How to Identify Live Horses by Late Odds Changes

Keeping an eye on the toteboard can reveal late shifts in odds that identify live horses. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

In any discussion about the impact late money has on handicapping a race there should be a disclaimer.

While some people focus on the shifts in win odds during the final minutes of wagering, there’s also a collection of handicappers who believe early money — or the odds during the initial minutes of wagering — are more telling factors.

Rather than engage in that decades-old debate, for the purposes of today’s lesson we’ll focus on late money and some important points to keep in mind while watching the toteboard as post-time approaches.

For starters, there’s a huge difference in wagering at a major track such as Belmont Park and a smaller venue such as Indiana Grand.

At the smaller tracks, where it’s easier for one large bet to skew win odds, it’s best to take note of big shifts and see if there’s a pattern to it, such as one or two trainers who have a strong measure of success when their horses plunge in odds.

At larger tracks, the win pools are substantially bigger and the shifts in odds are far subtler. Contrary to scenes from movies, at Santa Anita or Belmont horses that are more than 10-1 with five or so minutes before post time almost never take enough money to go off as the favorite.

In fact, if a horse at a large circuit is 10-1 with five minutes to post, it would be highly unusual to see that horse tumble below 8-1. Watch the toteboard at leading tracks on a regular basis and you’ll see that horses who are 10-1 or more when horses step onto the track for the post parade rise in price far more often than they drop.

The plain truth is that shifts of two or three points in odds during the final minutes are actually big moves at a major track. This, for example, would be a drop along the lines of 4-1 to 7-2 to 3-1 to 5-2.

For the most part, late money is telling and helpful —  which is why it merits respect —  but it’s not infallible. Horses who drop by two or three points in the final minutes are more likely to finish in the top three than out of the money, but simply following the board weakens your chance of turning a flat-bet profit because of inherently low odds on these horses.

In most cases, it’s better to look for spots when late money has more meaning and wager accordingly.

In particular, maiden races are ripe with opportunities when late money should be noted. In some cases, the interest in a horse is obvious and late money is to be expected. Yet at other times, when a horse is coming off a mediocre debut or there is an equipment change and late money appears, it could be a sign that a certain horse is very well meant as it heads to the post.

Ditto for first-time starters, especially if there is not obvious reason to bet on them with both fists, such as bullet workouts, a seven-figure sale price or hailing from the barn of a premier trainer such as Todd Pletcher or Bab Baffert.

Surface switches from dirt to turf, horses coming off of layoffs, or horses stretching out to two turns or cutting back to a sprint are other instances when late money could be smart money.

Conversely, there could be times when a lack of late money could also be telling. There could be a red-flag waving when a horse who figures to be an odds-on choice turns out to be dead on the toteboard and goes off at a surprisingly high price such as 2-1.

Whether it’s early or late, keeping an eye on the toteboard is surely a way to get the odds in your favor during a day at the racetrack.

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