Skip to main content
Original Issue


Like all horseplayers, I pick up my copy of the Daily Racing Form every morning. Before turning to the past performances that are the tools of the horseplayer's trade, I look at the ads, and if I did not know better, I would drool.

For a mere $40 a fellow named Frederick S. Davis promises to confide in me how he has "achieved the first truly scientific study of performance patterns." Beautiful! For an unspecified fee I can learn how to pick long shots from an institution that sounds as if it is sponsored by Harvard, an organization awesomely known as the National Academy of Thoroughbred Handicapping.

For $30—what a bargain!—a man named Tom Ainslie will tell me how to determine if a horse is spotted at the right distance, whether his jockey suits him and whether he can run in the mud. Indeed he will give me his "private method," guaranteed to help me "handicap more successfully." I happen to know this man and his real name isn't Tom Ainslie, but never mind. If I were in his business, I wouldn't use my real name either.

To all these great teachers of handicapping, offering me these sure routes to picking winners and becoming rich beyond my wildest dreams, I can only say thank you, but I think I will keep the $30 or the $40 or the unspecified fee and let you make your money at the races—since you're so good at it—rather than off me.

Gentlemen of the Racing Form ads, I have been going to the races for almost half a century, very likely longer than any of you. I almost certainly have been to more racetracks (about 60) and seen more races (about 20,000) than any of you. I happen to have a lifetime profit on the horses, something I doubt that any of you can truly claim. But if anybody offered me $30 or $40 or an unspecified fee to show him how to make money betting the horses, I would say:

Forget it. Anybody who tries to get rich handicapping is crazy. It can't be done. There are no systems. Playing the horses is an entertainment, like going to the movies, and you have to pay the admission fees. What's great about betting on horses is not that you can make money at it but that it's more fun and cheaper in the long run than many pleasures. Like owning a boat. Or traveling in Europe.

One reason you can't find a surefire system for handicapping was demonstrated by a horse I once owned named Dr. Dubious. As a 2-year-old, this was one of the worst horses in racing history. In sprints, he showed no speed. In distance races, he showed no closing kick. What can you do with a horse that starts slow and quits in the stretch?

I gave up on him. I was making arrangements to give him away to a friend who had just bought a farm and wanted a slow-going saddle horse. Then, the day he turned three, Dr. Dubious ran against a pretty good field down in Florida, stayed close to a fast pace, finished gamely, won and paid $164.40. My chagrin at not having a nickel on him was mitigated by the knowledge that he had proved himself a good horse that would win the same kind of race again.

He never did. In subsequent years he won some races for a $2,000 claiming price around New England, but he never again ran as well as he did on that one unexpected and amazing day. Why?

Who knows? Horses are like that. They will lose by a city block in race after race, then suddenly will run 20 lengths faster than they ever ran before, after which they may just as suddenly lapse into their losing ways.

I figured out once that I would be approximately $250,000 richer today had it not been for one thing. There have been many races where my handicapping was just about as perfect as handicapping can get. I had the right horse. He ran his race. He beat my second choice in the race by two lengths and my third choice by three lengths. The only trouble was that some nutty outsider chose that particular day to run the race of his life and beat my horse at the wire. Take out the outsiders that never ran that well before, or after, and I would have collected a fortune over the years.

In a lifetime as a horseplayer, you naturally hear a lot about fabulous handicappers who have made a regal living betting on horses. Long ago, when there were more bookmakers and they were willing to take bets at any track in the nation, there was said to be a man who made his bundle on muddy tracks. He had a sample of dirt from every track and he would shake up the dirt with an amount of water equal to the overnight rainfall to determine the consistency of the track. A guaranteed method? Maybe. I can see where this fellow might have known something about the track surface that day, but I have to wonder how he knew what the horses would think of it.

Then there were the "Speed Boys," who operated around New York. They had an idea that makes sense. In fact I was using it before I ever heard of them. The theory goes like this: a lot of races are won by horses who lead all the way. Therefore it often pays to pick the horse that will have the lead from the start. If there are two speed horses in the race, pick the one on the inside, because he will benefit on the turn. If there are three or more speed horses in the race, figure that they'll kill one another off and bet a come-from-behind horse.

A good theory, as I said. But you never hear of the "Speed Boys" today. I don't know what ever became of them. All I know is that one season a friend of mine went to the races with them two days a week, bet the same way they did and got quite far behind in his alimony. It's not always easy to figure which horse will be in front from the start.

Lots of others have been written up over the years as great handicappers. I used to make a hobby of learning something about them. What I found out was that most of them were touts, not handicappers. They didn't win. They couldn't win. What they did do was get enough publicity to convince people they were winners, so that somebody was always willing to provide them with a bankroll.

That is what is known at the track as playing with OP—Other People's money. If you can establish a reputation as a winner, you can always find rich and greedy people to give you betting money. Win or lose you take your cut.

Is there any chance at all of coming out ahead if you bet the horses over a period of time?

I think about this question a lot. Partly for selfish reasons. Partly because I have written a number of magazine stories on horse racing, and almost invariably have received a batch of letters asking for betting advice.

The answer is no. No way you can come out ahead, unless you are terribly lucky, as I have been on a few big occasions that put me in the black. The "take" from the mutuel pool, about 17% at most tracks, has to kill you. If you pick the horses as well as the average person, you're going to lose 17¢ out of every dollar you bet; $1.70 out of every $10; $17 out of every $100. Over a season, that mounts up.

If you're going to try to pick winners, which can be a great game in spite of the odds against success, how do you do it? I'm no Frederick S. Davis or National Academy of Thoroughbred Handicapping or Tom Ainslie, and I don't pretend to have a system. But I do know a few things not to do.

