In this exclusive interview, Tasmanian-based contributor Steve Wood interviews James Quinn, regarded as one of the great modern-day handicappers in the world. Quinn - America's equivalent of Australia's ratings guru Don Scott - reveals all about his life in racing and unveils his highly successful approach to betting.

Steve Wood: Hi Jim, could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

James Quinn: Well, I'm a fairly prosperous, long-suffering horse-player from Los Angeles, with my home base at Santa Anita and the southern California circuit that includes Hollywood Park and Del Mar. I say long-suffering because playing the horses for profit is a game where you inevitably feel you should be doing better.

The intellectual challenge of handicapping well and playing well makes playing the horses a lifetime pursuit and a great game, similar to golf and chess, other great pastimes whose challenges becomes a lifelong pursuit.

I started at the racetracks rather late, at 27, immediately after completing a graduate programme at UCLA. So while I found myself playing the races ever more often, I was also involved in management consulting and several projects at the university. As time passed, I became more involved in racing and less involved in other pursuits. In 1979, I abandoned a university position and resolved to play the horses for a living.

Soon after that, I wrote the first of 10 books, The Handicappers Condition Book, which relates the class demands of the various US eligibility conditions to the records of the horses, i.e., the intent is to show which horses are well suited to the class demands of today's conditions.

The book became a top seller and eventually a standard in the field. That gave me the opportunity to write other books and do other things in the horse-racing industry.

Since 1995, I have been a consultant to Santa Anita on player development and I conduct handicapping programmes there and at Del Mar during summers. I still play Santa Anita during winters and at simulcast programmes in California and New York, and Kentucky on a spot basis throughout the remainder of the season.

SW: What got you interested in beating the races? What was the inspiration?

JQ: It was the conviction the game is formful, predictable and beatable, a game of percentages and probabilities, and that skilful players could win, and maybe win serious money. As might be expected of someone who had spent nine years in higher education, the inspiration was a well-written book, Ainslie's Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing, by Tom Ainslie, which convinced me the game was predictable and beatable.

The book contained dozens of selection and elimination guidelines. My rookie year I simply applied Ainslie's guidelines, almost without exception, and after 75 consecutive days playing at Hollywood Park, I had won $6600. That was inspiring too.

Also, the track proved highly compatible with my personality, and the racing game replaced the interests I had largely lost in the games I had grown up with in Philadelphia - baseball, basketball and football. The track is a haven for individual expression and for the independent pursuit of success. Although the social ambience is there, playing the races is essentially a lonesome pursuit. At the track, the individual is responsible to himself or herself only. You are playing against the crowd and everyone is equal at the windows. I like that too.

SW: Could you tell me a little about the books you have written?

JQ: I've already noted The Handicapper's Condition Book, which helped handicappers understand the class demands of eligibility conditions, notably in the non claiming races. That's the book I'm identified with and I'm happy to say a revised edition was recently re-released by the Daily Racing Form (DRF), our national racing newspaper that contains the past performances, or records, of all the horses.

If Australians want some insight to US horse-racing, that's one of the books to read. It may be distributed to Australia, I'm uncertain, but it's available in the States by calling 1800-306-3676, which is the number for a distributor of DRF Press.

Of my other books, the most popular have been three: The Best of Thoroughbred Handicapping (1987), which is an anthology of the good books and writings on the pastime since World War II; Recreational Handicapping, which is an A-to-Z treatment of handicapping for the casual audience, which of course means 95 per cent of the people who go to the races, either occasionally or regularly; and Figure Handicapping, which is my treatment of speed and pace handicapping, for people who like and depend upon the figures.

SW: Any new books in the pipeline?

JQ: No, I recently have made two CD-ROMs, however, one for experienced players called Playing The Races, the other for newcomers, novices, and relatively inexperienced handicappers called Everyone Can Be A Handicapper, which attempts to show people how to read the past performances of various kinds of horses, i.e., claiming horses, allowance horses, stakes horses, grass horses and European horses.

Nothing about Australian horses, I'm afraid, but the products are available on my website, which is

SW: One of the books you have written is Recreational Handicapping.

Are you a recreational handicapper, or do you make a living from racing?

JQ: I'm a mixture. The only three years I played for a living were 1980 to 1982. At others times I've had additional sources of income. And I advise the same approach to serious practitioners everywhere. Although it is not especially difficult to make money at the races for serious handicappers, it is extremely difficult to make large amounts, unless you are willing to make extremely large wagers, which are beyond the comfort zone of most players.

SW: What advice would you give to a recreational handicapper, who obviously doesn't have the time to go over the form every day and incorporate every single factor, a weekend warrior so to speak who still wants to finish the year in front?

