself with a full cast of Damon Runyon characters, and all the stories and tales that go with them.
Those experiences are hard to explain or share with the new generation of players, even those who frequent the tracks on weekends. Sure, you still have a die-hard few every day regulars, but through attrition and poor management, they are fading away fast and not being replaced.
Playing the races is one of the few experiences where winning can feel like losing. Have you ever singled a horse in a multi-race wager and have it win at a price but you were already knocked out of the sequence? If you bet that horse to win, as I likely would in that scenario, and get your money back with a small profit, it feels like a loss.
If you have ever been alive with two horses to close a pick 6, one paying 50k, the other paying 250k and the smaller one noses out the longer one, you’ll win but feel like you lost.
The Sport of Kings affords many of these scenarios. Fortunately, there is indeed a fair share that tip in our favor as well. At the end of the day however, a win is a win. Be grateful for them.
A term I grew up hearing among hardcore race trackers that I rarely hear today is “bail out.” The once frequently used term that I still personally use, as old habits do die hard, describes being down or losing a considerable amount of money on the races, then winning it back on the last race or sequence. It’s a wonderful feeling, to get your own money back as we used to say. Even if you come up a little short, say winning back $4,700 of a $5,000 deficit, it feels like a win.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. I have been a very disciplined player for a long time. Unless you're well is bottomless that is a requirement for long term survival and profitability. That said however I have at times done what was necessary to “bail out” as have many of us hardcore players. Some of these stories are true racetrack classics.
When I used to go to the races every day, most with my Dad, I would bet a lot more than he would and a lot more aggressively. On one of those days at the now gone and all but forgotten Calder, I was losing several thousand dollars on the day. I really did not like anything in the last race being simulcasted from Belmont, and I was pondering whether to hit the ATM to try and bail out. While pondering my Dad must have read my face and asked how much I was down.
"You don’t wanna know," I replied. He knew what that meant, and I followed with, "I'll be right back."
"Where are you going," he asked.
I said, "The ATM."
"How much money do you have?"
"$7," I answered, "not enough to try and bail out."
"Give it to me," he said, and I did.
My Dad, who I always called Giuseppe, looked deep into his racing form. He motioned the roving teller Christine over and bet seven $1 superfectas. I did not think there was much hope, and I was sure I should have hit the ATM and handled this myself.
The race went off, and I watched on the small TV on our regular table with a defeated feeling. To my surprise, Giuseppe nailed the super. I don’t remember the horse, though I wish I did, but Jorge Chavez rode him. The superfecta netted Giuseppe almost 8k for the $1 bet. He collected with Christine, gave her $100, took $200, and put the rest on the table and said “never forget the time I bailed you out with $7.”
I never forgot.
April 5th, 2019
The Derby Horse
By: Jonathan Stettin
On Saturday the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, and Santa Anita Derby will be run. Kentucky Derby points will be had, and there will be a more focused picture of who the favorite will be on the first Saturday in May. We will still have the Arkansas Derby and Lexington to go, but we should have a good idea where most of the contenders are at.
Many have already zoned in on a horse or two they like in the Run for the Roses. Some may have even made an advance wager or two. While I do have three horses on my radar, Tacitus, Code of Honor, and Bourbon War, I have many more on my pretender list.
I have some things I like to see, and that I look for when scouting a Derby horse.
First I like a horse that has shown raw ability. I like to have seen a quality race around two turns, and I am not all that concerned with the competition. These three year olds fluctuate this time of year, so I look more at the race than the field depth.
I will almost always make note of a horse that showed some agility like zigging in and out and between horses. That’s a big positive for me, and Animal Kingdom became my top choice when he won because of that at Turfway Park on a synthetic track. I look at the individual race and horse.
Courage is also high on my list. Very high. I like a horse that is not afraid or hesitant to go through a hole or charge up the rail a la Tacitus in the Tampa Bay Derby.
Horses who ran decent or better against a bias is a good indicator for me. Code of Honor and Bourbon War both made up ground against a lone speed in Maximum Security who was able to set a very slow pace. He figured to draw off after a half in 48 plus; the other two had better set ups for the big dance in my opinion.
