Mark Cramer is the author of numerous books such as Kinky Handicapping, Value Handicapping and the racing novel Scared Money as well as the Funky Towns USA and numerous Culture Shock travel guides. He is currently the author of the monthly C&X Report, available at, and has appeared on countless talkback shows.

You can also find his European Report regularly (and free) on James Quinn's site Cramer is most famous for his "against the crowd" betting ideas, and his endless research into "different" and oftentimes strange handicapping angles. In this exclusive interview, he talks with PPA4s Tasmanian based writer Steve Wood.

Steve Wood: Hi, Mark, thanks for the interview. Now tell me, what on earth is the most famous "kinky" handicapper in the USA doing in Paris, France?

Mark Cramer: Like most Americans, I was, for years, dependent on the automobile. There was one time, in California, when we were a three-car household. Because of single-use zoning, the separation of commerce from residence, we were obligated to get into our car to get the racing form, buy a loaf of bread, or go to have a drink at the bar.

You can't enjoy a couple of drinks with friends when you know you have to drive a motor vehicle afterwards. Going to the racetrack becomes a major excursion. Europe offered me an alternative to the insanity of automobile dependency, which is bad for the environment, for obvious reasons.

It's bad for health, because human beings are constructed to do things on foot and, in my case, getting in and out of cars and driving in traffic was wearing me down. In Paris you can get anywhere you want in the subway, and France has an incredibly efficient railroad system, which adds to the pleasure of travel.

I also appreciate the general context: the cafe culture, the preservation of centuries-old architecture. As a hiker and occasional climber, I appreciate the esoteric network of hiking paths criss-crossing a country, arriving at mediaeval villages, castles, and mountain vistas, beaches with palisades, and always, to another off-track betting cafe or racetrack region. (My Australian friends and colleagues are the type who, if you'd suggest walking across an entire country, would accept the challenge.)

In Paris, every newsstand sells the racing form. There's an off-track betting cafe across the street from my apartment. And seven different racetracks are reachable by subway or train from my apartment. Instead of driving all the way, I can sit back in the train and read the racing paper. No more parking lots either. Travel to the States is easy, so I can go back there often to play the races. While abroad, I've also learned to appreciate things about the USA that many folks there take for granted: superb public services like libraries and the post office, a philosophy of "the customer is always right", a culture in which disclosure of information is a priority, and a well-oiled bureaucracy.

But the context, totally set up for the automobile, the vast parking lots and exhausting freeways in what author James Howard Kunstler called "the geography of nowhere" finally took its toll on me.

SW: Could you first explain to us what you mean by "straight" handicapping factors, and why you have occasionally referred to them as "banal fixations?"

Cramer: Straight handicapping factors, like finish position, final time, speed figures, and listed class designation are seen by everyone. Although they do point the way to many winning horses, the average payout is too small for a long-term profit, since the pari-mutuel system lowers the odds as the action increases.

They are banal fixations because they are obvious and they coerce us in a visceral way to not pursue and act on the more extraordinary discoveries we could be finding between the lines of the past performances.

One example: a winning horse in America increases its final time "Beyer speed figure", from the most recent race to the winning race, by 8.7 points. That was the result of my research. This means that the handicapper must PROJECT improvement. It means that the typical stockbroker apology is true: past performance is not an indicator of future behaviour.

SW:  When analysing a race and projecting improvement, are you looking at fundamental factors as well as "kinky" angles? In other words, do you ever have a "straight" bet?

Cramer: I think most of us need to understand the fundamental factors. Otherwise we'd be playing a suicidal game of "beat the favourite" without picking the right spots.

In fact, there are times when a straight bet pays off better than it should, in cases when a hyped publicity horse is in the same field. Occasionally the public makes a collective mistake. A straight better with great patience to pass races has a chance to grind out a profit.

I also have my own fundamental factors, which for other players may seem secondary. The high percentage trainer for example. My research in both France and America shows that high percentage trainers account for more than their fair share of longshots. But there's no way to enumerate kinky factors in a mechanical way.