JQ: On the handicapping front, continue to improve your knowledge and skill. Never assume you're an expert who no longer needs to learn how to play. On the wagering front, bet $20 flat to win over 50 plays until you show a 20 per cent profit or greater, and repeat that two times. Then increase the bet-size incrementally, which means as your proficiency improves, your bet-size increases.

At some point, once in a lifetime perhaps, after you have accumulated the confidence that comes with consistent winning. Try this experiment for one calendar year. Take a large bankroll, as much as $10,000. Divide it evenly for betting to win and exotic wagering. Bet 3 per cent of the $5000 bank to win for 1000 wagers, which will encompass a year to two years. Profits run deep. The other $5000 is used for betting on exactas, trifectas, serial bets, the exotics, whenever the value is great.

The trick is the $5000 for exotics is non-replaceable. If you lose it, exotic wagering remains out-of-pocket only until the experiment ends. This puts a cap on the losses in the exotic pools while making money in the straight pools. And if it's a good year in the exotic pools, which is unpredictable year to year, the profits should surpass six figures. Try it. Once in a lifetime it's a challenge for recreational handicappers, and it only lasts a year or two.

SW: I believe that the psychology of a handicapper plays a big part in whether he or she will be successful. What are your thoughts on this often-overlooked area of handicapping? What part do you think attitude plays in a handicapper's success?

JQ: Playing the horses is an especially difficult experience for personalities who need control over their environment. There's a large error factor in horse-racing and losing streaks are part and parcel of the experience, and the handicapper has no control over either. Control freaks should probably pursue another game.

Recreational handicapping and betting consists of doing whatever the individual prefers, and the psychology of the game should not intrude on that kind of experience.

Just enjoy the sport and game, win or lose. Once the profit motive intrudes, it's crucial to demonstrate to yourself that you can be a winner, or at least that you are improving. So it's crucial to keep records. The records will reflect not only win-loss patterns, but also will begin to reveal your strengths and weaknesses. You can then play to your strengths and eliminate your weaknesses, or at least try to improve your weaknesses. The records that show your gains, or improvements, as well as your strengths, contribute not only to a confident attitude but also to an expectation of winning.

Most people, of course, do not keep records that reveal their financial standing or their strengths and weaknesses, and as I mentioned, that's perfectly fine for recreational play. But it's not conducive to winning, except by  occasional windfalls.

SW. There seems to be a bit of a dichotomy between comprehensive handicapping and single-factor handicapping. Would I be correct in stating you are a comprehensive handicapper?

JQ: Comprehensive handicapping recognises that all the factors of handicapping play a part in the outcomes of races. Class, speed, pace and form may be the fundamentals - because they deal directly with the abilities of horses and that's always important - but distance, trips, trainer, jockey, pedigree, post position, and the rest also play a role much of the time, although their importance varies terrifically with the circumstances of races. I prefer
using the fundamentals and all the circumstantial factors that apply from situation to situation because that's compatible with the variations in the typical racing card and offers the most varied opportunities for success.

I have always acknowledged that single-factor handicappers, as you call them, or method players, as I prefer to refer to those reliant on single factors, can be as successful as anyone else, as long as they are genuine experts on the factor of choice and as long as they restrict their play to situations where the factor should be decisive, or at least very important. It's also crucial that expertise on the single factor not be widely distributed, or employed by numerous players.

The great example in the US would be speed handicapping. Roughly 20 years ago, excellent speed handicappers enjoyed a tremendous edge on the crowd. They could make a handsome profit simply by backing the high-figure horses in most races, mainly because the figures were accurate, not many handicappers possessed the figures, and raw times were unreliable as estimates of real abilities. Horses that should have been 5/2 might have gone off at 7/1, or higher. The overlays were large. If only one of four of the highfigure horses won, speed handicappers could make significant profits.

No longer. Now professional speed figures are published in the Daily Racing Form. The figures are widely distributed. Now highfigure horses that should be 5/2 not only do not go off at 7/1, they often go off at 2/1. The high-figure horses that so often were glorious overlays are now often miserly underlays.

Single-factor experts must be selective. Trip handicappers must understand that bad trips are meaningless in low-rated races. Pace analysts find their best bets in claiming races and among developing three-year-olds. Pedigree experts will do best when young horses first switch to the turf, or with first-starting maidens, or on wet tracks. Body-language experts will do better at minor tracks than at major tracks.

SW: So you believe it is possible to succeed as a "method" player?

JQ: Yes. But it's strictly an empirical question. You must have collected the data that shows you that you are being successful with the approach and its application, or you will just be spinning your wheels.

SW. Value betting is a term that has been thrown around a lot lately. What does the term "value betting" mean to you? How crucial is playing overlays to a handicapper's success? What sort of margin are you looking for in your bets?

