US racing expert George Kaywood recognised early on, in the 1990s, that the Internet was going to play a pivotal role in the world of international horseracing in the future. His bestseller Handicapping in Cyberspace has become one of the bestknown books in recent years for horse racing fans. In this article, we feature some of George Kaywood's musings on various aspects of handicapping.

My friend Spotplay and I have been talking with horse racing bettors close to home and all over the country lately to see if our current perception of the state of handicapping is on target.

Specifically, he and I think that as handicappers, we have entered a Golden Age in which excellent mutuels and increased ROIs are waiting to be taken by players, now more than any time in the past 20-25 years. What has brought about these wonderful opportunites? Apathy. Laziness The dumbing down of America People not taking responsibility for their own actions is the catchphrase that has seemingly fuelled everything from small and large lawsuits to problems with families, business, and Lord knows what else. In the world of handicapping, it seems to us that more people want easy answers and computer programs that spit out winners than to do the work needed to beat the races on their own with their personal edge.

People not taking responsibility for their own handicapping.

There is simply no substitute to making your own information and running with it. Your knowledge of the game and its nuances is greatly sharpened when you collect and generate your own information, and not just raw data.

For example, short-term post position win percentages can put you on to a track bias that may take the public a while to figure out, and allow you to ride a short bandwagon to big returns.

The point is that there are plenty of great bets, good solid betting opportunities for players who are willing to work, in much the same way that the punters who made their own speed ratings after Andy Beyer's Picking Winners was published, managed to hit solid horses at solid prices while those around them at the track muttered "How did THAT horse ever manage to win this race?"

In the mid-80s, a popular handicapping guru advocated betting two horses per race to win, depending on the odds, as the wagering part of the overall handicapping strategy.

The profitability of this approach has been slammed by other racing luminaries again and again, using studies to prove that betting one horse to win is the most profitable approach in the long run.

And they're right-for handicappers who are proficient enough to maintain about a 20 per cent winning percentage at minimally acceptable odds to show a long-term profit.

But what about recreational players? These punters, who play on weekends and maybe one other day a week, who silently want to make a big score but who really are happy to go home with more than they took to the races, because of their approach, do not consistently use a structured wagering program.

It may be useful for players of all ability levels to reconsider the twohorses-to-win betting philosophy as we enter a new millennium in horse racing that is characterised by a troublesome occurrence, small fields.

Let's say you're a casual player who considers himself better than a beginner but less than an expert. Like many other players, in small fields you can narrow the winner down to two contenders, but find yourself zigging and zagging when it comes to nailing the winner consistently. If you can narrow the competition in short fields down to two regularly, is a profit of about 20 per cent acceptable?

Try this approach-but try it on paper first-and see if it will satisfy your desire to cash tickets and go home a winner.

  1. Play is restricted to fields of between 6-8 horses. We want to restrict the number of possibilities to increase the chances of your having the winner.
  2. Using your preferred handi-capping style, narrow down the field to your two top contenders. Be honest with yourself - if you can't narrow it down to only two horses, it's best to pass.
  3. The minimum odds on the lower odds horse must not be lower than 7-5 ($2.40 for $l). At 7-5, a $2 bet on two horses will return $4.80, which is a 20 per cent profit. "Risk $4 to make 80 cents?" I hear you asking. The logic is that if you win, you make at least a 20 per cent profit, and your higher-odds selections will come in often enough so that your profit will exceed 20 per cent and return some decent money.

    Besides, for many people who invested in the stock market or even a mutual fund they thought was a safe investment over the last two years, 20 per cent profit seems astronomical!

    Let's say one of your two selections is in fact 7-5, and the other is 3-1. The higher odds horse wins. Your $4 investment returns $8.00 for a 100 per cent return: $4 profit on a $4 investment.
  4. If one of your horses goes off at 6-5, no play.

Obviously, this is not a sophisticated approach. But it is useful for the casual player, beginning handicappers who have enough to contend with in picking logical contenders, much less develop and utilize a wagering strategy, and for the more experienced player in a down cycle who wants action, handicapping exercise, and a stress-free day at the races.

Handicapping and wagering are an odd couple. Like human couples who are married, they have to work together most of the time and yet sometimes, one operates almost completely independently of the other.

When I moved to Omaha in the early 80s, Ak-Sar-Ben was in its glory days, regularly showing up in each weekend's count as one of the top 10 tracks in the country in terms of attendance and handle.