Why? Well, there are only two or three "reasons" why favourites win races. But there are countless reasons for longshots to win, with each reason (combination of factors) popping up only occasionally. The grinder-outer looks at each race as a similar puzzle. The longshot player looks at every race as a distinct puzzle.

Here's an example. The cliché says we should "never bet a horse that's trying two things for the first time". I love to bet such a horse. For example, a lightly raced horse that has only sprinted and only raced on dirt and is now stretching out (change 1) to the grass (change 2). For me, if this horse is bred to go long and bred to love the grass, then poor dirt-sprint form in his previous race becomes a plus factor.

More often than not, my bets combine some fundamental factors with one or two kinky factors. But that depends on how you define fundamental factors.

For most players, in the States, pedigree is a secondary factor, as is trainer specialty. For me these are fundamental factors. In the case of the failed dirt sprinter, I'd prefer the turf stretch out to be engineered by a trainer who specialises in grass racing.

I also like to bet horses after a layoff because the average odds of such horses increases. Provided the trainer knows how to win on the comeback.

SW:  One thing you've said about "angles" is that they are of most value in a "lesser of evils" race. Could you give us an example of what you consider to be a "lesser of evils" race, and differentiate between that and the contentious race?

Cramer: I think lesser-of-evils races are the opposite side of the same coin of a contentious race. A contentious race includes many horses that are capable of winning. In a lesser-of-evils race, none of the horses seem capable of winning.

If you're a speed handicapper, a lesser-of-evils race is one in which none of the horses can run to par. If you're a class handicapper, it's a race in which all the horses are proven losers at today's class level.

The fastest horse usually doesn't win a lesser-of-evils race. Nor does the classiest. So you can see why angles take precedence. I usually pass such races. But if there's some sort of pattern match, I may play it.

For example: the combination of switching to the track of the last victory and changing to the rider of the horse's last victory. With these two changes, maybe the horse can increase his Beyer speed figure by 8.7 points.

SW:  You place a lot of importance on an odds line, and naturally emphasise "value" betting. Angles have a "built-in" value factor, so could you tell us in what kind of races do you make a line? Is it those that you don't have an angle in? Perhaps you could expand on your "race category" idea?

Cramer: That's a loaded question. I'll try to be concise. I differentiate between race category (based on class designations) and handicapping category (based on the type of puzzle we must solve to come up with a winning bet). I much prefer the latter.

The word "angle" is misleading. For the straight player, an angle is a secondary factor. For the "kinky" player, the angle IS the primary factor. Making a personal odds line, for me, is not a science but an art. It involves deciding which are the primary factors that should decide the winner of this type of race, then tallying the pluses and minuses of each horse in the field.

The more pluses and fewer minuses, the lower the horse's odds in the betting line. One example of a handicapping category is the "co contender" race. This is a universal handicapping category. If you see only two contenders in a race and they have an equal chance to win, then in theory you can give your contenders an 80 per cent chance and your non-contenders a 20 per cent chance collectively.

Why 80 per cent? Because one of the contenders in a race (whether two or more contenders), for most good handicappers, will win about 60 per cent of the time. But we only make an odds line when we know something special about the race, a unique insight.

If indeed we have this unique insight, then we can expect our contenders to have a better chance against the non-contenders. Eighty twenty seems to be a magic number in many professions. It's somewhat arbitrary I imagine, and I retain the right to change this percentage, but it's a good starting point.

So if my two contenders, collectively, have an 80 per cent chance, that means individually they each have a 40 per cent chance. Forty per cent equals 3/2 odds. If they are paying 3/2, there is no bet.

If they're paying less than 3/2, there's no bet.

But if I can get a 50 per cent overlay (betting advantage), in other words, 2/1, then I'd have a bet. If I had four  contenders, each with an equal chance, then each would have a 20 per cent chance. Twenty per cent translates to 4 / 1. A 50 per cent edge ABOVE 4/1 would be 6/1.

That means I could bet whichever of these horses were going off at 6/1 or more. But if two of them were 6/1, my edge decreases because I'd be betting on at least one automatic loser, so in this case, I'd demand 7/1.

