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.
March 1, 2019
The Two M's
By: Jonathan Stettin
When you play the horses today you have a plethora of opportunities to go after. Back in the day before simulcasting you were pretty much stuck with your local track and whatever wagers, pools, and takeout they offered. Things are very different now and you are hit with options not just throughout the country but literally spanning the globe.
When tackling this great game, you’ll hear a lot of talk about handicapping, and of course, that makes sense. If you can’t handicap whatever else you do won’t work. You will also hear much about ticket structures. This is another important and even crucial aspect of your game. What you don’t hear a lot of talk about, but what is equally important is your money management. The two m’s are vital.
Whatever your bankroll is for the day, week, month, or year you had better be prepared to manage it. This holds true as it increases or decreases throughout whatever time period we are dealing with. With all these tracks and exotic wagering menus running simultaneously if you don’t pick and choose spots wisely and allot the right amounts to your key wagers you will get swallowed, no matter how good a handicapper you are or how you structure your bets.
If you ask 10 different players how they manage their money you will get your fair share of answers. All of us have styles and preferences. I’m a big fan of whatever works for you but that said you need a game plan, consistency and discipline. Without those, you are done. Stay home or shut down the device. You can thank me later.
Let’s use a mythical $100 bankroll for a day at the races to illustrate how I attack the game and have for many years now. Bear in mind, we may play for different reasons. I don’t play for fun or recreation. I play to win. To beat the game. To make it count, so my approach may not be for everyone. It does and has worked for me though.
First of all, I limit my study to one or possibly two tracks for the day. I’ll peruse the meets I follow and see where I think the cars and fields are best suited for a score. At that point, I will seriously handicap the cars. Let’s say it is a 10 race card for all intents and purposes. It really doesn’t change my approach regardless of how many races they run.
I will spot the best horse, or maybe two horses, I think have the best chance to win. If they are in two races that are linked in a pick 4 or 5, or maybe 6, that simplifies things. Two singles in a multi-race bet, for a total of $80 or 80% of my bankroll for the day. Whatever amount my $80 allows with the two singles, be it 50 cents or $5 that is what I’ll play the bet for. My other $20 will be spent on the other races in the card. There are times I’ll put the entire bankroll into the one bet. Often actually, but the 80% rule will work for most.
If the horses can’t be linked, I’ll go after the one I like better. That decision could be based on price but more often than not will be based on whom I feel is more likely to win. I will find a way to create some value with a winning horse. A losing horse offers no value, just an exit to the car singing Another One Bites the Dust. I never saw the point in that.
On days where my $80 goes after one horse, the other $20 will nexuses going after the other horse whom I did not give the nod to. I’ll watch and take notes on the other races, but the two I like best are the two who will get my investment. Sure, you need patience and control to spend a day at the track this way, but if you aren’t supplementing your play with handsome rebates you’d better learn to do it or find a bottomless well.
When I decide to go after a horse, I look at the horizontal and vertical wagers and see where I can get the best shot of a score if I’m right. That’s where the $80 will go.
February 22, 2019
Get Out of the Way
By: Jonathan Stettin
Race callers have always had their trademark calls. Some we like, some we don’t, and track announcers are a matter of personal choice. That said, the trademark calls become almost a part of the racetrack experience. We learn to accept the ones we don’t like as they are part of the venue’s branding.
One of the more famous calls was Dave Johnson’s “and down the stretch they come.” Just about every racing fan recognized those words and knew the horses were in the stretch. Trevor Denman’s “and they’d need to sprout wings” was a personal favorite of mine especially if I had the horse on the lead.
I grew up listening to Fred Caposella, one of the greatest race callers of all time. He called the races at the New York tracks for a long time. Like Harry Henson from the Southern California circuit, Fred had the right voice for a race caller. Some of his calls were, “and they race down the backstretch that way.” Of course, “It is now Post Time,” and “they’re off. “
Luke Kruytbosch also had a race callers voice. It is an art, and a difficult one at that. There have been many great track announcers, and some not so good ones as well. The best of the bunch either had great signature lines or the classic race-trackers voice. Some were fortunate enough to have both.
The current Gulfstream Park announcer recently introduced a signature line into his calls. "Easy money," he’d say when a horse appeared home, often at a short price. Trust me when I say like it or hate it, the call has no impact on the outcome. Yes, some found it annoying, especially I’d imagine if they went against the chalk as many of us so often do. However, to complain about it to the point good ole Pete had to scrap it, well that is just plain silly.
