New to playing the races? Welcome, and read on…

This is a lightly edited transcript of an April 23rd chat between 2 of the people who started TimeformUS. The chat’s sole purpose? To give those who are new to North American Thoroughbred horse racing a perspective on how to become a horseplayer. While the chat isn’t short, we hope it’s a shortcut for people who are intrigued by horse racing, intrigued by betting on it. If you have questions about the content, please drop us an e-mail at, or by all means use the feedback section below this post for comments and questions.

For a related discussion on playing longshots, click here.

If you’re just looking for some crucial links on how to use TimeformUS PPs…

But if you’re just getting started with betting on horses and want to get some perspective on why anyone would play this amazing game, read on…

MarcAtTFUS: I just had some chocolate; I find that sugar gives me cheap energy and bravery.

JustinAtTFUS: You become brave by doing the thing that scares you. We learned that from “Three Kings.”

MarcAtTFUS: No doubt. So the Kentucky Derby is imminent and it made me reflect on how valuable the Derby was to me when I started out in racing. And it reminded me that it’s the #1 day of the year for people to become racing fans. And so we agreed to do this chat as a modern-day “open letter” to new horseplayers. Let’s exchange some straightforward thoughts for new players, to give them a leg up as they are starting out. OK, I’ll start with one: The idea of the game is to make more money than you’ve bet. If you bet $24 on the Derby (or any race) and get $22 back, nice try, but you lost $2.

JustinAtTFUS: I disagree. To me, the idea of the game is to make yourself happy. If you can be happy while losing a few dollars, you are, in a sense, a winner. After all, if you weren’t betting the Kentucky Derby, what would you be doing instead? Going to the movies? How much does that cost? Is winning more enjoyable than losing? Certainly. Winning must be the goal. But having fun and learning the game while losing a few dollars, as a sort of journey to the point when one becomes a winner? There are worse things than that.

MarcAtTFUS: Fair point. For most people,free membership ad betting on racing is going to be a hobby, and a lot of hobbies can be a lot more expensive than racing. I knew I had fallen for racing when I was at a Yankees game and really wished I were at Belmont instead. It’s so much easier to get up close to racing (meaning other than a handful of days, Thoroughbreds are typically captivating, and there was no magical upside at the Yankees game. It was fun but there was no way I was going to make a thousand dollars. Rather, the Yankees game was guaranteed to be expensive). I also think there’s a subtle lesson in what you wrote, which is you should bet no more than you’re comfortable losing. Meaning if you’re going to be aggravated by having lost X dollars, you should make sure to risk less than that.

JustinAtTFUS: I knew I was hooked on racing when I skipped my high school graduation (I consider my getting a diploma to be the first photo I ever won) and went to Hollywood Park instead. Anyway, as people are learning the game, it is important that they play with money that comes out of the entertainment portion of their budget. And that should remain the case until they become winners, at which point they should start playing out of the investment portion of their budget.

MarcAtTFUS: It’s always hard to define what “becoming a winner” is. Let’s try for one-sentence definitions. Mine: The sample size has to come over thousands of races, and you should be able to see that you have reasonably consistent longterm profitability, meaning most years you get back more than you bet. Otherwise, yes, it’s gotta be viewed as entertainment. Do you have a better way of putting it?

JustinAtTFUS: You know you are a winner when you stop trying to convince people that you are a winner. And if you like to go on Internet message boards (or Twitter, etc) and declare (or hint) that you are a winner, you are, no doubt, a loser. As for numerical definitions, yours is fine as long as the results do not depend on a couple of big hits. As a rule, the more “grindy” your positive results, the more predictive they are toward the future.

MarcAtTFUS: By “grindy” you mean more consistent. But at the same time it can be a long tail where a player is mostly keeping her head above water and the profitability comes from the rare big score. Such as in a race like the Derby.

JustinAtTFUS: If your overall financial results can be swung from positive to negative based on reversing just a few results, your financial success is more precarious than it is if your results are immune to such swings.

MarcAtTFUS: Let’s talk about the Derby a little more. It’s the 1st race I ever attended. And attending it was essential to falling in love with both the beauty of the sport and, eventually, the challenge of betting on it. But the paradox with the Derby is that it is one of the most unusual races of the year, given the distance, field size, and general mania surrounding it. If you’re going to really become a racing fan, or a horseplayer, you’re going to have to go beyond the Derby. And you certainly should not get discouraged by not having success betting on the Derby. Assuming you don’t disagree with any of that, let me say something more complimentary towards the Derby–a lot of the essential lessons of how to play the game can start by learning about that race. But the crucial thing is to use the Derby as a jumping off point for taking all the concepts discussed in that race and learning more about them.

twitter followJustinAtTFUS: I think the Derby is a great way to get interested in the game, to get excited about the game, and to learn how to use the various TFUS tools, but for betting purposes, I believe in treating it as just another race. Really, I won’t spend much more time handicapping the Derby than I would the third race at Santa Anita on the same day. I believe that Derby handicapping has some similarities to drinking in a bar on New Year’s Eve. Fun? Yes? But the goal ought to be being able to hold one’s liquor and stay out of jail 365 days a year.