Horses I tend to downgrade are horses coming off races like Maximum Security ran. He got a lot of hype and attention, but as aforementioned he set a slow pace. He had a maiden chasing him. The race looks better than it was and will decrease his value come Derby Day. I’ll downgrade any horse who rode a true bias or pace advantage to victory.
I don’t like hiccups leading up to the Kentucky Derby. Missed races or workouts are a negative for me. I’d have to really be impressed with one to overlook that.
Steady and gradual improvement means more to me than big jumps in figures. I look for a horse who will peak, not who has peaked.
Rules were made to be broken. I pay little attention to dosage, Beyers, or Apollo curses. If the horse I land on comes from Dubai where you can’t win from so be it. I am not phased on any given Saturday, especially if the price is right. Hey, I bet Thunder Snow in the Derby knowing he had a big race in him. Wrong race but he had it in him for sure.
This is a fun time of year in the Sport of Kings. We have a lot of homework to do. The best opinion is your own. Go with it. Listen to some sharp ones but let yours be the sharpest.
March 29, 2019
As May Approaches
By: Jonathan Stettin
This is usually the time of year racing fans, and bettors alike are filled with excitement as the first Saturday in May is approaching fast. The top three-year-olds are sorting themselves out in the Kentucky Derby preps, and we get to hone in on who we think are the contenders, pretenders, and maybe even a leading candidate. As if that was not enough, the gals are going through the same with most hoping for a shot at the Kentucky Oaks on the Friday before the Derby.
This year is a little different, but for the most part, we shall ignore that. The build-up is suffering through some distractions due to the state of racing and all the issues surrounding it magnified by what is going on in California. The racing industry is continuing to erase any hope they can govern themselves, and that different venues and jurisdictions can cooperate with one another. There was never a more desperate time for a centralized governing body led by a commission made up of people from all areas of the sport including but of course not limited to bettors. Remember the Horse Racing Integrity Act is floating around again, so we are on the government radar, and we already saw greyhound racing banned in Florida this year.
Now back to Derby season. There was a video floating around social media the other day showing Hidden Scroll being taken to the gate and then removed a few times. Most people who watched it and commented did not like what they saw and questioned what was going on. I saw comments like jittery and nervous and questions about the small amount of lather in his neck. I’d like to use this as an example of why right or wrong you have to trust your own eyes. I liked what I saw — a lot. I’m not saying he is my Florida Derby or Kentucky Derby choice, but what I saw will bolster my opinion of his chances not detract from them.
I know Bill Mott and how he trains and the type of horseman he is. I believe I know exactly what he was doing and why and have no need or desire to ask.
We all saw Hidden Scroll in the Fountain of Youth. He was green and keen and set some fast splits after rushing to the top following a less than ideal getaway. Those of us who closely follow the sport know he was being trained behind horses in the morning following that race to get him to relax and finish. What those who watched saw at the gate was more schooling. The lather was not enough for concern especially given the Florida heat and humidity. A horse equates going to the gate with charging out of it. Some, especially aggressive ones, as we know Hidden Scroll is will get anxious as they approach it. That’s what I saw. Hidden Scroll got a bit hot and keen as he neared the gate and as he was backed in and out of it a few times before being taken back to the barn.
What ideally follows is a horseless likely to get worked up going to the gate in the future as now they are not thinking automatic charge. They can take it more in stride, and gate issues become less likely. This is a young lightly raced and inexperienced horse on the Derby trail. He was being taught and schooled. Again I liked what I saw and won’t be surprised if he breaks better and is more willing to settle. He’s learning. Some can’t or just never do, but we do not know that about him yet, and it was interesting for me to watch a master like Mott at work with a colt like this.
This year is especially exciting for me. If they ran for the roses tomorrow, I do not know who the favorite would be, or if they would be less than maybe 5 or 6-1. That means we could be looking at a wide-open affair with great wagering odds and opportunities across the Derby board. This after our fair share of some easily predictable and “in form” winners over the past few years with horses like California Chrome, American Pharoah, and Justify.
In years like this, I can’t help but think one of those old Kentucky Derby rules might go down in flames. Maybe we get a winner from Dubai, Europe, Japan, or something odd like that. There is still time for someone to emerge as a solid choice, but it is shortening fast. Stay tuned.
