Of all the modern-day anachronisms one can find at the race track, the morning-line odds deserve a place near the top of the list. The morning-line odds are the odds printed in the program or in the newspaper alongside the entries in the race. They are set by a track employee, usually a handicapper but not always, and are supposed to represent how that individual believes the betting will ultimately shake out for the race at post time.
This practice dates back to a time when bettors had no access to real-time odds information and had to use this best guess at the odds to make their wagers. Today, we have the benefit of a constant stream of data updated in real time to know what the exact pari-mutuel odds are at every point in time. Yet, the morning-line odds persist.
A racetrack employee still does the difficult job of trying to predict the line on an entire day’s races, every single night of a meet. And for what? To have a number to print in the day’s program and in the newspapers.
The morning-line odds can help you or hurt you as a handicapper. It’s important to figure out how to use them to your advantage and not let them trip you up. For one thing, you can’t let the morning-line odds get in your head when you’re making your selections for the race. Remember that the person who sets the morning line isn’t supposed to set the odds based on their personal selections for who will win the race. They are tasked with trying to predict how the public will bet a race. It’s an important distinction.
Many people treat the morning-line odds as endorsements of a horse’s ability or lack thereof. In truth, an oddsmaker might believe that a horse he or she thinks will win the race will actually be underbet and set the line accordingly. For example, horses coming off a string of wins are frequently heavily bet, regardless of the class of those prior races. You will often see this reflected in morning-line odds.
Are morning-line oddsmakers right?
Most of the time, yes! At most major racetracks, the morning-line favorite ends up as the public favorite at post time in more than 70% of races (Source). This doesn’t mean the morning-line favorite wins more than 70%, of course. But the job of the oddsmaker isn’t to predict the winners but to predict how the odds will look at post time. On this score, they usually do well as far as favorites are concerned.
TOTE BOARD IN SARATOGA INFIELD
Photo by Eclipse Sportswire
When oddsmakers are wrong
The fact that a morning-line favorite ends up the actual favorite at post time doesn’t mean the odds are always exactly the same. It’s said that morning-line oddsmakers are reluctant to make a favorite lower than 8-to-5 on their line or a longshot higher than 30-to-1, since odds at the extreme ends can discourage action. This may or may not be true, but it is rare to see a horse on the morning line listed at greater odds than 50-to-1, for whatever reason.
The psychology of this is real. When people see that a horse they like is among the morning-line favorites, they take this as a vote of confidence and bet. When they see the horse that they like is a longshot, they will question themselves and reexamine the race.
This can have the effect of pushing favorites down into becoming underlays - horses whose odds are lower than their actual chances - and pushing middle-priced horses into becoming overlays – horses with odds significantly higher than their actual chances. A horse that should be 10-to-1 could end up 15-to-1 or 20-to-1 at post time because the public was more reluctant to back a horse that was only 10-to-1 on the morning line.
Using the morning line to your advantage
The first rule is to never look at the morning-line odds when making your selections. Handicap every other factor in the race that matters to you before you look at the morning-line odds (or the track odds if you’re picking the race at the track). If you know the odds, chances are it will impact how you interpret the rest of the data you use to pick the race. You might discount something on a longshot that you otherwise might have considered important. You could give more weight to something about a favorite that you otherwise might have wanted to second guess. On your first pass, don’t let any other opinions in to your head.
Then, after you make your picks, see how they match up with the morning-line odds. Are they the same? Fine. Perhaps the race is noncontroversial and the public will view and bet it similar to you. Did you differ with the oddsmaker’s prices at all? Are any of your top selections higher than 8-to-1? Good. Chances are this means there will be an overlay. If the public ends up letting those horses go at double-digit odds, you may have yourself a live longshot!
Are there other horses in the race that are going off at prices that differ dramatically from the morning line? Take a look. Maybe there’s value there.
When the oddsmakers have it all wrong, it might be because there’s new information that came to light that the oddsmaker didn’t have. It could be because someone is making large wagers on horses that look on paper like they have no chance. It could be that the public is just plain bad at picking horses. More often than not, the truth will be the latter. But sometimes a big gap between the morning line and the tote board is worth taking a second look.
With one exception - it isn’t uncommon for a horse listed at 20-to-1 on the morning line to be 50-to-1 or worse. And it isn’t uncommon for a horse listed at 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 to go off at 9-to-5. Avoid investing too much stock in big gaps on the extreme ends of the spectrum. Like I said before, in these cases the oddsmaker probably was being more charitable to a horse’s connections than the public is wont to do.
Make your own morning line
A good handicapping exercise is to try to make your own morning line on a race and see how it matches up with the official one, or with how the race ends up bet at the track. If you’d like to give it a shot, the Del Mar racetrack website has a handy tool that can help you.