How I Learned to Read a Racing Program

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Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing

I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was 18 and I was about to head to the races for the first time. I had been betting with an ADW for a while, using their simplified versions of past performances – but I had never been to the races in person or held a program in my hands.

Giddy like a kid on Christmas, I couldn’t wait to get there, but glancing at the program before we left had me extremely overwhelmed. I remember thinking, “What are these percentages?”, “What do those big bolded numbers mean?”, “OK, allowances are higher class than claiming races … or is it the other way around?”

I made my future brother-in-law sit down and teach me everything he knew about how to read a program. I’m convinced the Kentucky Derby program is the first book he ever read.

We started off simple. We went through the different class ranks – from maiden claimers through Grade 1s. He explained the significance of dropping down in class and how that could give horses an edge. We talked about the big, bolded numbers, aka Beyer Speed Figures in this case, and how that was supposed to help evaluate the performance of horses as if they were on an even playing field. Then, he explained that the times at the bottom of each horse’s profile were their workouts, and the meaning of “bullet” workouts.

From there, we headed to the racetrack and I came back with none of the cash that I took with me. I had some close calls, but at the end of the day, I didn’t cash a single ticket.

But that’s OK, because handicapping isn’t a four-furlong sprint. It’s a long, mile-and-a-half route, that takes a lot of endurance and a lot of adjusting. What my brother-in-law did was help lay the foundation for me on how to read a program and handicap.

Over the years, I’ve learned about projecting pace and how important that is to a race. I’ve learned how to tell when certain horses will excel off long layoffs, whether it be trainer percentages or the horse’s own statistics. I bought a book that really helped me get a better understanding of the intricacies that make up the different class levels. I have gotten much better since that first day I learned to read a program, but I’m nowhere near where I’d like to be yet.

Handicapping races takes skill, but it also takes some luck as well. When you do pick that winner, even if you only have $2 invested in that race, the feeling of accomplishment and excitement is unreal.

Note: This story was originally published in July 2017 and has been updated.

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