SW:  Would I be right if I guessed that you would pass a race in which you had three or more overlays?

Cramer: If I have three or more overlays, it usually means I've done something wrong and should pass. Yes. But not all the time. Certain types of races are normally diagnosed wrong by the public. In those races I feel comfortable betting three horses.

An example that all your readers could relate to is the typical Breeders' Cup race. If, since the beginning of the Breeders' Cup, you'd have bet every horse in every race, you'd have a profitable bottom line. Of course, not all Breeders' Cup favourites are false. I'm talking about the long run. Only the BC juvenile shows a slight loss for the random bettor backing every horse.

SW:  You've mentioned requiring a unique insight into the race to create the odds line. Do the usual class, weights, speed and pace enter the mix as well? How do you deal with all these different situations?

Cramer: As I mentioned, each race has a different mix. The dynamics of each race may be different. Sometimes, we need to analyse every factor we know. Occasionally there's what I call a "one-factor race". I love these. My favourite one-factor race is a turf maiden race in which none of the horses have

been on the grass, or those that have been on the grass have run poorly.

In this race category (one-factor race), I'd bet the one or two horses that had excellent turf pedigree. If there's only one that qualifies, I'd make him 1/2. That's the lowest odds I can make any horse on my line. But in this particular scenario, American handicappers are analysing dirt speed, dirt finish position, etc., factors that to me are irrelevant since this is a grass race.

SW:  One of the "banal fixations" you've talked about is the "top pick" fixation, where handicappers won't look past their top choice. Can you tell us why it is necessary to go past the top choice, how far one can go down, and what sort of value margin are we looking for?

Cramer: Most good longshots are not our top pick. They have some esoteric factors in their favour but they usually have one or two negative factors that dissuade the bettors from backing them. Okay, so this type of horse is certainly not a lock. Maybe he's worth 4/1, because he has only a 20 per cent chance to win. But if he goes to post at 18/1, and if my top pick is 3/2 when he should be 3/1, then why not bypass the top pick and go for the price?

I can give you an example where this did not work. In the Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, Sakhee, my top pick, was 3/1 in my odds line, in a 17-horse field. There were too many other good contenders to make him less than 3/1.

He went off at 2/1 so I couldn't bet him. Instead, Golan, who was 9/2 on my personal odds line, went off at 7/1, a big advantage. So I wagered on Golan, who finished fourth. Sakhee won. I was not at all bothered, since the Golans make me money and the Sakhees do not.

In retrospect, I probably didn't give enough weight to the Godolphin-Dettori factor: this was the hottest stable-rider combination in the world at that time. Another handicapper, one who believed this horse had no chance to lose, could have made him 2/1 ON in his line, and then, 2/1 against would have been great value.

SW:  How do you feel about the proliferation of easy access to racing databases, and the amazing amount of information that is available these days? It seems that almost any statistic is available these days, such as breeding stats, which used to be the basis of one of your favourite types of bets. Have we seen the last of the kinky handicapper's heyday?

Cramer: Here’s an example. The Daily Racing Form (USA) publishes the turf pedigree ratings of every horse. I used to have to look that up horse by horse. Last March at Aqueduct, on the grass, there was a maiden race that included Palladium Dancer, whose turf pedigree rating was a through-the-roof 400. (You'll have to take my word that rarely does any horse get this high a grass rating.)

Every other horse in the race was either bred to hate the grass or was a proven loser on the grass. For me, it was a one-factor race, so Palladium Dancer, trying the grass for the first time, could be rated at 2/1 ON. That means he'd be a value bet at 2/1.

But the public chose to demote him because of his poor finish position ON THE DIRT. Remember he's bred for grass, not dirt.

The public chose to bet other horses with good dirt races in their past performances, an irrelevant factor for me. Palladium Dancer won and paid off at odds of 5/1. This shows that the betting public is conditioned to favour certain types of information and to belittle other factors or stats.

Contrarian factors will always have a place in horse betting. If one day the public fully embraces the turf pedigree factor in maiden races, then I'll have to move on and choose which factor is being underbet.

