A very interesting and informative piece from one of my favourite punters and writers of horse racing tips
Handicapping – A Personal Approach
Handicapping – My Personal Approach
I may have ventured on social media many months back that I would be writing an article on how I approach finding selections in horse racing handicaps. The calls for me to complete and publish have hardly been overwhelming but for those who have been nudging me, here it is….
To some punters, the concept of a handicap race is an unnecessary complication. Finding winners is hard enough without some unseen man in an office fiddling with the weights trying to create in theory at least a dead-heat between all the runners in a race. Crazy town in principal and is it wise to take on the man strategically pushing pounds and ounces around in the war office? Yes.
There can be no threat without opportunity and from very early on in my punting career, I recognised that if I was to prosper, then solving the puzzle of the handicap would be where the reward lay. Jumping back to day one, my father and I had a daily competition from when I was 12 where we picked a horse in every race, every day and kept record of the winners. I got a thrashing but soon realised that my 8/1, 20/1, 33/1 winners were counting for nothing against my challenger’s tactic of largely picking the favourite in each race.
Yet to even start what was then O level maths, I quickly realised that winners were of little benefit against profit and that the men stood in the smoke-filled betting shops looking to find winners were doomed en-mass. It is horribly wrong to think that finding winners is a means to an end of making long-term profit. It is like a football manager advising his players to hoof the ball at the goal every time it comes to their feet and boasting about the goals scored, whilst failing to mention how many the opposition scored.
So, back on subject and how does a handicap race tie in with the aim of long term profitability? Well, the handicapper adds a hefty dollop of confusion into the pot and the almost ‘randomizing’ of the horses’ chances against each other makes it more difficult for the bookmakers to price the race up with accuracy. Fantastic, that has to be of benefit to the punter and whenever I hear a TV pundit or the like talk about an ‘impossible puzzle’, I cringe. They should be saying ‘bring on the challenge’!
Mathematically, the average winning price in a handicap against a non-handicap when adjusted for number of runners, will be somewhere between 40 and 50% higher. That could be judged as confirmation that the handicapper is better at handicapping than the bookmaker is at pricing such races up but that isn’t really fair. The bookmakers also love certainly the big weekend handicaps and the number of bets placed on such races is high relative to more valuable and prestigious races on the weekend card.
If I am correct in thinking that handicaps are the best medium for the savvy punter and the bookies also benefit, who are the losers? The losers are those bemoaning impossible puzzles and trying to find the winners not the value.
My Approach to Handicaps on the Flat
I guess I tend to write from the heart so rather than try and pen a ‘cold’ textbook article, what follows are my personal thought processes that I run through when evaluating handicaps. Some of it may make sense to some reading this, some may disagree with most of it and I am not proclaiming to be ‘right’ in everything I say. Experience tells me that profitable punters have all kinds of differing strategies but I can say with honesty, I am profitable so here are my thoughts;
As a starting point, as I have already mentioned in this and numerous other articles, I am not looking to find the winner so ‘who is going to win this handicap?’ is not the question I start with. The question I ask first is ‘who couldwin this handicap?’ closely followed by ‘who might be a slightly bigger price than they should be?’ The idea being that I will draw up a shortlist (which can be quite long) of possible bets and then work down from there. The two criteria then are possible winner and possible value.
I should mention that if there are prices available, great and that allows a judgment on price to work to. If not, if I am looking at a race in advance of the early prices which is my preference, I will tend to ‘tissue’ the race. That requires a bit more work to construct what I think the prices should be but the benefit is that one is forced to make a judgement which is then easily compared with the prices on offer. Any horse is a bet at a certain price and any horse a lay below a certain price.
As an overview of my process, I will scan the runners briefly and then work down them in racecard order. I will make a fairly snap judgement which ones to keep for further analysis and which ones to discard. Reasons for keeping / discarding are illustrated in the table below. I have tried to match a similar consideration on each line but importantly, the discard side is only a guide to what might be a negative. There are a lot of factors and no one tick in the discard column prevents a horse becoming a bet when all factors are considered as a whole. Indeed, most horses will have entries in both columns so all I am trying to illustrate is a guide as to my thinking for any particular parameter.
Keep for further analysisDiscardRunning badly when last seen but had a decent breakRunning badly recentlyBeen running well recently without quite winningWon his last two, obvious to all and being an obvious one can be a show-stopper.Returning from a 7 or 10-week break (possible breathing op.)Has not been finishing his races in past 5 weeks (possible breathing issue).Returning from a significant break for a yard such as N T-Davies which excels with such typesReturning from a significant break for a yard not known for winners in such circumstancesHorse moved yards to a trainer (positive move)Horse moved yards to a trainer (negative move)M Johnston 3-y-o’s against older handicappers (early season)Most 3-y-o’s against older handicappers (early season)Exposed horse down in class (view record in both grades)Exposed horse up in class (view record in both grades)Horse is inconsistent (this may seem odd but horses that pop up now and then can be great value).Horse is consistent (again, this seems odd but obvious positives….)Trainer has a good course recordTrainer has poor course recordProfessional jockey replaced by claiming jockeyClaiming jockey replaced by professional jockeyHorse has multiple entries coming daysHorse stepping up or down in tripHorse remaining at same distanceHeadgear fitted first time or changedChange of ground conditionsSame ground conditionsProminent racer switching to a speed trackProminent racer switching to a galloping trackHold-up horse switching to galloping trackHold-up horse switching to speed trackProminent racer switching to small fieldProminent racer switching to large fieldHold-up horse switching to large fieldHold-up horse switching to small fieldExposed horse has run at least 7lb above today’s markExposed horse who has not run 7lb above today’s mark
So, having been through a thought process that captures the sort of questions and ideas in the table above, the overall picture in my mind is one of which horses could potentially be undervalued by the market as a whole and are worth a further dig.
A key skill in betting and business in general is knowing what stones to turn over. No boss in their right mind would employ someone who intends to systematically turn over every stone; the skill is knowing which stones to turn and which ones are already turned over for you or yield nothing underneath.
As I turn the stones, my mind is asking the same quadruple-question over and over. ‘What have I found? How important is it? How many others will have found it? What will they think?
Put simply, it is all about judging a horse against its price, nothing more. Handicaps play more to the strengths of the experienced and skilful punter not in spite of but because of the added complexity.
Billy Blakeman @five2tenracing #BillysBigOnes