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Original Issue

Hanging on the morning line

A little-known but highly expert racing technician offers sound advice on the science and art of betting

Without the elements of sportsmanship, tradition and regard for breeding for its own sake, racing would soon lose its inmost savor as well as its civilizing influence on the community. But that is not to deny for a second that betting is what gives vigor to the world's most popular spectator sport; it is safe to guess that the memorable moments of racing in 1959 will be, for most of the 30 million Americans who pay to watch it this year, intimately associated with the winning or losing of money.

Betting on horses has to be sensible to be successful, and its enjoy-ability is largely a matter of character. Racegoers in this country have at their disposal the most luxurious facilities in the world. Nevertheless, there are precious few track regulars who hold their own playing the horses. The ones who do, live the studious, practical life of a mathematical researcher. By the use of common sense and the exercise of self-discipline, they resist the temptation to play hunches or to seek out the advice of somebody supposedly "in the know." They bet horses strictly on form, and nothing else, aware that deviation from this practice is as disastrous as Russian roulette.

What most racegoers either do not know or forget in the frantic urgency of their between-race business is that the most important bit of information to be found at any race track can be picked up absolutely free. What is it? The morning line odds posted on the tote board before the betting pools open on each race, and at some tracks printed right in the program opposite the name of each horse in every race. While most track patrons accept these opening odds as official—and likewise as a natural point of departure for their own figuring on each race—they by and large are unaware that morning line odds are entirely the opinion of one man: a man paid by the track to guide rather than confuse the vast betting public.

The professional morning line price maker is one of the most valuable men on any track's payroll, although his job calls for anonymity. Most of the best price makers are veterans of the pari-mutuel department, a few are outside men who, although closely associated with racing, are seldom seen at the track. A friend of mine writes the morning line at three of the country's major tracks, works at his own regular job six days a week, rarely gets to the races more than 15 times a year, and yet for the last 10 years has been among the top men in this difficult and exacting profession. "It may sound strange," says Mr. Price Maker (he would prefer not to have his name used), "that I don't get to see the races more often. But while I do take advantage of everything I hear from the track, my job is essentially one of evaluation rather than of observation."

In the trade there are known to be two variations of the morning line. One is the value line: the price maker's opinion of what odds the horses should be, based on his own interpretation of their form. The second is the probable odds line: the price maker's interpretation of how the public will bet, taking into consideration all the hundreds of factors which are likely to affect public opinion (some examples: a jockey in a hot streak will create a false price, unjustified favoritism for a name horse or name stable, possibility of changing track condition). "Most tracks prefer a happy medium of both the value line and the probable odds line," says Mr. Price Maker.


The work that goes into Mr. Price Maker's daily line takes him usually no more than two hours a night, which is about as fast as it's done anywhere. "Talk about who has to be in training these days," he jokes. "It's the price maker, not Arcaro. He is dealing with the psychology of 25,000 people all the time. It's a challenge—and a strain."

The first step in making a line is to take the entries and run over the past performance record of each horse on the card, maybe 110 horses a day. Explains Mr. Price Maker: "I usually start with the ones I think have very little chance to win and make them each 20 or 30 to 1. Once in a while I'll put a horse at 40 to 1, which is just my way of saying I think this creature has no chance at all. Then I'll get to the four or five who figure to have the best chance. But before giving them the first rough odds, I keep in mind the percentages of the betting table (see chart next page). I don't want to get too complicated with this explanation but, briefly, look at it this way: if you grade your money evenly in a typical eight-horse field you'll have a 100% book, but this is before compensation for the usual state tax and track take-out, which averages about 15%. Thus, while your book will break even without any take-out, it will lose with a take-out, and this 15% means that instead of getting 2 to 1 on your top horse his price will more likely have to be 9 to 5—a shift in percentage points from 33.33 to 35.71.

"The professional price maker should allow himself an extra 20 to 23 total percentage points, and the ideal total percentage to shoot for whenever you're handicapping is about 123. Some newspaper (not The Morning Telegraph or Daily Racing Form) handicappers who don't pay as much attention to form as they should, run their percentage totals up to 160 and even 180, a practice which hardly gives their subscribers an accurate picture of what the final odds may be or a fair indication of what the respective horses are likely to pay.

"To digress for a moment on the structure of betting percentages, there was a time when a smart bettor—before the mutuels came in—could shop around the bookies and by betting at the right time he could 'Dutch' the book. Dutching a book is when the total percentages figure less than 100% and the total money won on any single horse must exceed the money spent wagering on all the others.