SW:  Speaking of information, isn't there a real danger for many handicappers to experience information overload? How does one cope with the reams of data that are available on any given race, without suffering from brain strain?

Cramer: Ask yourself which types of information are under used by the public and which are overused. Lean heavily towards the underused factors when deciding on which info to choose.

SW:  With all of this "leaning towards underused factors " we must have to settle for a lower strike rate than fundamental handicapping aims for. When testing something new, is there a minimum strike rate that you like to see, and does this mean we need to play a lower percentage of bankroll than the 2 per cent we've all been taught?

Cramer: If the average mutual is higher, the strike rate can be lower with no problem. However, with a lower strike rate, there's a higher probability of longer sequences of losers. I can't answer this question for your readers, since each one probably has his or her own methods. In my case, I've learned that my 5/ls do nearly as well as my 2/1s. So I'd be self-destructive to bet less on the 5/1s than the 2/Is. In fact, I should probably forget about everything below 7/2.

SW:  You seem to place a lot of emphasis on the "mind game" of successful handicapping, what seems to be a dead topic to most handicappers. Could you detail some of your thoughts about what makes the mind of a winning punter tick?

Cramer: We can probably all use some therapy here, including yours truly. Some handicappers are too bold. Every horse they come up with seems to them like their ticket to early retirement.

They risk going over the line to where horse betting becomes self destructive. Others are too cautious and can't seem to act on their handicapping conclusions with enough abandon. I've gone through periods when I'd bet like a macho on insufficient information and should have bet like a wimp. Or other periods where I've bet like a wimp and should have bet like a macho.

Sometimes extraneous things in my life intrude in my betting psychology. If my normally healthy son has an allergy attack, I feel vulnerable and don't dig deep in my pocket at the betting window. If my wife and I have just climbed a difficult (for us) mountain, I may feel invincible and bet too much the next day.

Knowing these weaknesses, I've been able to take some corrective measures. I share this personal anecdotal betting psychology to suggest that each one of us is different. We must be willing to analyse our betting decisions in a critical way, and then relate them to things about ourselves, which we may not want to know.

Honesty is the best policy. In my C&X Racing Report, we do interviews and profiles of winning players. I can testify that there's no one profile of a winning player. But there are some characteristics in common.

For example, I've never met a winning player who doesn't keep records of his or her bets. Winning players have also been willing to make fundamental changes in their approach, at least once or twice in their gambling life, if not more.

The guy who brags that he's had 20 years of betting experience may have only one year of experience repeated twenty times.

SW:  What I humbly consider to be one of your greatest discoveries is the "exacta as a place bet" concept. I think it would have to be perhaps the simplest and most effective "safety net" for the longs hot bettor.

Could you outline the idea for our readers, and perhaps give us an idea as to why it is so effective?

Cramer: You’ve discovered a longshot. Great handicapping. No one else in the grandstand knows what you know. Live longshots finish second twice as much as first, according to my research.

So when you have chosen a live one, you will encounter the supreme frustration of getting NOTHING for your insight more often than not ... that is if you bet win only. In America, favourites finish first about a third of the time. That means that if you back up your win longshot with an exacta-as-place bet (the favourite on top of your longshot), you get rewarded much more than if you'd bet win place.

This is exclusively when you believe the favourite is legit. If you believe the favourite is vulnerable, you might as well bet it win /place. In the Breeders' Cup Classic back in 1995 I believe, when Cigar won the Classic, I loved L'Carriere at 50/1. Naturally I bet him to win. Since Cigar was legit, I played the exacta with Cigar on top of L’Carriere and got back a pay off of 42/1. L’Carriere paid 10/1 to place.

Sometimes you can do a partial backwheel with two or three contenders you think are the only other horses in the race, and your longshot in the second slot. But if the race is wide open and you have a live longshot, then I recommend betting it to win-place.

By the way, Steve, in an interview like this one, I'm obligated to use winning examples, like the one I just mentioned. If you had more pages for me, I'd give you the proper proportion of losing examples as well.

Click here to read Part 2.

By Steve Wood