While I get email from time to time from advanced punters asking for more sophisticated information, the vast majority of messages come from handicappers whose abilities range from beginner to somewhere in that big area best labelled "less than expert".

It's always a good time to regroup, so to speak, take a hard look at what you did handicapping-wise in the preceding year, review the basics and modify your handicapping approach.

Much of what I write here has been inspired by the handicapping classic, Ainslie's Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing, by Tom Ainslie. It's one of the few books on racing that contains ideas that weather the passing of time very well, with few becoming totally outdated.

I love the term that Ainslie uses to describe where all handicapping should begin: "The fundamental launching pads of handicapping".

  1. Suitability to distance. The simple truth is that the winning range of most horses is severely limited. Each year, there certainly are a few superstars who can romp home in sprints and also stretch out to dominate in longer races as well. But these are the exceptions to the rule, and most will be found in the best-of-the-best races. It's easy to forget to ask yourself if a trainer has entered a horse into a race purely as a freshener that will not include ally type of real effort.
  2. Condition. For many, the most challenging part of the handicapping puzzle. Form cycles don't conform to consistent, easy-to-spot patterns. Obviously, recency is an important factor. Workouts (usually for better horses) combined with trainer stats (often ones that need to be much more detailed than many of the off-the-shelf ones widely available nowadays) should be used when necessary; another judgement call that varies from player to player.

    Running lilies and running trouble: forgivable or not? No single answer is correct, and what works best for you can only be determined by keeping records, something that most punters simply will not do. Amazing, because it's one of the most valuable edges you can have.
  3. Class. Here's one where Ainslie and I part company. I lean heavily toward using prizemoney values to determine the class of horses and the class of race.
  4. Suitability to today's racing surface/track bias. Fortunately, one of the easier, but still very important, "launching pads" that can help handicappers to keep or throw out horses as contenders. Easier, because punters have access to much more information today than in years past to determine the likely answers to these ponderables.   In looking at the first "fundamental launching pad" of handicapping, I quoted Tom Ainslie's maxim, "The winning range of most horses is severely limited".  Let's start with a reminder for seasoned players and an important fact for newcomers that illustrate more precisely what this means. Horses who compete in and win 1200m races may always be runners-up at 1400m. A horse who can win at 1700m may have a running style such that it simply cannot run faster when it shortens up to a mile and never wins when matched with true "mile" runners.

Many players forget that trainers are simply not trying to win each and every race in which they enter their horses. A sprinter who wins and then tails off may come back from a spell with a sprint followed by a longer race. If the post-spell race shows anything - early speed for a fraction, a real move between segments later - the longer race is probably not the "crackdown" race, but another conditioner to ready the horse for a suitable sprint next time

How do you know? Highly detailed commercially-produced trainer records may be helpful. The best records are  those you keep yourself, since they help you to learn specific patterns that stay with you.

But records, including the "records" within a horse's past performances, must be tempered with reality. When we enter the spring of the year when younger horses are tested at different distances for the first time, how do you handle the distance factor?

Unless you decide to really become a specialist, using pedigree and breeding information coupled with well-proven records of trainer habits (and even then, a bet remains an educated guess), betting horses who have not developed any type of record at a distance is risky business.

What is "any type of record at the distance"? To keep it simple, I use a finish within two lengths of the winner; an old but reliable yardstick.

Let's look at a couple of common situations and the ultimate answer to the distance factor.

Occasionally you'll find a sprinter who runs fast early in his sprints but always seems to cough it up in the stretch or just before entered in a longer race.

Will he take the lead and go all the way in a race that is supposed to have a slower pace? I say no, and bet against such horses. Such animals win from time to time but most lack the stamina it takes to make the distance change. If I bet races with horses stretching out, I much prefer sprinters who consistently run mid-pack and finish evenly – that is to say, who don't quit in the final stages.

Sometimes, these horses surprise even themselves by taking the lead and being rated well enough to go all the way.

But insist on good odds.'

I almost always throw these types out. Because of what appears to be a class edge, they often go off as favourites ... false favourites.