March 22, 2019
By: Jonathan Stettin
Santa Anita, and we have to at least guess other Stronach Group tracks in the future, are going to a new whip or riding crop rule. A padded crop will only be allowed for corrective measures. This is something we can live with although it goes beyond other jurisdictions that limit how many times a horse can be hit, and where on their bodies.
Let’s start with this. Riding crops, or “whips” should not hurt or cause injury. It is a slight momentary attention getter on a large and powerful animal. Have they been misused, overused and even caused an injury on occasion? Yes. Sure, but what has not been misused at some time or another.
The racing industry as a whole, cannot agree on much lately. That said, I do not know many people in the game who do not already feel stewards have way too much discretion and subjectivity already. Furthermore, it is the widespread opinion of most of whom I feel have good opinions on this sport, that more often than not stewards get it wrong. Southern California stewards probably are the front runners in the getting it wrong category, but there is a lot of competition.
Gone are the days of seeing an inquiry go up, watching the head-on view, and pretty much knowing what would happen next. Good luck with that. Today if an inquiry goes up involving me, I cringe. This is about to get worse.
Along with the new riding crop rule comes a whole new area for bettors, riders, owners, and trainers to get hosed. It is very likely that Santa Anita will adopt a policy that if the stewards feel, feel being the key word here, that a crop was used to help a horse win, as opposed to just for corrective measures they can disqualify that horse. Really! Seriously? Neither of those words was my first or second choice. There was a string of 5 other words that make up an old Brooklyn phrase I often use when I hear something like this, but that was shall we say inappropriate for here. Well not really. It would have been very appropriate.
Stewards have demonstrated on many occasions they can’t tell what did or did not affect the outcome of a race or a better placing. Remember Bayern? The Wicked North? Allemeuse? They fail even to grasp the concept that things that happen when horses leave the gate can affect the outcome of a race. Now they may be able to disqualify a horse because the jockey used the crop to help them win. Really? Doesn’t using the crop to correct a horse help them win? I guess not if you are a steward.
If this goes forward as it seems it will, it will be even more demonstrative of how dysfunctional this industry has become. I have been writing for years how we need less subjectivity and a competent central governing body. This is true now more than ever. Really.
I feel bad for the bettors and connections in the future who will get hosed by this policy. Remember there are two kinds of bettors, those who have been hosed by a bad call, and those who will be hosed by a bad call. Really.
March 19, 2019
By: Jonathan Stettin
There are so many factors that go into being a successful horseplayer. Handicapping is obviously a significant part and of the fundamentals but there are others. Ticket structure, money management, patience and discipline all come to mind. Each of these also has many facets to them which is why this is such a tough, but potentially rewarding game to play.
The computer models of the syndicates focus on analyzing a lot of data and coming up with horses that have what they calculate as a better chance to win then their odds will reflect. That is a good angle and a machine will almost always be able to analyze more information faster than a human. There are however angles where a human has an advantage over a computer. We can think outside the box. I have yet to see a computer capable of that.
When Code of Honor won the Fountain of Youth it rewarded me for capitalizing on an angle I have followed for years, very successfully I might add. Shug McGaughey lets his horses dictate where to run, especially at the stakes level, and backs off if they do so much as get a hiccup. When he ran Code of Honor back in the Fountain of Youth off a poor three-year-old debut, I knew the horse would go past his two-year-old races. If that were the case, he’d win. Computers would not know that, nor would many bettors, thus he went off a generous 9-1 as he drifted up in price late.
That type of angle comes with experience. It can’t be taught. There are however some angles that can be taught. The one I will discuss here today can indeed be learned.
Horses often run in form cycles. These cycles often repeat, and that results in recognizable patterns. Sheets, or more specifically Thorough-Graph, which I use, or Ragozins, which I also used for many years, make it easier to spot patterns and there is an art to reading them. If you think it is just who has the lowest number you are probably wasting your time with them.
Giant Expectations, the favorite in last Saturday’s Essex Handicap at Oaklawn was a bet against, a horse you could leave off multi-race tickets as a favorite even though the sheets, Beyers, and most any other speed figure said he was one of, if not the fastest horses in the race. He was also the class of the field. This is an advantage or edge for any player but a huge one for a player going after a pick 4, or 5, of any multi-race wager.
