Betting Strategy: An overview at a key time of year

Editor’s Note: We asked our West Coast-based Analyst Justin Finch to put together a blog post on betting strategy. Why now? It’s a crucial time of year, particularly for a West Coast player: The post-Del Mar lull has ended, Santa Anita is starting up, and of course there are a wealth of national simulcasting opportunities (hello, Keeneland). A good time to clear your head and think anew about being, or becoming, a winning player right now.

Betting Strategy: Making Your Tickets Reflect Your Handicapping Opinion

The most important thing to remember about trying to become a winner through improving your betting strategy is that if you are not an excellent handicapper, the idea is fool’s gold–little more than a way to trick yourself into thinking that you would be a winner if only you could learn to arrange your selections better on your tickets or use the ALL button better or play more horizontal wagers, etc.

It is no surprise that this type of thinking is so prevalent among horse players.

It is very seductive.

Trying to become a winner through improving one’s handicapping calls for genuine work and lots of it. Trying to become a winner through improving one’s betting strategy, on the other hand, holds out the promise of vast, immediate improvement through minimal effort. And it doesn’t work.  If you cannot select live horses, you are probably better off with a BAD betting strategy, since the clumsiness of a bad betting strategy will serve to deflate your own opinions–a good thing if your opinions deserve to be deflated.

I look at betting strategy the same way I look at writing an essay. The idea is to take a handicapping opinion (meaning, essentially, a disagreement with your fellow bettors) and express it as elegantly and concisely as possible, but do so on parimutuel tickets rather than in words:

  • Say what you have to say.
  • Say all that you have to say.
  • Say only what you have to say.
  • Say it in as few words as possible.
  • And if you discover along the way that you have nothing to say, say nothing at all.

Let’s pretend that in race 5 at Monmouth today, we think that the 1 horse deserves to be 5-1 and seems likely to go off above 10-1. This definitely constitutes an opinion, a disagreement with the crowd. And a simple win bet on the 1 horse would say something that we want to say and say it in few words. Beautiful. Win bet on the 1 horse. Done.

But have we now said all that we have to say about this race? Or does our opinion on this race extend south, giving us the opportunity to leverage our one-hole opinion by connecting it to horses in the two-hole, the three-hole, and the four-hole? And is there an opportunity to leverage our opinion west and east by connecting it to earlier and later races through daily doubles, Picks 3s, and Pick 4s?

If the answers to the last two questions are “yes,” then I will proceed like this: Win bet, then layer an exacta, trifecta, and superfecta on top of it, then layer a daily double, Pick 3, and Pick 4 on top of that. In short, hit the horse in just about every pool. That would be how I would make my tickets say all that I have to say.

But wait a minute. Have I expressed my overall handicapping opinion as well as I know how? For example, what is so elegant about betting a horse to win and betting him in the exacta, trifecta, and super when your strongest opinion, by far, is in the super, as might be the case in a race with a big field and multiple live longshots? And what is so elegant about playing a mild opinion in the super when you’ve got a heartfelt opinion on a win bet? In other words, while my general inclination is to play in every pool in which I have an opinion, I am willing to let my conviction about the superiority of a certain pool override this inclination in certain cases. In those cases, I will put all of my bet into one pool even if I have opinions in multiple pools.

As far as the actual construction of tickets is concerned, I think it is vital that bettors be willing to draw up tickets that do justice to the complexity of the opinion that the tickets are meant to reflect. For example, let’s take a trifecta ticket that looks like this: 1 with 234 with 23456. The balance in the two-hole and three-hole, with all three horses used in the two-hole being linked to the same collection of five horses in the three-hole, suggests that it is highly unlikely that such a ticket accurately reflects the bettor’s opinion. After all, do you really want identical coverage in the three-hole for all three of the horses you’re using in the two-hole? Or do you have more enthusiasm for some of your two-hole horses than you do for others? If the latter is the case, it might well warrant giving the combinations that go through these “high enthusiasm” horses even greater coverage in the three-hole, thereby giving yourself a greater opportunity to swallow up a semi-plausible bomb that lands in third place.

And conversely, when I am using certain horses in the two-hole for whom my enthusiasm is not particularly strong, do I really want as much coverage extending through them into the three-hole, or does my lack of enthusiasm for these horses in the two-hole signal that linking them to my weakest horses in the three-hole constitutes a double whammy that has turned these combinations into underlays? There are plenty of tools out there to help you construct tickets. Be wary of the ones that leave you with opinions (tickets) weighed more evenly than your actual enthusiasm for the horses as overlays.

With this thinking in mind, the trifecta ticket of 1 with 234 with 23456 might well be a better reflection of my opinion if it is turned into three separate, differently worded trifecta tickets. For example:

  • 1 with 2 with 345678
  • 1 with 3 with 2456
  • 1 with 4 with 235

And the same principle holds, by analogy and in practice, with DDs, P3s, P4s, P5s, P6s, exactas, and in all holes of superfectas. Tickets that are clean and balanced are often lazy and unreflective of the bettor’s actual opinion. These tickets lose the nuance, and with it they lose the whole point of betting strategy, which is to take the handicapping opinion and turn it into numbers that accurately reflect your analysis. And the solution to this problem, while laborious at first, is well worth the effort: Dig deeper into all of your combinations, add numbers, remove numbers, and move numbers around, in various holes and in various races, until the entire bet matches your handicapping opinion to the greatest extent possible. This will seem cumbersome at first, but with some practice, you’ll be doing it without undue effort and to wonderful effect.