Because the distance factor is entwined with such factors as speed and class, the challenge of analysing it in detail for specific situations is a tough one. The bottom line may seem like a copout to some, but the reality of racing today provides a simple solution:

Pass the race!

Racing coverage via cable TV has changed racing in many ways. With the literally HUGE number of races available, there is no need to waste time on races in which the distance factor is a major issue.

Bypassing such races is not an admission of weakness. Removing the distance factor by sticking with races filled with confirmed sprinters or middle-distance types lightens the handicapping load. Anything that makes picking winners at prices easier is a blessing.

Without a doubt, assessing current racing condition is the toughest challenge facing any handicapper. Read twenty books on handicapping and you'll find twenty different ways to handicap condition. No wonder beginners are confused when they encounter this handicapping factor.

Let's look at some of the most popular and most important concepts that come under the umbrella of the condition factor, and try to formulate a workable conclusion to handle it.

Just as it's a truism that favourites win one-third of all races, so is it a truism that two out of three of all races are won by horses whose most recent start was within a couple of weeks of the winning race. But this is no big deal, simply because two out of three of ALL horses that go to the post have had a race within two weeks! This, according to Ainslie, as far back as 1968 ... some 34 years ago!

It's really annoying to see a horse who hasn't raced in a full year (or TWO, in a few truly rare cases) come back to the races and win at first asking. While the tote board may tell you someone is betting heavily on him (which can lead to a "lemming stampede" by puzzled bettors who want to hedge their bets), common-sense seems to tell you a win is unlikely. Best approach: pass the race.  Without your own superior records, this is gambling, not handicapping.

The most memorable overheard comment by players is "HOW COULD THAT HORSE WIN? THIS RACE WAS FIXED!"

Many seeming reversals of form are nothing more than a trainer, skilfully or accidentally, placing his horse into a race in which the horse holds several edges at the same time - class, speed or pace, and condition - even when it looks like he is competing against similar horses who have beaten him regularly.

I've had the good fortune (read: after lots of hard work) to catch a couple of these. The most outstanding was a cheap claiming race at Former Park (USA), in which a horse was raced into shape for three races, the last of which had adjusted speed and pace ratings (made by me) that showed after the track variant was factored in, the horse, who finished 7th in a ten horse field, had had a major tune-up and was ready to roar.

He was nailed at the wire by the favourite, but the $2 exacta, with him running 2nd at OVER 100/1, returned $729. Others at my table muttered ". . . fix!" but I knew why that horse ran as well as he did. There was no fix, no chemical enhancement. And I mention this in detail to demonstrate that it takes WORK and that you won't find bets like this every day.

But even once in several years is enough, not just for bragging rights but as reinforcement that you can win at the races.

Deciding whether a horse is running over its head can largely be a part of those personal records I referred to above. Your own records are what tells the truth and makes it somewhat easier from a form point of view to have a better handle on condition.

You've seen horses who can hold their form for a long time, as evidenced by their past performances. But what about the ones who go in and out of condition in erratic patterns? The ones who can win a couple in a row, then seemingly win here and there with no discernible pattern?

Certainly the class factor comes into play, and juggling class and condition in races like these is a fabulous example of what makes handicapping in art and not a science.

From a condition point of view, I look for a horse who flashed early pace or stayed fairly close to the pace in a race following a couple of lacklustre, even or worse performances. This is a sign of improvement that must be used by a trainer within a race or two. I love second (and sometimes third) starts after layoffs, and the prices are usually better than you might think.

Of course, this is not an automatic spot play, as we're only talking about ONE handicapping factor. But it can be a great point to start, depending on your circuit.


  1. Don't be bound by traditional maxims that include automatic cut-off time periods as strict elimination guidelines.
  2. Try to keep personal, detailed racing/ workout records even if just for a few trainers at tracks you like to play.
  3. Do not ignore the factor of condition, but regard it as one of the most "iffy" parts of handicapping.

This article has been adapted for Australian conditions from one of George Kaywood's
excellent articles at: http://www.gambleinparadise.com.

By George Kaywood