The Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile

On paper, the Dirt Mile may be the easiest Breeders’ Cup race in recent memory, and I only have about 100 words to say on it. It is defending champion and two-time G1 winner Goldencents against a bunch of G2 or lower horses. This includes 3YO’s Vicar’s in Trouble and Tapiture, who were always a notch below the best this year.

I expect Goldencents will be 4/5 or lower, which makes him an automatic play for me in this situation. This is a consequence of the favorite-longshot bias, a topic I discuss here in an article by Ziemba/Thaler. I trust the public when it comes to these sorts of plays.

My $100 play in this race is simple:

$100 win on Goldencents (at 4/5 or lower)

If he’s even money or higher, I’ll go heavier in exactas under Tapiture, and put Goldencents under other low-priced contenders as well (5-1 or lower).

Update: Goldencents is 3/5 on the board right now. He may rise to 4/5, but seems a lock to be a win bet here.

For much more on the favorite/longshot bias, check out Stealing Money from the Crowd, available here.

Image: John Athayde, Copyright 2005.

Thaler and Ziemba on Efficient Betting Markets & Favorite/Longshot Bias

I’ve read it before (around 2005), but not since being exposed to Thaler’s other excellent work in behavioral economics a few years back. Ziemba (Dr. Z) is, of course, a legend for his work on arbitrage in place and show pools. I’ve always believed that betting markets are mostly efficient (especially regarding public information), but that certain public cognitive bias can be exploited to find long-term value. This article explores this area.

After re-reading it again, it’s still a very worthwhile read, and a solid introduction to the field. It’s chock full of rigorous examination of much of the “folklore” (the authors’ word) of the racetrack. It’s especially useful for conclusions regarding the public’s typically sharp handicapping, finding that “the racetrack betting market is surprisingly efficient,” which cuts at most of the common claims of the mainstream handicapping literature. It does however find inefficiencies (at least at the time), especially with the well-documented “Favorite/Longshot Bias,” which generally finds pricing errors at the very top (for example, 3/5 or less) and very bottom of the odds (for example, 20/1+). In my favorite part, the authors lay out the potential reasons for the bias:

Screenshot 2014-10-02 11.44.11

Indeed, just like with other decisions, bettors are motivated by a mix of both rational and irrational motivations. I especially like the serious consideration given to the process of betting and particularly, the added utility derived, especially from longshot betting. The short time horizons of most bettors also tend to influence irrational behavior, which also explains the increased severity of the favorite/longshot bias toward the end of racing cards. The goal of the sharper bettor is to find and exploit the irrational crowd decisions, while maintaining their own rationality.

Click here for full article

Image: Rachel Kramer, 2012.

From the Archive: Horseplayer’s Axis of Evil (2006)

[I wrote this article back in 2006. A little dated with Bush-era terminology, but still applicable, it was the first piece on playing the races that I ever wrote. SA]

As horseplayers, we are always seeking value in our selections. Whether you’re wagering on a horse at 15-1, 4-1, 8-5, or 3-5, the ultimate goal is to find the overlay. Yet, while the overlay concept is sound in theory, it’s typically wrecked in practice by all but the most emotionally disciplined of players. This is the work of the horseplayer’s axis of evil, which gains its strength by praying on our all-too-human characteristics. Without further ado, let’s meet its membership:

(1) GREED: This first member of the axis is deceptive and devious, and, when we’re not looking, he runs off with large portions of our bankrolls. He makes us think we’re getting value when we’re really just looking to get something for nothing. Through his subtle manipulations, he throws wrenches into a well-reasoned handicapping process, and causes us to lose more money than we would simply by betting the favorite.

Greed shows up all the time in our handicapping, especially in our search for overlays. As horseplayers, we hate short prices. There’s risk in every horse race — a jockey error, a catastrophic injury — and we must be compensated for this risk. But, unfortunately, on many occasions, a disdain for short prices often clouds our judgment. We perceive negative value and move away from a horse solely because of the low anticipated payout.