And now a brief word on the ALL button before moving on to psychology. Contrary to what one often hears these days, the ALL button is not a “bet on chaos.” The ALL button is just what the name says it is. It is a bet on all of the horses. This means it is a bet on the favorite, the second choice, the third choice, etc. If a bettor wants to bet on chaos, then he should bet on chaos. He should toss the favorites and use the longshots. Buying a hole or a race, favorites and all, and then cloaking it in verbiage about “betting on chaos” borders on the comical.

Betting Psychology Pt 1: What about a partner?

Here’s an idea: Get a partner whom you trust, one who knows the game extremely well but does no handicapping. Then set things up so that you can keep him. Preferably forever. Give him a cut on winnings and no downside on losses.

A partner like this is pure gold, something that can improve your performance overnight and is practically guaranteed to improve your game by a large amount over the long haul. This game is unfair, cruel, confounding, sadistic, and all the rest. It can bring out the worst emotions known to man, emotions that can knock a handicapper off stride or even worse. You need somebody who is always on your side. As soon as you find such a person, the pain that this game inflicts on you will be divided by 2.

I couldn’t be more fortunate in this respect. My betting partner has been my best friend since I was four years old. We first went to the racetrack together when I was 12. He knows all of my strengths, weaknesses, and idiocies. He knows the names of all of my psychologists. He is acerbic and deeply, darkly hilarious, specializing in the gallows humor that is so often called for in this sport, which is nothing if not a graveyard for horseplayers who start taking themselves too seriously.

I call him and give him my thoughts on every race I’m interested in. He then gives me his thoughts on my thoughts. He tries to measure my confidence. We watch the toteboard together, from our separate locations. Sometimes he puts in the bets for us. About half the time, I leave the bet-size decision entirely up to him. When we lose photos, get DQed, get clipped on payoffs, or see our horses thwarted by the odd doings of their riders, he launches into tirades so profane they would have embarrassed Richard Pryor. And I laugh. And I feel better.

Having a good partner will do more good for your bottom line than reading all the betting strategy books and articles ever written. It will also make losing bets less unpleasant, which leads to the last point:

Betting Psychology Pt 2: Failing is NOT a sin

Fear of failing to cash a given bet ruins bettors. It ruins them like nothing else. It takes even extraordinarily talented handicappers, handicappers who have the talent to beat the game, and it turns them into losers. It is the insidious evil against which handicappers must wage all-out war on every front.

There are tips that can help, depending on the individual:

1: Do as much of your handicapping as possible two days out or three days out. As races approach, many bettors tighten up. For many people, early opinions tend to be loose, courageous opinions, and late opinions tend to be tight, scared opinions.

2: Do as much of your handicapping as possible on winning days. Winning days loosen you up. Don’t celebrate after winning days. Go straight home and handicap three straight cards while you are in this splendidly relaxed state.

3: Do not play when you are undercapitalized. Unless you are one of those rare people whose judgment is at its best when their backs are to the wall, playing with a scared bankroll will separate you from that bankroll. I could go on this topic for pages, but you need to ask yourself every time you strategize a best: How much is the fear of losing driving the way this wager is constructed? Again, do not play when you are undercapitalized.

My all-time favorite thought about handicapping and betting came from the actor Dustin Hoffman, who was discussing acting but might as well have been discussing horse racing. Once a bettor gets over his fear of losing bets, all sorts of wonderful things start to happen. All sorts of one’s creativity can suddenly be brought to the table. So I’ll end with the quotation and leave it to the reader to decide whether there might be something here that crosses disciplines:

“Failing is not the worst. Committing a sin is worse. Not failing. Committing a sin. You know, putting something out there that you think is safe and that you think ‘Well, I won’t get hurt, it’s derivative, it’s worked before.’ It’s kind of a sin because you’re denying yourself your… gift, I guess. There’s nothing wrong with failing. You’re gonna fail. I fail. Everything is ‘Success! Success! Success! Success!’ Fine! Fine. But give me something that is ‘Ooooh!’, that’s in the ‘Oooh!’ You know? Let the film not work, let the actor not even be consistent, but put me in there, in that place with somebody. That’s worth everything.”

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2 Responses to Betting Strategy: An overview at a key time of year

  1. f.smith says:

    ….” afford the Form”…… you got that right !! are they kidding with the price of that thing ? !!!


  2. My wife and I were actually written up in the Dallas newspapers – we called ourselves “A Hell of a Team – This while at LaD in Shreveport – we bacame friends with the reporter while giving a
    seminar mostly about how NOT to lose money needlessly along with a selection or two. We traveled to Louisville, Keenland, Turf Paradise, Fairgrounds etc. I had a kind of empathy in the paddock, she has a wonderfully analytic mind. Between us we had a most enjoyable life. We rarely bet more than 3 races on a card, avoiding lower class stuff. I was even training for backup announcer. Do I love racing? Yes I do!
    TimeforUS is a marvelous application! We did our thing in the early ’70’s through the mid ’80’s.Racing form really was hard then. Yours is like a breath of fresh air. Now, in the twilight of my life (77) pretty much housebound due to COPD, three broken vertebrae which is not comfortable.
    On a fixed income, can’t afford the Form, you can see how important TimeformUS is to me. I can see most of the races on TV, have great internet, and a big smile every day. I hope I can continue to get my two races every day. I spoke to one of you when I first signed up, and if my memory serves, he told me I could keep it forever (or as long as I wished)
    Thanks again for this timely article!
    Bill Jacobs



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