When I started my research for this series, the very first thing that struck me was just how many ‘experts’ are out there, around the world, all using their own ideas and angles to make racing pay.

One of the great joys of editing this magazine was to have the views of the great Barry Meadow in our pages a few years back. He’s one of a host of well-informed American form analysts who, although American racing is somewhat different to our own, have much to impart about the world of racing and betting and, in particular, the business of handicapping.

This month, I’m beginning with a look at the thoughts of Joe Kristufek. He’s a partner and Midwest correspondent and handicapper for horseplayerpro.com and racing writer for the Daily Herald newspaper in Chicago. Kristufek also does extensive work for Arlington Park as morning-line maker and program comments writer, and is involved in several educational projects within the Chicago horseracing industry.

It’s interesting to see that Kristufek expresses his surprise at just how many people rely on other people’s picks (OPP) to carry out their own betting.

He says: “I’ve noticed that:
A)    They don’t understand the handicapping process.
B)    They don’t want to be bothered with the work that goes into piecing together the puzzle.
C)    They simply trust other people’s picks more than they trust their own.

“There is one common denominator among all horseplayers – they like the action.

“So exactly whose picks are they using? Some tear out the racing page of the local newspaper. Others use the Daily Racing Form (USA) or a tip sheet as a guide.  If you’re going to use OPP, make sure that the author actually follows the circuit closely.

“I have seen some programs that pump out live horses, but computers don’t have eyes. They’re not capable of dissecting replays, or seeing how a horse looks on the track – two of the most critical factors in any true horseplayer’s final evaluation.

“Being a public handicapper can be a thankless job. Due to print or upload schedules, your file is usually due in short order; in my case, it’s the night before, but others must submit their selections even sooner. In addition, lots can happen on raceday that could alter how a handicapper visualises an event unfolding.

“As the handicapper and racing writer for the Daily Herald in Chicago, I can tell you that I watch every race every day and take my job seriously.

“In racing arenas, people often ask me if I “bet my own picks”. This is a difficult question.

“When I play the races, my original selections are only a foundation. I have to pick every race every day, and will obviously like some races better than others. There are several races a day that I wouldn’t bet with YOUR money, and others that offer great investment opportunities.

“I might have a horse picked seventh in what I perceive to be a wide-open race that is very useable in multiple race wagers. Because of space restrictions, it is difficult to get this message across to the reader. That horse could win, I could hit the Pick Four, and a reader could easily question how.

“Very few top picks are going to jump off the paper. Often times I have a tough time splitting my top three or four selections. If the third pick is 10/1 and the top choice is 9/5, and I like them almost equally, which one do you think I’m going to back at the windows? The 10/1, of course.

“Scratchings that affect the race shape, track bias, tote action and how the horses look on the track are all factors that must be considered before I begin constructing a ticket.

“As a public handicapper, my goal has always been to give the reader food for thought. Personally I would rather pick a 17/1 on top that finished third than the $5.00 winner that could have been had just by looking at the probable favourites listing in the program. By doing so, perhaps I gave the reader a horse to toss into a trifecta that they wouldn’t have otherwise used.“

Kristufek has some firm ideas on how dedicated punters should go about making money (or trying to, anyway).

He says: “If nothing else, the flip of the calendar to the New Year symbolises a worldwide opportunity to re-focus our energies, in whatever realm we choose.

“For many of us, playing the races is just a hobby – a form of entertainment. Others, myself included, take horse play more seriously, with a goal of supplementing our income.

“Regardless of the level of action, all of us have the ability to develop into successful horseplayers. In order to do so, we must tune into our personal strengths and weaknesses, and mesh discipline with a willingness to seize opportunities.  Most of us who have been doing this a while understand what it takes to win, but practicing what we preach is easier said than done.  If you’re truly serious about making 2008 the most profitable year of your handicapping career, here is a little hay for you to chew on.

“By track, document the type of race you’re playing, the wagers you made and your financial wins and losses. In my own mind, I can’t seem to cash a ticket on a maiden claimer to save my life, but do well in allowances and maiden special weight events, but you don’t really know unless there are records to back your pre-conceived notions. The wagers and the types of races you like to play regularly may not be the ones you’re actually good at. Let the records tell the story. You may be surprised at the results.

“Focus is the key to expertise. I’m sorry, but you can’t bet 50 races a day, every day, from random tracks, and expect to stay ahead of the game. Marry yourself to the tracks you are playing.

“Make sure you carefully watch ALL of the races from the tracks you have chosen to follow closely, either live, or on replay and keep detailed track bias and trip notes. In the long run, skilled visual handicappers have a distinct advantage over paper handicappers. Evaluating trips, observing biases and defining key races are subjective, but it’s the horseplayers who have a true handle in these areas who put themselves in a position to win.

“On occasion, horses you are waiting to “bet back” leave the track you are following and pop up somewhere else. Such individuals often give us an excellent opportunity to score big. Set up a stable mail service, and use it. This way if a horse you are following shows up at another track unexpectedly, you’ll know about it.