MarcAtTFUS: I won’t take the liquor analogy further. I want to mention pedigree, pace, and trip—which are all crucial concepts to understand to become a horseplayer–as they relate to the Derby. I think it’s a positive that much of the foundation of becoming a horseplayer who loves to play the game can start with the Derby. Pedigree tends to matter in the Derby, and whether it’s overrated or underrated (I think it used to be more overrated than it is now), the Derby is a great race for learning about which pedigrees are more likely to produce horses who can handle the longer distance of the Derby (typically no Derby starter has ever run as far as a mile and a quarter before Derby Day) vs those whose breeding is better suited for shorter races, or pedigree that is more suited for turf than dirt. There are a ton of subtleties, but it’s a great starting point. As for pace, it seems to be so prominent in the outcome of the Derby, particularly since the field has been expanded to 20 starters, which typically provokes the speedier horses to go too fast early as they try to establish position. That’s relatively easy to watch unfold in the Derby, whereas in a typical 3/4 of a mile sprint race (the most commonly run races in North America), it can be awfully subtle to pick up on the role of pace. And of course “The Trip” tends to be crucial in the Derby, as the winner usually manages to NOT get caught terribly wide on the first turn (the turns are where terrible ground loss can occur–horse racing isn’t like track and field, where the starts are staggered) and the winner also typically manages to avoid any excessively tumultuous bumping (which will occur in this race). All of those concepts–pedigree, pace, trip, are central to learning how to play the game, and the Derby does offer rather blatant examples of each. OK, pedigree, pace, watching races to see the subtleties of a good or bad trip. What else is essential for a new horseplayer to start to look into to get better at the game? And how would you recommend going about learning about these things?

JustinAtTFUS: We haven’t really mentioned speed figures, which are an essential short-hand for most horseplayers. TimeformUS Speed Figures are a breakthrough, combining speed and pace in a new way. But for learning about the best way to use speed figures in North American racing, I would recommend starting with Andy Beyer’s books and Len Ragozin’s book. For learning about handicapping in general, I think Steve Davidowitz’s book (in all its editions) “Betting Thoroughbreds” is still the best. But at some point you need to get down into the dirt and handicap races, lots of them, and try to learn from them. When you are handicapping a race, always go from the bottom (debut race) up when reading past performances. This will slowly give you a feel for the ebb and flow of how horses develop. Read enough past performance lines in this manner, paying attention to all the details in front of you, and you will slowly be giving yourself a priceless handicapping education. As for trip handicapping, there’s a trick that can very quickly turn people into good race watchers: Every time you are surprised by the winner of a race, go back and watch the replay of the winner’s previous race. Soon you will start to develop feel for efforts that are better than they look on paper.

MarcAtTFUS: I want to go back to one area, the area of fear, and discuss that.  I think we agree the game at its best is gorgeous, thrilling, and the clincher is you can win a lot of money if you’re right about a race. But it’s like any other smart investment or game in which you are betting against opponents (the betting public, plus whatever % the house keeps), and profit comes when you go against the crowd to some extent. Horses who are short prices win their share, but the trick is to avoid them–or longshots–if the public is overrating their chances and the reward is not worth more than what is risked. Just as in the markets–or in any betting game–particularly when people are new to it, they play from a position of fear, and some stay scared for a long time, finding all sorts of elaborate ways to justify their fear. They have an aversion to risk, and while that’s just fine in a lot of ways, the player is greatly advantaged if he learns not to play from fear. Can you comment on that concept, with the new player in mind?

JustinAtTFUS:  Learning things on your own, as a rule, is worth 1000-times what you will learn from other people. So my best advice is that people who want to learn the game should read the basic material, get some sort of a grip on the fundamentals, and then go out on their own, in self-consciously solitary fashion, quietly learning things on their own, testing, adjusting, and then betting, but only small amounts at first. They should keep on tinkering with their approach until they have an opinion worth believing in. Then they should believe in it–disregarding handicapping done by committee, disregarding other people’s opinions, disregarding all the nonsense that this sport (often through the Internet, twitter, and TV) produces at such an inexhaustible rate. The best thing a beginner can do is to ignore the self-serving drivel, study on one’s own, develop a personal approach that works, and then endeavor never to let fear affect one’s betting. More than anything else, it is fear of losing that causes losing. How does one overcome fear? Now we have come full circle–to the George Clooney line in “Three Kings.” The way to overcome fear of betting one’s opinion is to develop the courage that comes only by relentlessly betting one’s opinion–in race after race after race, until you wouldn’t think of doing things differently. In other words, overcoming fear is a habit. Get into the habit. Whatever it takes.

MarcAtTFUS: Let’s wrap this up with that scene from Three Kings, yes (apologies for the coarse language):

Archie Gates: You’re scared, right?
Conrad Vig: Maybe.
Archie Gates: The way it works is, you do the thing you’re scared shitless of, and you get the courage AFTER you do it, not before you do it.
Conrad Vig: That’s a dumbass way to work. It should be the other way around.
Archie Gates: I know. (But) That’s the way it works.

For a related discussion on playing longshots, click here.

If you’re just looking for some crucial links on how to use TimeformUS PPs…


This entry was posted in Player's Point of View, Welcome to TimeformUS and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to New to playing the races? Welcome, and read on…

  1. nuancematters says:

    I just discovered your site and timeform. I find you both to be really insightful. Thanks!


  2. andy says:

    How about we get some derby predictions!?!;?



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