A subject that invariably crops up in discussions about betting is the issue of betting to your own price lines. It’s a topic that we’ve covered before in PPM, and one which just keeps on popping up in letters we receive from our readers and in the columns of racing publications around the world.

Books have been written on it, the latest called The Six Secrets of Successful Bettors. It quotes a range of well-known US identities on the subject and what they have to say makes for interesting reading.

Cary Fotias, an American analyst who has put together a ground-breaking handicapping text, is regarded highly in the US so what he says about value-line betting deserves serious consideration.

“Always put a price on a horse’s head, and only bet when you’re getting a couple of odds levels better,” says Fotias.

“If you can’t put a price on a horse’s head, you have little chance of winning at this game. Everything comes back to the odds. Just because a horse is on a great pattern line doesn’t mean he should automatically be bet. The price must still be right.”

In contrast, Steve Crist, a top editor at the Daily Racing Form in America, and the author of a best-selling autobiography on his life in racing, makes an excellent point about the difficulty of trying to live and die solely by strictly adhering to a set line.

Crist says: “I don’t know a single horseplayer whose entire game consists of betting 4/1 shots that should be 3/1. That’s a brutally rigorous way to play and not very entertaining.

“I’m also not convinced that anyone has got this thing down to a sufficiently exact science to say with certainty that a horse has precisely a 20 per cent versus a 25 per cent chance of victory.

“I have a ‘correct price’ for just about every horse in a race in my head after I’m done handicapping because that’s how I think. It’s a useful exercise to make a line of your own for each race if you don’t normally think that way, but I’m at the point where I do that formally only with major races.”

Speed ratings guru Andy Beyer has this to say on the subject: “I don’t make a formal value line. I guess I’ve been doing this long enough that it’s more or less instinctive. You have an idea in a race and suddenly the horses are 11/8 and 7/2 and you say this is terrible. Or sometimes you’ll like it, and you’ll say 11/8 and 7/2, yeah, that’s a square price.

“But I don’t have anything systematic, though there are obviously a lot of wise guys out there who do.”

Value, then, is important, really important, in betting but how you chase value is the question.

Andy Beyer adds: “I’m selection-oriented. I generally will have my ideas on a race pretty well fixed and then I just need to make sure that the odds aren’t ridiculously underlaid before I bet it.

“Sometimes you’ll see cases where you’ve looked at a race and a horse you didn’t pay much attention to who is a marginal contender is up there at 40/1 on the board, inexplicably, and you say, ‘I’ve got to throw this one in.’

“I don’t know if this is a right or wrong approach, but generally I just have my opinions rather than scanning the board and looking for overlays. Maybe in this day and age the overlay approach might be the better route.”

Another gambler whose opinion is worth respect is professional operator Ernie Dahlman. He says: “It’s intuitive for me and it’s becoming more difficult because I see more and more numbers changing at the last minute. One minute an exacta pays $50, the next it’s $34. One minute a number is 12, then it’s 9.

“Sometimes I’ll bet $2,000 to win on a horse when the window opens at a smaller track and the experts will say, ‘Wow, this horse is 1/9, there’s no value there…’

“Well, he’s 1/9 because I bet $2K on him; he’s not going to go off at 1/9. If he was then I wouldn’t bet him either.

So on TV he’s giving out different horses than he would have because my horse is 1/9 and he might end up at 4/5, and then he’ll win and they’ll say, ‘Well, if I knew he was going to be 4/5 I would have picked him.’”

US handicapping competition champion Dave Gutfreund has this to say on the topic: “I don’t write down a number for each and every horse, but I have an idea what that might be. There is a breaking point clearly. If I think a horse should be 4/1 and it’s 2/1 I’m not betting it straight, that’s for sure.”

Paul Braseth, publisher of Northwest Track Review, comments: “I’ll say I’m going to play this horse if I get 4/1 or higher. I make some judgment as to what a horse’s chances are of winning.

“I don’t use formulas like Dick Mitchell does. I do it more intuitively and subjectively and make the line based on what I see as the competition in the race. And I’ll mark down my top horse, and know that at 4/1 I’ll play him. I’ll say to myself, this is my other choice, I’ll need 6/1 or 8/1 or whatever it is.”

Gerry Okenuff is a well-known form analyst in the US. He says: “I make a line on the contenders that are key to the race; if I think it’s a two-horse race and one horse is two or three times the price, that’s a no-brainer. If I have an overlay or if I have an opinion, I’ll get more involved.”

Jim Mazur, who writes books about racing statistics at various US tracks, is one of those punters who doesn’t make a priceline of his own but he admits that he should.

He says: “I don’t make a value line and I really should. I will do it intuitively, but not for every horse. A lot of times I’ll look at a race like the 2003 Kentucky Derby and I’ll see that maybe a length or two separated a couple of the contenders in their previous race and then next time out they’re together again and Empire Maker is 2/1 and Funny Cide is 12/1 and that to me is distorted value.

“I don’t have time to sit there and make a real value line for every horse but you should.”

Cary Fotias concedes that he doesn’t make a price line on every race, and says:? “It’s very time consuming converting all of these estimates into a 100 per cent odds line that accurately reflects my opinion.

“When I do have time for it, my ROI skyrockets. All I have to do is normalise my line for late scratches or adjust it for track conditions, etc. Then I simply wait for a few minutes before post and see who is going off at a bigger price than my line.”

New York-based professional handicapper Paul Cornman has mixed feelings about drawing up his own price lines.

He says: “I don’t actually have a value line on paper but I think about it. A year ago I referred to myself as the world’s worst line maker. I think I’m up to about sixth from the bottom now because I’ve met a few people who are worse than I am.

“I’m not going to pinpoint what price my horse is going to be but in a field of seven, I’ll know if my horse is supposed to be the third or fourth choice or the favourite.”

Roxy Roxborough, the man who sets the odds lines in Las Vegas, has this to say: “One of the most important things for me is value. Whenever I handicap a race, I assess a price for each horse; I make a morning line/odds line and I use it as a gauge for betting.

'Successful gamblers have a good sense of what value is. I know value is a vague term, but it’s important to figure out what constitutes a bet where you’ll win money in the long run.”

Renowned US handicapper and writer Jim Quinn says: “I definitely make a line on the races I play. I can do it now intuitively to make an 80 per cent line. I do it almost all the time and regret it when I don’t do it. As for a horse’s price, at first it seemed crucial for me to get generous odds on my number one horse.

“Then, in the mid-’80s, it changed and I bet second and third choices that were overlays and when my number one choice was overbet. The concept of value is crucial; it’s indispensable to winning the game. There are three reasons that players lose:

  1. Players lose because they’re not proficient handicappers.
  2. They put too much emphasis on secondary factors.
  3. The main reason they lose is because they play too many underlays.

“So value is indispensable to making a profit. To me, there’s only one axiom in racing: avoid the underlays and play the overlays as intelligently as you can.”

** The Six Secrets of Successful Bettors (DRF PRESS 2005).

By Jon Hudson