“We all have a preference for the type of past performances we use, but for me the Daily Racing Form Formulator software is beyond compare. If you use DRF, download the free software and use it. Take the time to punch your trip and bias notes into Formulator. Now when you download and print pps, all of YOUR personal observations will be splashed and sprinkled on the pages in front of you.

“Handicap the races you intend on playing the day before, or the morning of. Have a game plan, but be willing to deviate from it. So many things happen during the course of a raceday that can potentially alter our original opinions. We might love a speed horse in the sixth race, but observe early on that the front end is not the place to be. Watch the board closely for clues. Write down opening odds and follow the fluctuation. Recognise horses who are ‘dead on the board’ and those who are ‘live’.

“Never make a bet until AFTER the post parade. Horses can only tell you so much on paper. Their actions speak volumes, especially in cheap races. A horse’s physicality can determine whether or not they are usable in your gimmicks.

“Limit your wagering on days where the track is drying out. Predicting which horses will ‘handle it’ is the most difficult task in handicapping.  No matter how much you like a horse, avoid betting underlays. Have an idea of what price you ‘need’ in order to play. Try to avoid races dominated by ‘unknown factors’, unless you are betting against the favourites or are playing multiple race wagers.

“Don’t get careless when you are ahead. Don’t chase when you are behind. Those trips to the Cash Station machine are evil. If you’re playing on an Internet account, the figure in your coffer is REAL MONEY. Players tend to wager a lot more loosely when they’re not physically handing over the green stuff. If you’ve jacked your account up to a solidly profitable level, have them send you a check for the gravy, and go back to battle with what you have left.

“Don’t play scared. If you really love a horse, a race, or a wagering option, hit it hard. In all reality, these situations don’t come around too often. There’s nothing wrong with maximising your chance to win by firing, but only if you’re able to recognise when to do so.

“If you like a wagering opportunity in a later race, stash away a  percentage of your bankroll and make sure you’re not tapped out before that opportunity presents itself. Don’t rush to the window. Map out a plan of attack. Try to determine which bets will maximise your profit potential. If you can’t figure out who you like, chances are you should either pass the race, or if you must have a rooting interest, bet small.

“When things are going well, it’s easy to fall into the mindset that this is an easy game. We often forget that the reason we’re winning in the first place has everything to do with all of the hard work we’ve previously put in.

“As in life itself, you’re going to have good days and bad days in the world of wagering.  Avoid sending out bad vibes. Negativity breeds negativity. No matter how bad your luck is going, stay positive and move on to the next race. Dwelling on your losses will not help the cause.

“Recognise your mistakes. You can always improve your handicapping and wagering strategies, and a losing day can be turned into a positive – if you learn lessons and apply them down the road.

“If you’re having a big day, remember that others around you might not be. It’s okay to share your happiness with your friends, but don’t get cocky and put it in the face of the world.  Taking care of those around you breeds good karma. If you’re winning, buy a round of drinks for your comrades, even if you question if they would do the same for you. Generosity always comes back to you. Tip the help 20 per cent, and consider giving more on the days you are winning big. If a particular teller has punched you some winners, pitch them a few bucks, too.

“Introduce more friends to horseracing. Show them how much fun a day at the track can be, and most importantly, teach them something.

“We can’t control a stumble out of the gate, traffic trouble, or the head bob on the wire, but there are certain things we as horseplayers DO have power over.”

Very interesting advice from a guy who obviously knows the game and knows what he has to do to make it pay.
Craig Milkowski, of Pacefigures.com, is another American analyst with a lot to pass on about the game.

He says: “Every single horseplayer that I know wants to win. I don’t know many horseplayers, however, that really know what to expect, or have a plan to accomplish whatever goal he or she may have. As 2009 begins, it is time to sit down and formulate a plan of attack for this racing year.

“Ask yourself the following questions.  I can’t answer these for anyone, but honest answers can help each person learn what to expect for the coming year.

  1. How much of a bankroll do you have to put towards gambling on horses? This is a very important question.  How much money are you willing to put aside to wager on the races.
  2. What expenses do you have that directly relate to wagering on horses? Some things to consider are past performances, subscription charts plans, books, breeding data, software, programs, gasoline, admissions, etc. Don’t include that shiny new laptop if you would have bought one anyway.
  3. How many days per week can you handicap and wager? This isn’t how many days you would like to play.  It is how many days you can play once you consider the time and energy available to you.  In theory, I’d love to gamble seven days a week, but I would probably hate it pretty quickly and also be worn out to the point where it would cost me money.
  4. On these days, how many race cards can you realistically handicap and bet? Consider things like how long it takes you to handicap a race, which tools you use, etc.  Leave yourself enough time so that you are comfortable with your decisions. 
  5. How many weeks a year can you handle wagering? I think everyone needs substantial breaks from betting. I like to play about 40 weeks a year, and take off 12 weeks spread out during the season.  This is similar to #3 above.  Take some time off to step away from the game.  You’ll be amazed at the energy and enthusiasm you have when you come back.

NEXT MONTH: We continue the thoughts of Craig Milkowski in another episode of this ongoing series.

Click here to read Part 3.
Click here to read Part 4.
Click here to read Part 5.
Click here to read Part 6.
Click here to read Part 1.

By Brian Blackwell