A handicapper who can win as frequently as the crowd, 33 per cent, but at 5/2 odds (the public averages 8/5), boasts a splendid 15 per cent edge on the game. As Dick Mitchell has pointed out, by improving handicapping proficiency 10 per cent, profits triple.

This is the attainable goal all recreational handicappers should set sails to achieve 33 per cent winners, average odds of 5-2, a 15 per cent edge and profit margin. The reality for the casual majority is closer to 30 per cent winners at odds of 5-2, a mere 5 per cent profit margin.

The “edge” is important. A handicapper’s true edge on the game suggests the optimal bet-size. It’s the edge divided by the odds to $1.00. If the handicapper has a 5 per cent and the horse is 5-2, the optimal bet is 5/2.5, or 2 per cent.

To bet more is to bet too much in relation to actual proficiency, and guarantees a long-term loss. Overly aggressive betting is ruinous in horseracing. To bet less is to win at a rate of profit less than actual proficiency allows, a sad but not desperate circumstance.

Value bets to win involve horses having a handicapper’s reasonably good chance, but at conspicuously generous odds. The odds will be twice as great as expected, or longer than that. Instead of fair value, the handicapper perceives excellent value, perhaps outrageous value.

The horses do not figure convincingly, and many will not be first choices. Betting decisions remain equivocal, but the price exerts an undeniable pull. In certain situations, as in contentious races, the horses may be mild first choices offered upward of 8-1. That’s value, as the horses can be expected to win at least once in eight attempts, probably more than once.

Or, the value bets may be unexpected overlays at 10-1 or better in contentious fields where lukewarm first and second choices have been overbet. In predictable races, first choices may be severely overbet, leaving the handicapper’s second or third alternative as an outstanding board attraction.

Or false favourites may be ridiculously overbet, such that a pair of reasonable alternatives go to the post at very attractive prices. Or an angle horse in a relatively unpredictable race may be offered at irresistible odds.

Value bets are characterised by lower probabilities of winning than prime bets, so losing runs can be extended. If a horse has roughly a 20 per cent chance (4-1), actual odds should be 6-1. A horse that has a 15 per cent chance (6-1), should be 10-1 on the board, or better. A horse having a 10 per cent chance (9-1) should be 15-1, minimum.

Bet-size should be a portion of the prime bet to win, not an equivalent amount. Stronger opinions can receive 50 per cent of prime, weaker opinions 10 to 20 per cent.

How will recreational handicappers know whether value bets to win are tossing real winnings, or losses? It’s strictly an empirical question. Handicappers must keep a record of the value bets and study the results. A year’s worth of results on 8-1 shots, or greater, reveals the trend. Two year’s data tell a fairly accurate story.

A HANDICAPPING HABIT shared by racegoers is marking the past performances of the Daily Racing Form. The markings provide clues to the abilities of horses, as perceived by the handicapper. The habit becomes deeply instinctive. Most handicappers begin the handicapping process by marking the Form with numbers and symbols that represent mental codes understood solely by the individual.

Use lines, circles and symbols to emphasise these:

  1. The good races/wins
  2. Layoffs
  3. Speed points/ Early speed aspects of the horses’
  4. Form symbols recent records
  5. Trainer-jockey symbols
  6. Workouts

The pattern of “good” races indicates the horse’s relative class when showing his best stuff.

Below are a few simple routines recommended as starting points for effective handicapping. They are intended to provide first impressions of horses’ relative class, early speed, current form and trainer-jockey connections.

First, from top to bottom, review the past performances and draw a line under the running line of the most recent winning race.

Second, move up the past performances from the latest win, and in the margin use a hash mark to identify any race that has been “good”. A good race means a finish in the money, or within two lengths in sprints, within three lengths in middle-distances.

By completing two small steps, handicappers have identified the “good” performances in a horse’s recent record. For horses 4up, the procedure captures each horse’s relative class fairly well.

Also, when rating methods are used, the ratings will usually be extracted from the “good” races. These races best represent the horses’ abilities and preferences. Handicappers prefer to rate horses when they have performed well, not when they have disappointed, or finished up the course.

A few definitions are important:

A finish in the money, or within two lengths of the winner in a sprint, within three lengths in a route.

A finish that beats half the field, and/or within six lengths of the winner.

A win by three lengths or more.

Trainers can also be designated as positive (+), acceptable (N), or negative (0). So can jockey switches. So can sires, owners and breeders, whenever the situation invites marks for those contributions.

In the early stage of handicapping, trainer-jockey defects do not eliminate horses. The circumstances are merely noted for later consideration. Ineffective trainers that win with fewer than 8 per cent of their starters are truly negative factors, but the horses might earn competitive ratings regardless and be offered at tantalising odds. Look for plusses on the form and jockey factors as compensations, especially if a weak trainer’s horses will be dropping in class. Trainers and jockeys merit a plus under certain circumstances.

Award trainers a plus sign under these circumstances.

  1. Ranks among the leaders at the meeting, as indicated by a win per cent of 20 per cent or better.
  2. Has been especially effective in situations like today’s, that is, with recent claims, with first starters, on the turf, and following lengthy layoffs.
  3. Has been hot, as indicated by a recent win per centage roughly twice as high as normal. Inversely, if trainers win with 8 per cent of their starters, have been ineffective in situations like today’s, or have been cold lately, assign them a zero.

All other trainers can be assigned the N, for acceptable, or a U, for unknown.

Award jockeys a plus sign under these circumstances:

  1. Ranks among the leaders at the meeting, as indicated by a win per cent of 20 per cent or better.
  2. Represents a favourable jockey switch, particularly in combination with a drop in class.
  3. Has been hot lately, as indicated by a win per centage roughly twice as high as normal.
  4. Is the leading apprentice, especially if employed by a trainer who wins with apprentices consistently.
  5. Has a specialty well suited to today’s race, such as winning on the turf, getting two-year-olds out of the gate, or riding for a specific stable when its horses are well intended.

Be cautious when assigning jockeys a zero. Riders are not nearly as significant in handicapping as are trainers, and are notoriously over-criticised. If jockeys, especially leaders, have been unequivocally cold, give them a zero. Clearly unfavourable switches also deserve a zero. So does a weak rider under testing circumstances, as in important stakes, in contentious grass races featuring classy horses, or exiting the far outside posts at middle distances on mile ovals.

Otherwise, jockeys can be assigned the N, for acceptable. Under questionable or unknown circumstances, afford jockeys the benefit of the doubt, an N.

Weak jockeys and minor jockeys, win races every day, and many pay juicy mutuels.

When no horse is judged to have a strong chance to win at fair odds, make decisions, not selections.

What’s the best bet at the racetrack?

It’s the horse having a strong chance to win at good odds. That’s the best bet at the track every day.


  1. It’s analytical, not mathematical.
  2. Main contenders will be 5 to 1 and under.
  3. Overlays Odds of 4-1 to 8-1.
  4. Longshots Odds of 9-1 and higher.
  5. The non-contenders Odds of 18-1 or higher.
  6. The odds-per centage table Odds to 100 per cent.

If these horses raced 100 times, how many times would each horse win?

The answer for each horse is a percentage of 100 races. Divide that percentage into 100, and subtract 1.

That’s the fair-value odds you should expect on that horse.


If horse “A” should win 25 times in 100 races, 25 divided into 100 is 4, and 4 minus 1 is 3. The fair-value odds on horse “A” is 3-1.

NEXT MONTH: We look at the thoughts of a number of British form experts. How do they make their money? What special tactics do they use? Do they bet a lot or just a few times a year? Don’t miss this very special article.

By James Quinn