So I'm guessing that it was fairly representative of the changes in racing and wagering that were starting to take place nationally. Exactas and trifectas were available only on selected races, not on every race on the card, as they are at so many tracks today.

The primary focus for handicappers at that time was to handicap the winner of each race, not to pick the horses most likely to finish in the money to try to nail an exotic bet.

The literature of handicapping, especially over the last five years, is filled with discussion about value. That is, don't bet a horse that handicaps on top for you unless you're also sure he's an overlay. The theory says if he wins, you still made "the right bet" even though you don't have a ticket to cash in your hand.

I know many casual players, recreational players, as they're sometimes called, who would strongly disagree. And without players like these, there wouldn't be enough people to keep the doors open!

Is this you? Does your frame of reference not include a studied concept of "value" wagering? Welcome to the majority of punters at the racetrack! You're in good company and certainly not to be castigated if you do not delve deep into value.

At Ak-Sar-Ben, I had many friends who would ALWAYS (no exaggeration here) "baseball" the exacta; that is, take a three-horse box for $12 ($2 units). There was no dollar exacta wagering at that time. I'm sure that there are plenty of people who still do this today.

I would ask them, "Who do you like to win?" Most of the time, their reply was "It doesn't make any difference." I would then ask, "Well, if there wasn't any exacta wagering in this race, which of the three would you bet to win?"

The answers and looks I got were pretty nasty~ Apparently, I insulted their intelligence or was construed as just plan uppity!

No-one can argue that the object of betting thoroughbreds is to make money. But the original starting point is, and must always be, to find the winning horse, and it's most logical to use your top-handicapped horse as the key in your exotic wagers, in this case, the exacta.

Let's assume a not-uncommon scenario: your handicapping has narrowed down the field to three horses. You can't stop there and settle for a 3-horse exacta box. You have to handicap the most likely winner of the race. (Remember: suppose there was no exacta wagering in the race.)

Once you have made your selection and are satisfied with the probable payoffs, use the horse as the key in a wheel with him on top of the other two and on the bottom. Let's say horse number four is your top selection of three contenders, numbers 4, 6, and 7.

Visualise a sandwich:


The first thing you've done is reduce the cost of your bet from $12 to $8 (using $2 as the minimum bet). That's 33 per cent less, and that's a lot in horseracing. And, you have been forced to concentrate on handicapping.

If you have allocated $12 to wager, and have a solid third horse to use in the sandwich, in essence it's like getting a fourth horse to use in a bet for the same amount you would use for an exacta box.

While he doesn't care for exacta wheels, James Quinn, in The Best of Thoroughbred Handicapping, offers several points that can help make your sandwiches even tastier:

  1. Far more often than not, favourites in exactas are overlays on bottom but underlays on top.
  2. Extreme favourites (odds on) that figure to win can sometimes be supported on top of mediumpriced horses and longshots, especially when the second and third public choices are overbet and can be eliminated.
  3. Two longshots are invariably overbet as exacta combinations.
  4. Two medium-priced horses represent the most generous choice of exacta overlays.

Let me re-emphasise that this tip is truly a "blue-collar" tip and stands in contrast to the valueoriented principles espoused by some experts, which, while perfectly valid, are simply not part of the tools for most players today. With this in mind, anything that can help you get more for your wagering dollar is a "value"-able find.

I knocked a book off my bookshelf the other day. it was Ainslie's Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing, one of the oldies but goodies that I re-read from time to time and in which I still discover new ways to look at handicapping concepts. I decided to see which page it fell open to, and it happened to be the chapter "Handicapping Theories", and the heading "You Can't Win 'Em All".

I had to read it!

In this section, Ainslie talks about the differences among different successful handicapping methods. I've often kicked this around myself, and I'm sure you've mused about it as well.

If you're a speed or pace-oriented player, you may wonder how it is that your fellow player who concentrates entirely on class and consistency picks the same horse you do, or lands an "unpredictable" winner that you just couldn't include in your handicapping selections.

Or the weekend player who, using just a few traditional handicapping factors, only bets a horse that won its last race. Or, likewise, in the same manner, the bettor who begins by eliminating any horse that won its last race.

It's hard to accept that any one of these different types of players can be classified as an expert, but at the end of the meet or season, if that player has stuck to his preferred handicapping method and shown a profit, can he not be called a pro?

