The very best lessons in handicapping are given by the track for the price of a losing ticket - you just have to be willing to learn them. One of the best and quickest ways to improve your handicapping is to review it after the race.

If a race unfolds pretty much as you thought it would, just quickly pat yourself on the back and remind yourself of what you thought would happen and what did happen so you can repeat your victory in the future.

If, on the other hand, it was one of those races that makes you feel like they replaced all the real horses with imposters, or maybe that the formguide mixed up the past performances with another race running concurrently in Uruguay, it's really beneficial to take the time to figure out where you went wrong.

Remember this: according to renowned handicapper George Santayana, "Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them."

Now, almost nobody I know does this. It goes against human nature to review the scene of a painful defeat.

Even when your handicapping was correct and your overlay won, it's easier and more common to forget about the last race and just revel in your winnings. I admit that I don't review races myself most of the time.

But, like many things that are good for you, if you can overcome your distaste and inertia, you'll reap benefits that will pay off in the future - in this case, in future handicapping situations.

If you're a decision-oriented handicapper as opposed to a selection-oriented handicapper, you handicap with multiple possible outcomes in mind.

For instance, a betting line comes from an estimation of probabilities in a race. The underlying presumption is that, in the normal course of events, a number of different horses can win. And remember: most winners are underlays. (Sure, every winner is an overlay after the race, but most of us have to bet before the race.)

You may have a horse at the top of your betting line at a 33 per cent win probability and 2/1 fair odds, and he wins at even money. Did you do anything wrong? Probably not. Your handicapping was likely just fine - it was just another of the majority of races which are won by underlays.

When you review a race, about 20 per cent of the time you'll find no reasonable explanation for what occurred. The race just fall under the "stuff happens" category.

Forget about it and move on. However, if you give a horse a 14 per cent chance of winning and assign him fair odds of 6 / 1, you shouldn't be surprised if he does, in fact, win. Even if you give a horse a 2 per cent chance of winning, you admit that sometimes he's going to finish first. But if he does win, you have to ask yourself this: Did a low probability event just happen or did I screw up with my estimation of the probabilities?

In truth, you'll never know the answer to that question. But it's worth an educated guess. Review the horse's past performances.

Is there something there you missed? Did the horse probably have a better shot than you estimated? Did you misjudge the way a pace duel would fry the frontrunners? Did you miss a strong bias that helped the winner? Does something in the horse's past performances jump out at you in 20-20 hindsight? Or does it still look like a pig who never should have won?

Keep in mind that every pony who ever existed has good points and bad points in its formlines.

Don't be one of those guys who looks at a 30/1 shot who just stumbled to victory in a low grade race and says something like, "I should have known he would win! It's all there in the form! He dropped back after the second call of the last race, but then gained two lengths in the stretch. It's the classic super-Z pattern."

If they then go on to look for that same factor in future races, it's not going to be pretty. Be reasonable in your post-race analysis. Use common sense - was there something you missed that caused this loser to be a winner in disguise? Or was it just one of those lowprobability events that happens every day at the racetrack?

Case in point recently: I handicapped the Breeder's Cup Distaff. The winner, Unbridled Elaine, wasn't even among my contenders.

Now, the mechanical contender method I used picks the winner among the contenders 87 per cent of the time according to my records.

Was this race just one of those 13 per cent where an outsider wins? Not really.

The trouble with handicapping the night before the race is that you can lack some key information. To me, scratchings and changes in track condition are key. Scratchings can change the list of contenders or affect the race's pace scenario.

Changes in track condition can strongly influence the predictors in a race. In the Distaff race, Exogenous and Fleet Renee, both contenders, were scratched. That changed the list of contenders to this:

Tranquility Lake 103
Flute 106.5
Miss Linda 104.5
Two Item Limit 99.5, noncontender
Unbridled Elaine 103
Queenie Belle 94, non-contender
Pompeii 104
Starrer 105
Atelier 94, non-contender
Critical Eye 92, non-contender
Spain 101, non-contender.

Unbridled Elaine is actually a contender according to the mechanical contender-picking rules when the scratchings are known. The handicapping program I used still didn't make it an overlay, however, because it ignores horses whose estimated probability is less than 12 per cent, as was Elaine's.

So, was Elaine's win a normal low-probability win by a marginal contender? Or was there more going on that I missed?

Handicapper RB posited to me that a strong headwind on the backstretch /tailwind on the stretch on Breeder's Cup day may have affected some of the earlier races on the card.

For instance, the Sprint, with its short run to the turn and longer run down the stretch set up for frontrunners.

Conversely, races like the Distaff would have disadvantaged frontrunners who faced the brunt of the headwind on the backstretch, and advantaged come from-behinders, who would have most benefited from the tailwind down the stretch.

I think  this analysis is reasonable and insightful. Since I wasn't aware of the strong wind, I missed this effect, and probably over-estimated the chances of frontrunners like Tranquility Lake.

If I had downgraded Tranquility Lake's chances, that would have been enough to promote Unbridled
Elaine into overlay status. So, my Distaff post-analysis boils down to this:

  1. Handicapping without scratchings and track condition changes is hazardous.
  2. I probably missed the wind bias on Breeder's Cup day, and that threw my estimations off enough that I missed the winner. I should have included one more bold heading in my pre-race analysis: Is there a bias?

Handicapping in review is helpful because you start to get a feel for what a winner looks like in the form. It's how you refine your handicapping judgement.

In the same way, it's useful to review videotapes of the races after you know who the winner is again, you get a feel for what a winner looks like while running a race.

(Post-race video watching has helped me develop a knack for picking the winner at the top of the stretch. If only they'd let me bet at the top of the stretch.)

The best handicapping lessons are the ones you give yourself by reviewing your handicapping after the race is run.

Gordon Pine is associated with the Netcapper website which you can find at

Pay a visit!

By Gordon Pine