The Value of Handicapping Early and Creating a Game Plan

Making sure your handicapping for the day is done early on can reap dividends. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

It’s understandable why racing fans would enjoy a day like Saturday, Sept. 7 at Belmont Park.

There was an 11-race card with three stakes, each of them worth at least $300,000 and one with a value of $1 million, contested on a bright, sunny afternoon with ideal early September weather conditions.

Who needs college football, right?

Now, a handicapper might have a different take on the card highlighted by the Jockey Club Derby and the Jockey Club Oaks since there were eight winning favorites and no one paid more than $7.30 to win.

As much as that might sound like a tough day to win a bundle of cash, it’s not. It’s actually akin to an experienced quarterback taking what the defense gives him, throwing when they guard against the run and running when the other team is geared to stop the pass.

You have to accept what your handicapping tells you and bet accordingly.

Two immediate lessons to come out of the card is that it should not be a shock to see a string of favorites during a card like Saturday’s. Unlike the Breeders’ Cup, which brings in great horses from across the world to create unpredictability, when a major track has a big day of racing, it’s usually a showcase for a smaller talent pool of the circuit’s better horses and it’s not unusual to see them shine at low odds.

Secondly, and this should be standard operation procedure for any handicapper, last Saturday vividly illustrated the value of doing your homework, a.k.a. handicapping, early so that you went into the card knowing whether it was ripe for favorites or longshots and you could bet with that in mind.

By handicapping on a race-by-race basis during the card, you missed out on an opportunity to make a nice pile of cash playing the sequence or horizontal, multi-race bets.

These days, tracks like Belmont Park have expanded their wagering menus to including multiple Pick 4 and Pick 5 wagers and normally they favor the big gamblers who can cover multiple horses in multiple races much easier than the average $2 or $5 player.

But days like Saturday level the playing field. The big players help build up the pools by chasing longshots in the Pick 4 and Pick 5 while the little guys can maximize their profits by betting close to the vest in those sequences and chasing longshots on an individual basis in doubles or exactas.

Looking at Saturday’s card, the first three races featured winners paying $2.80, $3.40 and a second choice who returned $5.60. The payoff in the Pick 3 was a measly $13.60 for $2.

Now, if you bet those same three horses in the Pick 5, adding in a very logical Chad Brown-trained first-time starter who paid $6.40 and the $4.10 winner of the fifth race, you pocketed $195 for the same $2 bet. You more than doubled the amount of money you would have collected if you took your winnings from the Pick 3 and parlayed it to win on the next two races.

Taking the first race out of the mix, the Pick 4 of the second through fifth races paid $105.48, which was nice for a sequence with a top price of $6.40, but shows how extending the bet, even when you add an odds-on winner, can enhance your value, especially at a circuit like New York where the Pick 5 featured a wagering pool of more than $500,000.

At the end of the card, the final five races included four favorites and win payoffs of $3.50, $4.90, $5.20, $6.20 and the lone non-favorite who paid $4.70.

This Pick 5, which finished with a pool of more than $350,000, paid $531 for $2, which is not the typical base wager for a $2 player. Most people bet the 50-cent minimum, but if you structed your ticket with single horses in three races and three horses in two others, an $18 investment with $2 base bets (1 x 1 x 1 x 3 x 3) is hardly a huge investment.

And if you hit the Pick 4, without the $3.50 winner, the return was still a generous $357.48 for $2.

Again showing the value of adding additional races when you expect a chalky day, the final Pick 3 of $5.20, $6.20 and $4.70 horses paid $52, giving you $305.48 for adding a $4.90 favorite to the mix.  

As much as a day with eight winning favorites might not seem like a big deal, it was a grand opportunity to see some great racing and collect on wagers that might normally be out of reach for many handicappers – if you did your homework early.

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