Past The Wire: The Arsenal
By Jonathan Stettin
February 3, 2016
We’ve all heard the saying you not bringing a knife to a gun fight – not if you expect to win anyway. A day at the races is a battle, one we enjoy fighting, but if you are a professional or truly playing to win, it’s a battle nonetheless.
Regular readers of Past the Wire already know it’s my practice to be well prepared for a day at the races. We are playing against one another in a pari-mutual system, and any type of edge you can obtain is going to increase your chances of winning. Because of the amount of preparation I put in, handicapping more than one or possibly two, cards a day, just isn’t possible. There is just not enough time, and things will get by you. We don’t want to beat ourselves.
I’ve done quite a few articles on betting strategies, and ticket structuring, and based on the feedback, they have been helpful. Today, I will discuss how I approach handicapping a card, and making sure I’m as prepared as anyone in the room, hopefully more so. There are no short cuts and it takes a combination of things to be successful at this great game of skill: time and effort, focus, patience, discipline, and equally as important as the rest, the right tools.
There are more tools and information sources available today than ever before. This makes the game tougher, not easier. On the surface, more information would seem to make things easier, but we all have this information, so in reality it makes it harder. It comes down to two things: knowing the relevant and important information, and deciphering it better than the person next to you.
Knowing which tools to use, or as I say it, what to have in your arsenal, will always be a personal choice, just as knowing how to evaluate that information will always be a personal talent. If you have the right arsenal, however, you are already at an advantage.
There are many good and bad sources of information and statistics out there and I will not be criticizing any of them. To each, his own. I will just be discussing my tools and approach to attacking a racing card. I’ve been a professional player a long time, as many of you know. I’ve made a living playing the horses several years, which albeit is tougher today than ever before, and requires adaptability, but with the right approach and knowledge, can still be done. I’ve learned a lot and delved into mastering many tools and information sources over the years, and obviously the ones in my arsenal are the ones that I feel might give you, or at least me, the best chance of a) having an edge, and b) winning.
To win in ‘The Sport of Kings,’ the first thing you will need is past performances. Good ones. Detailed ones. I use Daily Racing Form’s Formulator. While there are many good sources of past performances today, I remember the days when there were two – The Daily Racing Form and The Morning Telegraph. Formulator was an easy choice for me. The past performances are detailed and in an easy to read and familiar format. All the pertinent information is included in the basic Formulator card download, but what makes it different and special is the customization that is available. You can literally, in an easy to navigate and understandable format, customize your past performances.
You can add things like run up distances and how far out the turf rail was – crucial factors that go unnoticed by many players. You can decide how you want the incremental splits, and if you want them on the winner or each individual horse. You can add your own trip notes. You can research trainer stats in every conceivable category just about, along with pedigree information. There is just so much you can do, and so much you can customize, you could literally write a short book on the uses. They do offer seminars on the various features. Your preferences can be saved so you do not have to repeat customization every time you download a card. You can even merge the workouts to appear in between the races where they actually occurred, as opposed to the bottom of the page. You can include all of a horse’s starts, or as many or as few as you prefer. You can also watch your replays, and again save your notes.
If you haven’t tried DRF FORMULATOR yet, I suggest you do, here is a link to access and use code PTWF10 to get a 10% discount on any plan you choose.
Now which of this information you use is up to you, and how you interpret it, well that comes down to handicapping prowess, but having it at your fingertips is crucial. We can all have the same information, but we won’t all come up with the same horse. Skill game for sure.
The next vital tool in my arsenal is Thoro-Graph. If used and interpreted correctly, this will give you as big an edge as you can have in the game. While a simple enough concept, in that the lower the number, the faster the race, there are a lot of calculations that go into determining that number. The integrity and accuracy of Thoro-Graph’s system – in determining how fast a horse ran, thus enabling you to figure out how fast it is likely to run today – is second to none.
I am of the opinion that looking at the time and splits of a race, the track variant, and the times of other races on the card can give you a raw speed figure. For the serious player, looking for an edge, what goes into a Thoro-Graph number is much more than that. Is there anyone who thinks ground loss, and trips, wind, post position and pace including pace pressure doesn’t affect a horse’s performance? For example, you will never see a raw speed figure where the horse who ran second or even third got a better figure than the winner. Well, using Thoro-Graph you will see things like this that help you identify crucial factors. There will be horses who are just flat out faster than others and, just as valuable, horses who can be eliminated because they are just not fast enough.
Personally, I love eliminating horses from multi-race wagers who aren’t fast enough to win. Often these horses have raw speed figures that on the surface look competitive. Visit the Thoro-Graph site, and you can learn more here.
Thorp-Graph is user friendly and provides a great deal of information on not only how to read and use them, but also deciphering patterns. Ah, patterns, a key element of Thoro-Graph. As with past performances, we will not always interpret them the same. I know users who look for who has the fastest number and assume that horse will run fastest today. If it were only that easy everybody would be doing it. I know users who don’t understand regression or what a “bounce” is. You have to learn and study patterns and ultimately come to ones you like and work for you.