I am not sure whether the powers that be at Gulfstream ordered the scrap, or Pete caved to the social media pressure. Either way, he caved, and no lion concerns themselves with the opinion of sheep. If that was a signature call, he should have owned it in my opinion. Easy for me to say, sure, but I have walked that walk my entire life.
While the whole race call thing is not that important and really doesn’t warrant much discussion or attention, I bring it up for another reason. It shows the lack of a fan connection and the inability of tracks to focus on keeping their people coming to the races. Branding, and creating a unique experience is a part, albeit not the biggest part, in keeping people coming and identifying with the venue. Nobody is going to stop going to Gulfstream or listening to calls because Pete occasionally says, “easy money.” People will sour however when management shows a disconnect with bettors and fans alike. I mean Gulfstream recently promoted the Pegasus World Cup by highlighting Snoop Dog would perform. I am the only one I saw mention we had two same year Breeders’ Cup winners squaring off. That is a disconnect.
Apparently, the disconnect is not limited to the US. Edgar Prado recently returned from Saudi Arabia where he was denied a license because of his age. Nobody looked into this before he came? Edgar is still a capable rider and younger than a Kentucky Derby winner I believe. Seriously?
Hoping tracks work together to improve the game seems futile at this juncture. Maybe we can hope they somehow just stop getting in the way.
February 15, 2019
By: Jonathan Stettin
To a large extent, the future is always uncertain. You can escalate that when you talk horse racing. Today, more than ever, the future of the Sport of Kings faces serious questions about how it will survive.
Let’s look at what we know. Saratoga has become a watered down meet not even closely reminiscent of the boutique high-quality August place to be it once was. NYRA has extended it to be a summer-long event and the fields you see on the large majority of days could be run at Aqueduct in the winter.
Aqueduct faces closure. The inner track for winter racing is gone. The casino is the focal point of the plant with racing a mere backdrop. The grandstand and clubhouse are dated and falling apart.
Belmont is undergoing renovations, maybe as no ground has been broken yet, but a hockey arena is apparently moving in. The old Belmont will be another Paradise Lost soon.
Hollywood Park is barely a memory.
Calder is not even a memory.
Pimlico is so run down it is in danger of losing the Preakness. If it does they will be a memory also.
Suffolk Downs. Gone.
Hialeah is like it never existed.
Santa Anita despite being home of one of the games powerhouse stables, Bob Baffert’s, struggles to find entries for their races.
Illegal drugs are seemingly prevalent. Legal drugs are overused and misused. Stewards are inconsistent at best. Super trainers are driving small barns into the ground.
Slaughter and aftercare are a serious issue. Perception of the sport is more negative than positive.
You can fire a cannon at most tracks during the week, and on plenty of weekends and not hit a soul.
Tracks can’t work together to the point of staggering post times, let alone any uniformity on significant matters.
Some of the things we don’t know can have even more ramifications.
Nobody really knows how sports wagering is going to impact or interact with horse racing. Many of the scenarios are not looking that good for our game. Why do any books need to share any revenue with horseman and or racetracks? I don’t know but if they don’t have to a good bet is they won’t. Hardcore horseplayers who feel alienated by the tracks are likely to be exposed to sports wagering. Even if sports wagering is not promoted, sports get mainstream coverage, and that will attract some players. I am not sold on us attracting any hardcore sports bettors. They have already been exposed to our game and landed where they did for a reason.
One of the most interesting things developing is the Stronach Trust lawsuit. While there have been reports on it, nobody I have seen is really looking at the scenarios that may unfold.
Stronach owns Santa Anita, Gulfstream and Pimlico amongst other tracks and assets. They own Adena Springs. These are major players in the thoroughbred industry. We know from the preliminary discovery all these tracks and the farm are losing money. Belinda, Franks daughter is claiming it is the result of Frank’s poor management and expensive whims.
Back when Gulfstream transitioned from the old facility to the new one I was still attending the races daily. I was there every day at the tent meet and the first few years in the new facility. I remember shortly after the new venue opened there was talk of a Magna bankruptcy. The 10 Palms staff, many who were my friends were worried about paychecks bouncing. It seemed that all went away, but now it seems that possibly it didn’t or may return.