Before I explain why let me illustrate something about athletics that will make this easier to digest, and also to recognize going forward.
Let’s say you are a runner that can run a great 5-mile race. Now let us say you take a short or even a long break to freshen up, recover from an injury or hard race, or almost for any reason. You come back fresh and ready to go and run a strong effort. Next out will you run better with the race under your belt or will you be tired and maybe a bit stiff and sore because of it? If so then perhaps next time you won’t run as good but by your next one after that, or third since your break you will be back at full steam. If I were betting on you, I would want to know that and with horses, we often can.
Giant Expectations showed in his form that he almost surely would regress off his first race back from a layoff. He had just about every time previously in his past performances, yet he was the favorite. This shows us a flaw in many handicappers approach; they emphasize more on the last race than overall form and patterns — big mistake. Once you got into it, you could see that Giant Expectations probably could not win if he regressed. This made him a favorite you could toss. This also meant if you were right you hand a good chance of catching a nice price in the race. Rated R Superstar won the Essex, and paid $31.20. The 50-cent pick 4 was over $1,800 and the pick 5 over $4,800. Yes, you had to come up with Rated R Superstar, but no you didn’t have to use the favorite.
Some horses go forward second off the lay-off, and some go backward. Knowing and recognizing this can be a significant edge against payers not doing their homework or overemphasizing the last race. You’ll beat them almost every time if you don’t allow yourself to fall into that trap and come prepared.
Angles, know the ones that work and pay off for you. They are out there, and they are an edge.
March 7, 2019
By: Jonathan Stettin
Those who follow the NFL know what a trap game is. That is when a supposedly better team takes a game lightly against a team they are supposed to beat. Often this happens when the so-called better team is looking ahead to a more meaningful or tougher game the following week. Better teams get beat in trap games. In our sport, the Sport of Kings I have my own version of trap games I refer to as trap days. I’ll explain and share my best methods to overcome them.
This coming Saturday is what I call a trap day. Good cards with meaningful races will lure many of us to play tracks we do not normally follow daily. This can be dangerous. In a game that is tough enough on your home court, or shall we say your home track or meet, it gets much more challenging at a track you do not follow.
Being in the groove, knowing who is hot, who is not, the track trends, any bias, and the nuances give you an edge. Take that away and now you are playing from behind and against those who are in the groove at this circuit. You are playing into their edge. Tall task.
Now, many of us will want to play Tampa and Turfway on Saturday. They are both having their banner days and races with Kentucky Derby points on the line. Santa Anita being closed will drive the pools and attention even higher. If you are going to play, and these are not your familiar circuits I will share my approach in not giving up the edge.
I will handicap the cards in detail, taking my time as I normally do before any turf speculation. I will pay extra time and attention to the replays I watch of races over the track. This is crucial as you can pick up trends.
I will diligently review the charts for the meet with an emphasis on the last two weeks of 10 days. I am looking for any bias or noticeable trend or edge.
Next, I will look at the high percentage trainers and riders, and look at the moves or situations they excel in. These are fundamentals, but at a track you play every day, or at least often you probably already know this. On a trap day at a strange track you probably don’t.
I will look at the meet leaders to date. I will also look at who rides for who first call. While none of these stats or observations will point me to a specific horse or bet, combined with handicapping they will strengthen or dampen my opinions. My goal when done with my homework is to know the meet as if I play it every day. This won’t guarantee a win but will take away anyone having an edge on me.
Turfway is a synthetic track. They are tough to play and gauge. Generally, and I mean very generally, turf horses seem to do well on synthetic surfaces.
Tampa is a heavy track. It can play fast at times but is heavier than most dirt tracks. It is a great track to get horses legged up over and for years I have made money with horses coming from Tampa races. They are often overlooked as many consider Tampa a second tier meet. That’s a mistake. Their shippers do well.
To avoid the trap day, or at the least level the playing field you are going to have to spend more time than usual getting prepared. If you don’t, you run the risk of beating yourself with an oversight. I suggest not letting that happen. Be prepared. Take your time and do it right. Your bankroll might thank you later.