By Bob Ehalt
Handicapping a horse race is a science unto itself, but that doesn’t mean it has to be nuclear chemistry.
Newcomers to the sport of Thoroughbred racing should be aware that there are hundreds of ways to pick the winner of a race, but don’t let that intimidate you. It’s not as difficult of a process as that might sound.
There are quick, introductory handicapping methods that are devoid of decision-making, simple concepts such as betting on names, program numbers or the colors of a jockey’s silks. There are also ways so complex and intricate that they might have Einstein ripping the hair (or whatever that was) off of his head.
Fans pick favorites as horses tack up in Keeneland's scenic parade ring prior to a race.
In between there’s the middle ground. Methods that are challenging but not overwhelming and can prove to be quite rewarding on both an emotional and financial basis once they are mastered.
For beginners, finding the right starting spot offers its own set of twists and turns. An understanding of speed figures and trip handicapping can enable a veteran handicapper to turn a profit in his or her next trip to the racetrack, but those methods are not exactly easy for newcomers to embrace.
If there’s a gateway to the wonderland that is handicapping, it’s probably a general understanding of what to look for and expect in a race based on what’s happened in the past.
And that starting point is a realization that horses are animals, not machines. As much as what happened in a horse’s last race can certainly influence its next start, the mere fact that a horse won its previous race does not guarantee a return trip to the winner’s circle.
That’s the basic mosaic – pouring over the clues in past performances that can predict whether a horse will improve, regress or turn in an effort identical to its last start.
Some of the key ingredients in that search are distance, surface and class.
Yes, a horse might have won by six lengths in last start, which bodes well for its chances in tomorrow’s race. That victory might have come in a six-furlong race, though, and today at a mile and eighth it might find the longer distance too taxing.
Conversely, a horse that tired at a mile-and-an-eighth might welcome a return to a shorter six-furlong race and register an improved performance.
Sometimes a horse might run well on grass or a wet track, and then flop on a bone-dry dirt main track. Horses do not handle every surface with equal aplomb.
A horse coming off a maiden victory might struggle at first against a tougher class of experienced rivals in an allowance race. Some allowance runners might wake up when dropped into a claiming race.
A switch from a jockey who hasn’t won since the Christmas tree was lit at Rockefeller Center to the meet’s leading rider can usually be constructed in a positive manner. Ditto for having a new trainer.
Unusually sharp or slow workouts could be telling.
A horse might have too much rest after a poor showing (which could mean he’s returning from an injury) or not enough of a respite after a draining effort. Be leery of both.
Was a horse’s last race an unusually bad – or good – race? Was it another step forward in a series of improving efforts?
Is the horse named Zenyatta and all she does is win?
Put all of that together and you’ll master chapter one in Handicapping 101. You will be able to look a horse’s last few races and determine what bearing that might have on its chances in today’s race.
After you have that down pat, then you can branch out and dig deeper and use pace and speed figures, ground loss, weight, visual data from races and dozens of other tools to rank horses and decide who will be the most likely winner.
But when you’re on the ground floor, and everything seems new and confusing, learning how to relate yesterday’s news into today’s news is the wise kind of first step that may one day take you to the penthouse of handicapping.