I don’t know the financial situation of the Stronach holdings nor does it matter from where I sit. I do know that none of us know how this litigation will play out and what a settlement, verdict, or court order will do to the game.
What if Belinda wins and decides to sell off the racing assets? What is the court or Judge orders some type of asset dispersal? What is a settlement is reached which gives Frank the racing operations and they can’t sustain themselves? A lot of what ifs in that lawsuit and they almost all create uncertainty for the sport we love.
I think the potential is there for this lawsuit to have some major impact on horse racing. Maybe not tomorrow but down the road. Most of the scenarios look iffy at best.
February 8, 2019
First Things First
By: Jonathan Stettin
Following an article released by the newly formed Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, I found myself engaged in a conversation on social media with some fellow racing people. While I do not always agree with the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, I do support them and appreciate their efforts.
The article that prompted the conversation was about improving and growing the sport, keeping up with the recent sports wagering legislation by embracing fixed odds wagering amongst other things. Most would agree it is probably a good idea for our industry to stay ahead of this curve.
The Thoroughbred Idea Foundation also promotes lowering take out, reducing the cost of handicapping data and embracing technology. All good ideas any horseplayer would welcome, myself included. Despite that, I see it as more of a chicken or the egg scenario, and frankly I think the answer is obvious.
I have written several articles about the disconnect between people who run racing and those who actually wager on it, their customers. I have written about embracing fixed odds wagering and exchange wagering well before sports wagering was for the most part legalized. All of this ties into many of us wanting to improve and grow the game, or maybe more accurately restore it to when it was the most popular spectator sport and truly the Sport of Kings.
It is my experience and opinion the perception of horse racing amongst those who play it, and even those who don’t is that the playing field is not level. There is a good reason for this. As much as I agree with all the good points to improve, restore, and grow the game, first things first. Level the field. Get rid of the drugs, cheating, and take care of the horses who can no longer compete or who never could or we continue down the steep hill. I see no way around that. Racing execs are satisfied to remain in their respective bubbles without working with other venues, jurisdictions or groups attempting to bring uniformity. To have a level field with minimal cheating, as it can never be eradicated, you need cooperation and uniformity.
During the aforementioned conversation some interesting points were brought up, but to my surprise eliminating cheating was not the number 1 across the board priority. Interestingly, simultaneous to this conversation Jason Servis won the second race at Gulfstream Park’s Championship meet with an off the claim runner who found some new speed to annihilate a field including one horse who had whipped him twice before. The Servis horse was odds on. As the conversation continued Jorge Navarro won the third race at the very same meet with a barb change to him for the first time. This horse also went wire to wire at odds on. Maybe they were both just the best horse, but perception is everything.
Also at the same time you can rest assured there were many ex racehorses, and horses who were never fast enough to compete awaiting horrendous fates at kill pens and slaughterhouses. In a game played by billionaires, multi-millionaires, millionaires, comfortable people, working-class people, struggling people and brokesters you’d think we’d want and insist on a fair game, level playing field and take care of our own. We don’t.
In reality, whatever we do to try and improve the game will not restore it or grow it unless we minimize cheating. Cheating is killing the sport on many levels.
It increases injuries and breakdowns thus sending more horses to slaughter and stressing the rescue organizations.
It decreases handle by driving bettors away and leaving a sour taste in their mouths.
It forces gamblers to seek other options.
It drives both small and honest barns out of business.
It allows for super trainers and barns that attract owners who will feed them horses and starve honest outfits.
It kills owners who employ honest trainers who do not cheat and robs them of purse opportunities.
I can go on and on but if you don’t get it by now, nothing I say is going to change that.
I can’t prove or accuse any trainer of cheating but I know plenty are and if you are a true student and lover of this game so do you. Cheating is not only done with illegal drugs, but also with the misuse, overuse, and not used as intended with legal drugs. There are many ways to push that envelope. Much less to get caught under our current systems. A week or so ago a top Australian trainer was caught with batteries in his barn used for shocking horses to run faster. Don’t all these other improvements regarding take out, technology, wagering options, free forms and programs, staggering post times take a serious back seat to the hardcore issues plaguing what once was the top spectator sport in the land?
Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die. Everybody wants to grow the game, but nobody wants to step up and handle first things first.