A few years back, Dreaming of Julia ran an incredibly fast race at Gulfstream Park and received one of, if not the fastest ever Thoro-Graph figure. It was her prep for the Kentucky Oaks and off that monster race she was heavily favored. My read was she almost had to regress or bounce and maybe even considerably. I tossed her on that theory and noted, and even tweeted out, Princess of Sylmar had a pattern and some races fast enough to win. Accordingly, I bet on her. While Dreaming of Julia did not have the best of trips that day she wasn’t beating Princess of Sylmar who paid over $40. Thank you, Thoro-Graph. Dreaming of Julia, heavily favored was not on a single ticket of mine. Patterns. Thoro-Graph will teach you to read and understand them but you still have to do the work.
Some of the most expensive private purchases in the world are made off Thoro-Graph figures. They can show true quality as I discussed this weekend with Mohaymen. This is one extremely fast and talented horse and his Thoro-Graph sheet reflected as much. To me, in my interpretation, he was not going to be beat. True he was favored and came with a lot of hype, but I’m just using him as a means to illustrate a point, not to suggest he was a great wagering value. Although a single is a single, and there is no value betting against a horse who’ll jog. Besides, we already discussed Princess of Sylmar and her $40 plus mutual. I loved Mohaymen’s pattern of paired 5’s followed by a 2 to end his two-year-old season. A good horse will improve from 2 to 3 and often his Thoro-Graph number will too, right along with him. If he went past a 2, who was going to run with him? Nobody. Sure, other horses, especially at that age, can make big forward moves but nobody was going to be able to run with him.
In addition to the numbers, Thoro-Graph also provides pattern analysis and identification, race shapes, and relevant statistical data some of which you can see on Mohaymen’s Thoro-Graph sheet. Even just reading the instructional and usage information on their site will give you a whole new perspective on race analysis and ultimately wagering. If I don’t have Thoro-Graph numbers when I am handicapping a card, I feel like the average person does if they leave their cell phone at home.
Brunowiththeworks or RacingWithBruno is my source for workout information beyond what appears in the past performances. I also have people I know on the backside, and hear things, both good and bad about many horses, especially maidens. With young maidens, knowing one isn’t fast or good can be as valuable as knowing one is fast and good, sometimes more so. Many times trainers talking about their horses, are like people talking about their kids – they are all “good” and, at times, trainers can fail to be objective. Not to doubt anyone’s opinion, but as handicappers, it is our job to evaluate every horse in the race. Bruno De Julio goes into detail I like about works. The two things he does that I like the best are, for one, he lets you know who is working with who when he can. I love that. And two, he also lets you know if a filly is working against colts or a 2-year-old is working against older horses. That’s a little bit more than 48 breezing.
In summary, I study Formulator past performances, customized to my preferences. I read every line of every horse. People have a tendency to just look at the last race or two. I look up all statistics I feel are relevant and as habit I review the ones they automatically provide. I watch replays and make notes. I try and anticipate the pace and where everyone will be, even taking into consideration jockey tendencies, trainers, styles and horse’s quirks. I look at the Thoro-Graph figures, and specifically look for improving patterns or signs of a bounce. I identify the fastest and slowest horses and reevaluate my pace scenario based on those figures. Then I look for the type of workout information that intrigues me, especially in maiden races.
Hey, we may not always win, but we’ll be ready, and in the long run, we’ll get ’em.
Paul Matties for taking down the 17th NTRA Handicapping Championship and the $800k first prize. We’ll give an honorable mention to his brother Duke for finishing fourth. Paul put the icing on the cake taking home an extra $10k by betting $100 to win on himself at 100-1. Well played.
I try. I really try. I so don’t want to constantly call out stewards for questionable decisions. But when I see things like what happened at Gulfstream this weekend, it’s just impossible to avoid. Again, we can agree to disagree on calls, but what we all agree on is we need consistency. Personally I thought Outlash should have been disqualified and Unbridled Juan declared the winner. The stewards saw it differently and let the result stand. We have to live with that. What I can’t understand is how the day before What Power was taken down under a jockey claim of foul, not even an inquiry, for less of a foul and less of an impact on the races outcome or any placings. I used to advocate one set of rules, clearly defined, to say what does and does not constitute a disqualification. I was for taking away the subjectivity of it did or did not affect the outcome or a placing a la Bayern on our biggest stage. It’s extremely discouraging to bettors, who count by the way. Bettors and owners are the ones putting money into the game.
In an interesting on air conversation between Louis Masry, Danny Wolf, and myself, on Elite Racing Network, Louis pointed out how in Japan they fine riders, quite heavily at times, and redistribute purses, but leave the wagering results alone. We know in Europe you really have to foul someone bad to get disqualified. I’m liking that Japan way. It seems really fair to the bettor.
Interestingly, in the usual Twitter barrage following the disqualification of What Power, I saw not one tweet in favor of it or thinking it was the right call. I actually saw tweets from people who benefited from the disqualification admitting they had received an unjustified gift.
Jonathan Stettin is the author of Past The Wire, his regular column that holds no punches in tackling issues in the racing industry. He has contributed to Horseplayer Monthly and he can be found on the newly launched Elite Racing Network. Jonathan currently resides in Florida. He is a lifelong handicapper with several large Pick-6 scores to his name, including one for $540,000+ on August 10, 1994, at Saratoga.