If you are one of the majority or players who haven't settled into just one approach to handicapping, or you keep tinkering year-round trying to improve your performance, you might do well to think about three key ideas that Ainslie named his "Prescription for Success".

  1. The handicapper who has the time and patience to use an approach that is very detailed using all possible approaches to handicapping and learns when to favour one over another depending on the race will make the fewest bets, picks the highest percentage of winners, and generally have the highest rate of Profit.
  2. The handicapper who does not devote as much time and effort will make more bets, and pick a lower percentage of winners, but may earn the same or nearly the same profit as the handicapper described in profile (1).

    How can this be? The answer is truly simple: the median or average tote price tends to rise, so the rate of profit goes down slightly, if at all.

    Ainslie says this is why some players keep trying to simplify their approach for most of their lives. Further, he postulates that an educated player equipped with five or six spot plays can find a few plays a day and be just as much a pro as the first handicapper profiled here.
  3. Rate of profit is important but is not everything. No one puts the numbers together to explain basic racetrack math like Ainslie. Let's look at a hypothetical 15-day period at a track. A conservative player who can be categorised as the one profiled in profile (1) might make 30 bets. betting $20 on each horse, and collecting a profit of 25 cents per dollar. His net profit is $150.

Now, consider a type (2) player, less conservative, who in the same 15 day period makes 60 bets, and makes a profit of 15 cents on the dollar. His net profit is $180.

# of BetsProfit per $Total Profit
Have you figured out yet when to stop handicapping?

I can't think of a single book, class, system, method, or seminar that addresses this question, and that's why so many handicappers spend time regularly trying to perfect the handicapping approach that can make even more money for them.

The answer should be obvious, but like so many things in horse racing, it's not. The answer is: "When you feel comfortable."

I once attended a radio seminar in which the question was asked "When is it time to hang up your headphones?" Like others in the group, I assumed the speaker was talking about retiring from the profession, and it made me uncomfortable. After some discussion, he said "The time to hang up your headphones is at the end of your shift."

What he meant was that you shouldn't take your work home with you. While handicapping is a highly personal activity that most of us do at home, the message is the same: getting away from it regularly is just as good for your long-term play as it is for your mental health.

Ainslie's "prescription" for players has a lot more meaning then he may have had in mind when he wrote it.

To paraphrase the Dean of handicapping writers, Tom Ainslie:

It's easy to handicap a winner when the race is over. I've done it, you've done it, EVERYONE has done it. You wonder how you could have possibly failed to notice before the race what suddenly becomes so obvious afterwards.

Tom noted in his landmark Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing (a book to read over and over again for a refresher on basic handicapping that never goes out of date) that there are many people playing the races who in fact do know a lot about the game but manage to defeat themselves through sloppy handicapping.

In a game where a single thoughtless move can convert profit into loss, why is there such a lack of commonsense at the races?

The answer is not even close to "woulda, coulda, shoulda," which may be one of the first thoughts that comes to mind. It's not as simple as "looked like the best horse in the race by far on paper", "ran against a bias", or "didn't like the track" (if you're a trainer talking to an owner).

The answer is a stunningly simple one that somehow manages to get past the commonsense of all players from novice to expert from time to time, that can be summarised in one simple rule:

Avoid playing any race in which the relative abilities of the horses are not clearly evident.

Of course, this doesn't apply if you're a punter who has to find a bet in every race. You are the weakest link. Goodbye. But for everyone left, we need to change our terminology, because words / ideas repeated over and over really do affect your thinking and in this case, your game.

It's not an unplayable race; it's an unbeatable race. When the past performances of the majority of horses in a race do not contain adequate information about the horses' class, condition, or distance and pace preferences, the race is unbeatable.

Sure, you can resort to an angle that rationalises a bet, but when you do, you're admitting that you're taking a shot because you don't have a clear idea of the merits of the horses in the race. If you're a casual player, this is hard to swallow because it forces you to work harder, and in this age of instant gratification, fewer and fewer people are willing to do that, especially for what they consider a recreational pastime.

But this is how profits are made in the game. Whether your preferred approach is dominated by a particular school of thought-class, speed, pace, whatever-or you are a generalist, when you encounter those races in which the relative abilities of the horses can't be found, PASS the race.

**George Kaywood's book Handicapping in Cyberspace is available from Internet book shops.  Go to for more information.

By George Kaywood