When to Take a Stand Against the Favorite

Tips
Fans watch the horses race in the stretch at Saratoga Race Course. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

There was a valuable lesson contained within a $411,188.06 payout in Gulfstream Park’s Rainbow Pick 6 Jackpot on Aug. 6.

The handicapping genius who was the only one to correctly select all six winners made excellent use of a $2,160 bankroll, electing to use 10 of the 11 horses in one of the races.

While it’s hardly unusual for a Pick 6 player to wheel a race (using all of the horses in that race) or include virtually all of the horses, what stood out here was the horse left off the ticket was the favorite in the race.

And that’s why they call it gambling.

By taking a stand against the favorite – who finished fifth – that handicapper wound up having the $59.40 winner on that ticket and was ultimately rewarded with a life-changing payoff.

While cashing a Pick 6 ticket would be a dream come true for a modest player, anyone can benefit from the wagering strategy and confidence that went into that huge payday at Gulfstream Park.

As much as some handicappers like to focus their wagers on favorites so that they can cash a winning ticket more often, these chalk players are actually working against the odds. Even if favorites win 33 percent of the time, that means they lose 67 percent of the time.

It’s those numbers that illustrate why a handicapper would always be wise to exploit a vulnerable favorite. You’re chasing bigger payoffs, and, yes, about 67 percent of the time it makes sense to bet against the chalk.

While a handicapper should always strive to pick winners, sometimes it can work out just as well when you find a race where you do not like the favorite. By spreading your wagers a little more than usual in that race, you just might cash a ticket that puts you in the black for the rest of the day.

And if you’re worried that the horse everyone but you seems to like will beat you, remember, about 67 percent of the time that horse will lose. So go ahead, take a chance.

In case you have forgotten already, that’s why they call it gambling.

To help in understanding when it makes sense to latch on to a favorite or avoid it like a cold, let’s take a look at what’s happening at the “Graveyard of Favorites,” Saratoga Race Course – which is actually embracing the chalk in a manner more befitting Aqueduct’s inner-track meet.

From July 22 through Aug. 12, there have been 187 races at the Spa – not including steeplechase events. In those races, the betting favorite has prevailed in 72 of them, which amounts to a very respectable rate of 38.5 percent.

With so many favorites crossing the finish line first, it would seem like nirvana for chalk players. But if they tried to stretch their luck into the exotics, they are no doubt struggling.

While betting the two favorites in an exacta might seem quite sensible while you’re analyzing past performances, in reality betting on the two favorites in a race, in the long run, accounts for low payoffs and a low winning percentage.

As much as the second choice has indeed wound up second behind the favorite more often than any other option in the wagering, your chances of cashing on the chalk running 1-2 are less than you might think.

Of those 72 wins by favorites at Saratoga, on 25 occasions the second choice finished second. That might sound good in theory, but it averages out to a chalk exacta happening 13.7 percent of the time – which is a rather low mark considering that 11 of those exactas paid $10.80 or less.

Interestingly, playing the second choice over the favorite in the exacta has generated much weaker results as it has happened just nine times, or 4.8% of the time.  Box the two favorites and you’re winning at a rate of just 18.2% (34 of 187) – which means you’re losing 81.8% of the time.

What can help in putting those numbers to work for you is an understanding of when the favorite is more likely to shine or stub its toe.

In breaking those numbers down by the categories of races, turf claiming races have been a weak area for favorites.

So far favorites have been victorious in just 22.7 percent of turf claimers (5 of 22 races) and have been first or second in 10 of the 22 races (45.5%).

Favorites, like Frosted, have done well in dirt stakes. (Eclipse Sportswire)

In contrast, the chalk has thrived in dirt claimers. Favorites have won 17 of 35 (48.5%) main-track claiming races and have been first or second in 25 of those 35 races for a stellar mark of 71.4%.

Favorites have also excelled in dirt stakes, where they have won 7 of 15 races (46.6%) and been first or second 12 of 15 times (75%), and turf stakes, where favorites have won 6 of 9 races (66.6%) with no runner-up finishes.

If you’re looking for an opportunity to cast a “thumbs down” on a favorite, the best spots have been maiden special weight races on dirt (1 for 5, 20%), maiden special weight races for New York state-breds on dirt (0 for 4), starter allowance races on turf (0 for 4) and allowance races on turf (4 of 14, 28.5%).

Keep all of those numbers in mind the next time you stumble across a favorite that you don’t like. Rather than follow the pack and reluctantly back it, by sticking to your first instincts, you’ll actually have the percentages on your side and you could be staring at your big payoff of the day.

Yes, taking a gamble can certainly have its rewards, even if you’re not playing the Pick 6.

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