1. Don't play hunches. Or post positions. If you do, the odds say you will hit one winner every 12 races in the traditional 12-horse fields. To keep you even, your winners would have to pay an average of $24, and the average winner at U.S. tracks pays less than $10. The same goes for jockeys. Even if there is a hot jockey at the meet who is winning more than his mathematical share of the races, the odds on his horses will discount that fact.

2. Don't go along with any of the handicappers in the newspapers or in the Racing Form. Most of these people are pretty good at picking winners and some of them are very good, but the odds again reflect this fact. Their selections all lose money over the long run. If you want to bet the favorites, go ahead. Favorites win about one race out of every three, so you'll get a lot of action. But be forewarned. The average winning favorite doesn't pay anything like $6, so you'll have to be prepared to lose.

3. Don't go near the place or show windows. No matter how you pick your horses, you will do better in the long run betting them to win only. (It's a fact that can't easily be explained. Just take my word for it.) The only time I ever make a place or show bet is when the horse I like is at least 10 to 1.

4. Above all, don't let anybody persuade you to try any kind of progression system. These systems are variations on the old idea of doubling your bet after every loss until you finally hit a winner. They have all been tried and they have all failed. It's easy to pick 25 or 30 losers in a row—I've done it many times—and a streak like that will bankrupt any system. Even the favorites sometimes lose as many as 25 straight races.

To stay alive at the races over the years—note that I said stay alive, not win—you have to learn to read the past performances and make your own selections. This isn't easy. But even if you never develop into a top handicapper, you will probably do better this way than any other.

There are a few guidelines that help. Like post position. In sprint races the inside post positions are a handicap because the jockey has to use up the horse by gunning him out of the gate or risk being pinned along the rail behind the field. In races around two turns the outside post positions are a handicap because the horse is likely to lose too much ground on the first turn.

Weight makes a difference, especially in sprint races where a couple of extra pounds may keep the horse from getting into full stride out of the gate. And all horses have a breaking point. A horse may be able to win under 118 pounds but lose his action under 120.

A horse's last race, which has the most influence of all on many amateur handicappers, isn't really that important. Especially a bad race. For one thing, the horse may have been in trouble. I made my biggest score last year, a $1,283 daily double, by wheeling a horse I own named Half Truth, which won at Belmont just after being beaten badly at Saratoga. What most people hadn't noticed about the Saratoga race was that Half Truth was knocked back three different times. He had run great that day—considering.

A horse may also put in a bad looking race because he tries to keep up with a field of better horses, finds he can't and quits. A horse might give up and get beaten 15 lengths in a sprint run in 1:11, which would make his own time 1:14, and then come right back and win easily in 1:11[3/5].

On the other hand, a good last race may be what I call a Dr. Dubious, a freak effort never to be repeated. I do pay attention to a good last race by a young and lightly raced horse that may just be getting good, or by an old class horse that may be coming back to form. Mostly I discount the last race and look for consistency.

All the other factors in handicapping are so complicated that you have to work out your own methods of dealing with them. You have to consider time, and you have to consider class. Ideally, you should try to figure out how the race will be run from start to finish. Which of the front runners will take the lead. How far back the horses with a closing lick will be. How fast the pace will be. The works. It isn't easy, but any method you use will hit at least some winners.

When it comes to betting, I'm convinced that the commonest mistake of all is to be scared off by the odds. I've seen lots of people at the track make a selection, look up and see the horse is 20 to 1, and go back to the drawing board. Or they'll stick to their selection, but cut way down on the amount they bet.

Me, I love long shots. Once on a family vacation in Atlantic City I drove to the track just to make a bet on one horse that to me stood out in the Racing Form as the surest bet of all time. I expected him to be 8 to 5 when I got there but, lo and behold, he was 30 to 1. Instead of cutting down the amount I planned to bet, I doubled it. It turned out to be one of the top scores of my life.

My rule of thumb is to ignore the odds and bet the same amount on every horse I like, except that I have three categories of selections. If I like a horse just average, I bet X dollars. If I think his chances are outstanding, I double the bet to 2X. If I think he's super-outstanding, I'll bet 4X. I do consider the odds in one respect. If everybody likes the horse and he's going off at less than I to 2, I usually pass up the race. In a game so full of ifs, why put up $2 to win 80¢ or less?

I like the daily double and I think the way to play it is to crisscross. Pick two or three horses with a good chance in the first race and two or three in the second, then play all the combinations, which can number four, six or nine. The only trouble with the double is that one or both of the races sometimes have fields of untried 2-year-olds. No way of handicapping races like that.

I try to like the exacta, another bet to warm the heart of a man who likes a good price. But I've never figured out how to play it, and I don't bet it often. I think most good handicappers will tell you that it's harder to pick a horse that will run second than to pick a winner.

The triple is a lot of fun, but you have to be prepared to invest quite a bit of money before you get any return. I hit it five times last year and probably wound up with a profit, but there was a costly dry spell before the first hit.

In the triple I like to have a key horse that I think has a real good chance of winning. Then I pick three others that might finish behind him and bet all the possible combinations: ABC, ABD, ACB, ACD, ADB and ADC. Six tickets in all. Great when it works. The trouble is that my A horse doesn't always win, and even when he does, some stranger often sneaks in second or third.

In fact I've watched a lot of triple races in which none of my horses—not the A, not the B, not the C or D—was to be found anywhere among the first three finishers. This never surprises or discourages me. I'll bet it's also happened to Davis and Ainslie and the faculty of the National Academy, if they're not too busy teaching to go to the races.