"As to determining as nearly as possible the exact odds for the next day's full line, the price maker is faced with the same problems as the amateur probing the dope for himself. Only figuring it all out the night before he cannot know the scratches or which of the 'also eligibles' may draw in to the race. He must also take the weatherman's advance word on tomorrow's track conditions; he must take into consideration the fact that the hot half of an entry who would be running at even money by himself may scratch shortly before post time, leaving a 20-to-1 stablemate to run at ridiculously short odds.

"And, most important of all, he must reckon with the vagaries of a fickle crowd, a crowd so susceptible to whims, rumors and hunches that if he can come up with the post-time favorite at all it is an achievement. A top price maker will have the right favorite 85% of the time, and the national averages show that about 33% of all favorites win—so any bettor could certainly do worse than string along with the morning line man."

On the morning of the race the odds maker has another set of problems. When the scratches are in he must completely revise his line to compensate for withdrawn horses. Our Mr. Price Maker estimates that he can switch odds on an entire card in about 10 minutes.

"Occasionally," says Mr. Price Maker, "I will write a line making a horse the favorite that I don't think will win. Sound crazy? Maybe, but remember I'm not being paid by the track to pick winners; I'm being paid to give the public the horse that I think will be the favorite, and one of the chief purposes of any morning line is to show the man who wants to bet early what his horse should pay—in relation to the others."


I have asked Mr. Price Maker to give SPORTS ILLUSTRATED readers some special hints on sensible race track wagering. He would be the last to claim that there is any sure way of beating the races on a day-in-day-out basis; at the same time he is usually as great an expert as can be found. In the following tips he gives you sound guidance (including a few ideas which are quite new) on what you should and should not do:

1) Learn how to read the past performance charts. Assuming, as I do, that sensible betting is based on form only, you won't know where to begin unless you know how to interpret form. The Morning Telegraph and Daily Racing Form tell almost everything there is to know about every horse. And if you don't know how to read their charts these papers will explain to you just how to do that.

2) If you want to bet strictly on opinion, bet on the opinion of the official track price maker who makes the morning line or program selections rather than your own. He knows more than you do—and is paid a good salary to put his opinion out in the open for your guidance.

3) If the lower-price horses on the morning line go up in odds before post time (a situation defined as an overlay) it is worth your consideration. Thus any horse opening at 2 to 1, or even as high as 5 to 1, which goes up is likely to be a better bet than one which goes down. A horse opening at 4 to 1 that closes at 10 to 1 is a better bet than a 4 to 1 going down to a 2 to 1. Overlays on horses which open at more than 5 to 1 are riskier because the betting percentage difference is small enough to make the risk unworthy.

4) Do not base your selections on morning workouts, because only a man who is aware of training patterns will understand their trends and significance. For example, there is no way of determining the true intent of the workout or the weight of the exercise boy. A trainer, for instance, might well be more satisfied to see his horse go three quarters of a mile in 1:13 with a 148-pound boy up than go the same distance in 1:11 in the hands of a 97-pound boy. By the same token, it must be remembered that not all trainers press for fast workouts. In the morning, when trainers have a certain jurisdiction over the speed they want, some work their charges harder than others. One has only to compare the work tabs of horses trained by Sunny Jim Fitz-simmons (who often works a horse hard) and Jimmy Jones (who does not) to note the difference in training patterns.

5) The practical bettor allows form to be more important to him than pedigree, because if pedigrees and conformation were the sole important factors only the top-price yearlings would win—and they don't. If a horse with a million-dollar pedigree is beaten by one with a $1,500 pedigree, stick with the latter, because his form is based on ability, not ancestry.

6) Don't be carried away by horses who close fast in sprints and lead you to believe that with another eighth of a mile they'd be cinches. Remember that with another eighth of a mile some of the front runners might not be using the same tactics either.

7) Keep in mind that a horse who shows a lot of early speed in distance races won't necessarily go well in sprints. The pace will be different. Horses have a habit of running in fairly established patterns: a speed horse always shows his speed, and he could run "all day" if there's nothing to run with him. But remember that a stretch runner who may be unable to overtake some horses in front of him may well come through if there are nothing but speed horses up front burning each other up as they turn for home.

8) Caution is advised when betting on horses dropping in class. There is a possibility of trouble and the likelihood that something is not right with a horse when you see him dropped from a $10,000 class down to the $5,000 group.

9) The top-weighted horse in a handicap is always dangerous because the official race track handicapper considers him the best horse in the race. However, watch for allowance races in which the conditions permit a handicap horse to enter with less weight than he would normally carry in handicaps. An ideal bet, for example, would be to find a handicap horse accustomed to carrying around 122 pounds getting into an allowance race with 114.

10) It's easy enough to advise everyone to plan his betting on a sort of budget basis. And it's often hard to do. However, as my final word of advice I would suggest this: if you like a horse in an early race bet him according to the strength of your likes (I bet to win only); avoid betting twice as much in one of the last races on a horse you don't like half as much.