by Steven Schwartz
Thursday, July 6, 2017
As a handicapper, inside information is something we would all happily pay for if given the chance. Most handicappers have nothing but past performance or video replays to decide who they think is going to be live in any given race. However, the ugly truth is that most handicappers are at the mercy of the horse, jockey and trainer. If you ever want to be a half-way decent handicapper you have to accept this ugly truth. It wasn’t until I was a part-time owner of a couple horses that I was able to truly realize it. It gave me the opportunity to listen to trainers and jockeys talk about horses. Listening to them talk about training and purpose of a race was so eye opening to me. Once I was able to get this access, it started to open up my eyes to handicapping in a whole new light. I went from a handicapper that was trying to identify what a horse can do to a handicapper who started to understand why a trainer entered horses in certain spots. Understanding why trainers spot horses in certain races is one of the most important reasons I have been able to have a positive ROI the past three years at NYRA tracks. Sometimes trainers actually spot horses for other reasons than actually attempting to win the race (prep races, dumping a horse, protecting a horse, can’t find another spot to run the horse). For instance, here are just a few of my trainer golden rules that I have used in the past:
- When Linda Rice is dropping a horse in class, stay away……..regardless of how good the horse looks on paper (The same goes for Danny Gargan).
- When Linda Rice is stepping a horse up in class, this is a strong move and you must take the horse seriously. This is especially true when stepping up a horse in class off a loss (Ironically, the same also goes for Danny Gargan)
- Jason Servis seems like he never loses first off the claim (only hitting at 44% winners this year).
Understanding a trainers’ purpose is so important. It can help a handicapper identify live longshots and terrible favorites. This is especially true in Stakes races. Two great recent examples of this are Arklow and Ascend.
Arklow, who is running in the Grade 1 Belmont Derby this Saturday, is currently considered one of the top 3yo turf runners in the entire country. This is after he won the Grade II American Turf Stakes on Kentucky Derby day. It was an impressive win. Almost impressive as the 15-1 odds that the horse went off at. Based on his past form, the horse should have been 40-1. Why? The horse had just broken his maiden, and was now being entered into a Grade II stakes.
How does a horse that just broke his maiden only go off at 15-1 in a Grade II after breaking their maiden? It’s simple. The trainer knew his horse was live. The mere fact that trainer Brad Cox entered a horse that started out 0 for 5 on dirt before finally breaking his maiden on turf, and then stepping him up to a Grade II told you that the trainer knew he was capable of winning this race. Those that just read the form most likely overlooked Arklow and thought he was in over his head. Those that understood the confidence and purpose in Brad Cox entering him in this spot probably cashed or at least included him in the multi-race wagers.
Ascend has a very similar story with a greater payout. Ascend looked like a promising horse with a promising career spending most of his time racing in primarily allowance races. It took him five races to finally break his maiden. He then spent roughly two years going through all of his available conditions until he was asked to go to Laurel Park for a “baby stakes” race. Despite a troubled trip he passed the entire field going last to first to win the $75,000 Henry Clark Stakes.
Ideally the next step would be to continue to test him in ungraded stakes races or even attempt to sneak him into a Graded III. Instead, Graham Motion entered him into one of the most prestigious turf races in the country. He entered this horse into the $1,000,000 Grade I Manhattan Stakes. Going from the Henry Clark Stakes to this Grade I would be like me hitting 90 MPH fastballs in a batting cage and then assuming I can hit Randy Johnson in his prime.
Despite this huge jump in class, Motion felt confident in his placement of Ascend and was rewarded handsomely. Handicappers who picked up on this confidence were rewarded to the tune of 28-1 as the 2nd longest price on the board and beating horses like Sadler’s Joy, Beach Patrol, World Approval, Divisidero, Wake Forest among others who consistently face Grade I company. How would the average bettor even guess that Ascend could run with these let alone win? The fact is, Graham Motion was giving all handicappers inside information. The mere fact he was entered into this race should have alerted handicappers that he was live.
When handicapping future races, especially Stakes races, I would advise all handicappers to start looking at more than one lens. Of course handicap if you think a horse is good enough. I would also start paying attention to what a trainer is telling us when entering a horse into a race that on paper, looks like they don’t belong. Just a few things to consider when trying to find similar long shots:
- Horse should come from a high percentage trainer (Graham Motion, Brad Cox, etc)
- The horses last race should either be an impressive win or a step up in class after a troubled trip loss
Bottom line: we are never smarter than the trainers. Understand the trainers to understand the horses we are handicapping. Anyone want to guess which long shot I am including in the Belmont Oaks this weekend?
Good luck at the races and feel free to catch me on twitter @albundypolkhigh. Let’s Get ‘Em
cover photo: Sara Gordon. @SaraChristineG