Beginner’s Guide to Trip Handicapping

Where traffic trouble occurs in a race and the circumstances surrounding that trouble are key factors when it comes to trip handicapping. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Trip handicapping is a popular method for uncovering winners, yet it’s not as easy as it might seem. What might seem “bad” may simply be inconsequential.

Simply because a horse had an awful trip in his last race, that alone does not mean it is destined to cruise to the winner’s circle in his or her next start.

At the heart of the matter is finding those times when you have a strong conviction that a bad trip prevented a horse from finishing a spot or two better in a race and – and this is a very important “and” – that runner figures to atone in her next race.

To do just that, you’ll have to make some sound judgment calls to differentiate the fool’s gold from the diamonds in the rough.

For example, let’s say there’s a horse on the lead entering the stretch, but he’s beginning to weaken. At the eighth pole, another horse drifts in front of him, forcing the jockey to check his tiring mount who then fades from second to seventh.

Yes, that horse had a rough trip. But at what price? Instead of seventh, maybe he finishes fourth if no one bothers him. Is that reason enough to get excited about backing him in his next start? Of course not.

Let’s take another look at different type of “bad” trip. This time, a horse is shut off at the start of the race and falls way back in the field. Then, while turning for home, he gains some ground and finishes third. Does that make him a horse to watch? Probably not.

It’s not unusual for a horse to run slow early and fast late or fast early and slow late. So is it a sure thing that with a clean start that horse would have won the race? Or will he rebound and win his next race? Let’s just say the jury’s out on both of those.

Now about this one: A horse is making a sharp move in the stretch, but his running lane closes when another horses drifts over. The jockey checks his mount, moves him outside and in the final yards the horses closes quickly and just misses.

Yes, that’s a bad trip and that horse is definitely worth a wager or two or three in his next race. The flip side, of course, is that you were hardly alone in spotting such an obviously lost voyage and most likely that horse will be favored – and often overbet – in his next start.

Like any form of handicapping, trip handicapping is an acquired taste and the more closely you watch races with a scrutinizing eye, the quicker you’ll find the subtle bad trips that might lead to nice value plays down the road.

In some cases it can simply be a wide trip in which ground loss accounts for the difference between a winner on the rail and a narrowly beaten runner-up who has to travel six paths wide on the final turf.

Turf races, with their sharp turns, are magnets for these wide yet “bad” trips. In particular, at tracks with two turf courses, such as Belmont and Saratoga, a good effort while racing wide over an inner turf course takes on even more glitter.

Perhaps the toughest “bad” trip to analyze is one where a horse lacks room and never gets a chance to run his or her race in the stretch.

Simply because a horse is bottled up in the stretch, that doesn’t mean he would have won with a clean trip. You can assume a horse would have kicked into high gear and won the race, but that’s highly speculative, especially if you’re dealing with a horse destined to go off at low odds in his next start.

What helps in these cases is seeing a sign like a belated rally or a strong gallop out that can serve as some evidence about what might have happened.

So when you’re watching a race, don’t just root. Keep your eyes open for a bad trip. But not a bad “bad” trip. You want a good “bad” trip.

As confusing as that might sound, don’t dismiss it. It could wind up being what leads you to the best trip of all: a trip to the cashier’s window.

Note: This article originally was published in June 2016.

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