JQ: "Value betting" means simply the horses or combinations must pay more than they should pay, based on the handicapper's personal betting line, i.e., the handicapper's estimate of the fair-value odds. This is the crux of successful handicapping. An overlay is a horse or combination whose chances are better than the odds suggest. An underlay is a horse or combination whose chances are not as good as the odds suggest. The only way to beat the races is to play the overlays. The only axiom in wagering is to avoid the underlays.

By the way, longshots are not necessarily overlays and favourites are not necessarily underlays. Longshots can be underlays and favourites can be overlays, and good handicappers usually will recognise both situations.

The margin, or added-value, can be subjective, but it's probably best to insist on 50 per cent overlays on horses the handicapper rates at 6/1 or greater, such that the overlay on a 6/1 shot would be 9/1.

On lower-priced horses, favourites and low-priced contenders, a 20 per cent overlay may be acceptable, simply because these horses win the great majority of the races. A top professional player I know demands a 50 per cent overlay on ill wagers or he will not play.

Finding overlays can be an intuitive skill, based upon experience, and most recreational handicappers do it exactly that way. Professionals may be more rigorous, using mathematical approaches to spotting overlays, and that should be the more rewarding approach, but an intuitive approach is acceptable, and much more appropriate to most racegoers and handicappers. The important thing is to recognise that playing overlays beats playing underlays virtually all the time. So if handicappers are playing a fistful of exactas and trifectas, and they want to reduce the cost of the wagers, they should almost always eliminate the lower-priced horses and cover the higher-priced horses. In exotic wagering, you want good value, not fair value, because all exotic bets are low-probability bets.

SW: It's interesting to note that you believe an intuitive approach to value is a valid one. Could you expand a little on the mathematical approach?

JQ: The numerical approach means the handicapper sets a 100 per cent betting line and assigns probabilities and fair-value odds to each of the horses, or at least to the main contenders. A convenient, and acceptable, method would be to ask, if this race were run 100 times, how often would Horse A be expected to win, how often would Horse B be expected to win, Horse C, and so forth, until the horses of interest have been exhausted. Divide the answers into 100 and subtract 1. That is the fair-value odds for each contender.

So if Horse A should be expected to win the race 40 times, his fair-value odds would be 3/2 (100 divided by 40, or 2.5 minus 1 equals 1.5, or 3/2). If Horse B should win 20 times, his fair-value odds would be 4/1 (100 divided by 20, or 5 minus 1). And so forth until a 100 per cent line has been estimated. It's fair play to rate the main contenders rigorously and assign the several non-contenders a 20 per cent chance, which would lighten the line-making load in Australia, where the fields are large and highly competitive so much of the time.

In setting the fair-value odds, I strongly suggest handicappers first estimate each horse's chances using the fundamentals of class, speed, pace and form, and then juggle the line based upon the positive and negative impacts of all the other factors that should be important in this race.

Handicappers should always make a fair-value odds line for the top three or four contenders at least. They can then watch the tote and consider a play on any contender that will run at higher odds than the line indicates are fair.

Exactas, trifectas, and serial bets are more complicated, of course, so handicappers best find a fair-value betting chart that reveals the fair values on the odds of each horse in the combinations.

SW: Both class and weight are factors that Australians consider very seriously when handicapping. You have been called an expert in class evaluation in the States. What is class in a racehorse to you? Your opinion of weight as a handicapping factor?

JQ: Class in the racehorse consists of three interrelated factors: speed, stamina and determination. Speed is the landmark of class. Stamina means endurance under pressure, so class is more important in longer races.
Determination means willingness or courage under pressure, even when tired, so class is more important in the better races. The three factors interact in multitudinous ways, making class an elusive factor for many handicappers.

My reputation as an expert on class traces absolutely to the publication of The Handicapper's Condition Book, but I did have an aptitude for class evaluation from my early days. Because the quality of racing in the States has declined for several reasons, class evaluation is less important than ever in the day-to-day handicapping, which has not helped my game.

Weight is not an independent factor in handicapping. It is only important, if at all, in combination with other factors, such as class, speed and distance. All studies of merit show weight to be incidental and relatively unimportant in handicapping. High-weighted horses win a disproportionate share of all races and weight shifts do not bring them together. Most horsemen will argue that weight is important and time is unimportant, and most handicappers would argue the opposite.

I'm not surprised to hear that weight is considered more important in Australia, where the races are longer and almost invariably on the grass. In April of 1998, I spent two weeks in Australia, on the Gold Coast and in Brisbane mainly, and I went to the Gold Coast and Doomben on consecutive Saturdays, where each day I played the simulcast from Sydney.

I loved the First Four and I saw Might And Power win by a furlong at Sydney, but I also met a figure handicapper I came to respect greatly named Dennis Walker. Dennis described himself as a figure handicapper and he certainly was that. He had computer printouts for every track in the country and he was an aggressive bettor. He asked me numerous questions about speed handicapping in the States but I never got the opportunity to watch Dennis make his figures for Australian racing.

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By Steve Wood