(2) HOPE: Red, of The Shawshank Redemption, had it right: “Hope is a dangerous thing.” And, much like the classic handicapping quote about time and prison, when it comes to playing the races, hope is best left behind the prison walls. Yes, hope is a wonderful, inspiring feeling that makes you feel happy when things aren’t going well. It’s also something that has absolutely no place in handicapping.

Hope rears its ugly head all throughout the handicapping process, but it’s especially dangerous when you’re dissatisfied with the price you’re going to get on your top selection. You may begin to desperately look for positive things in the other horses. You’ll use words like “maybe…could…possibly.” You know the types of horses, and you’ve seen enough of them come in to convince yourself. But, unfortunately, you’ve come under the spell of hope, and started to let it guide your selections.

Overlays are great theory, but finding one in the heat of the handicapping moment can be an emotional minefield.

(3) FEAR: By far the trickiest of the members of the axis, fear subtly influences our selections in several ways. Aware of the effect of scared money and facing the fear of loss, the horseplayer must fearlessly enter a risky environment and stay brave amid tremendous uncertainty. Yet, despite our bravery, fear is not without a weapon here. For if we feign fearlessness where it is unwarranted, he attacks with the fear of regret, which guides us into situations where the risk does not equal the reward.

The player may seem confident in his selection, but will still be motivated by fear. When making this type of decision, the horseplayer’s phrases are well-known: “I’ll be devastated if I passed on this one”; “This big payday will make my day/week/month; I can’t miss it if it comes in.” (And, believe me. . . I know these phrases all too well. ) Fearful of missing the big payday, you turn a deaf ear to the important cautions in your gut.

Together, greed, hope, and fear constitute a nasty confederation that confounds the reasoning of the value-seeking horseplayer. Overlays are great theory, but finding one in the heat of the handicapping moment can, indeed, be an emotional minefield.

Scared Money & Multi-race Wagers

One reason I’m handicapping in public through this Belmont meet is to share the “inner game” of playing the races everyday. The game of betting is much more than just analytics; it is also a constant battle for self-discipline and emotional control. And this means more than not just staying strong through the lean times, but also maintaining proper perspective through the great times. In fact, this is one reason this game is so challenging, and why betting is growing more popular everyday. It not only requires analytical thought, but also strong self-discipline and constant learning.

One thing that often gets in the way is a phenomenon known as “scared money.” Essentially, it’s when you make any wager that you are afraid to lose. It’s related to “pressing,” or making bets because you really want a score right now.  In contrast, I find that when I’m playing patiently, I never expect any particular bet to hit, but I know that somewhere and sometime, the right number of bets will hit. Scared money–motivated by impatience–makes any one particular bet far more important than the long-term.

Scared money can be very deadly in in a multi-race wagers, such as the P3, P4 or P5. I find that if I am adding horses to a ticket only because I am afraid that the ticket is going to miss if I don’t, then I’m making a mistake. Even if the bet hits, it still was a bad bet. In contrast, like any set of wagers, each multi-race ticket needs to be part of a bigger long-term, value-seeking strategy.

Hindsight is always perfect, but in both making my wagers and reviewing my wagers, I always try to ask myself if I’m motivated by fear of missing the ticket, and whether adding additional horses actually adds value to the ticket. I’ll still screw up — although thankfully much less than I did when I was younger — but seeing and learning from mistakes is the key to avoiding the same pitfall in the future. But, then again, nobody said that playing the races was easy!





On Context: Interpreting the PP’s

I fell in love with racing for many reasons, but none greater than a love of the data, specifically the past performances. As a kid, I’d always read the box scores in the sports section with breakfast. I’d recreate last night’s games (or the late games from the previous night) in my head over my frosted flakes. I love taking the data and trying to understand not only what’s on the surface, but what fascinating stories are hidden below the data.

With horse racing, the data tells several stories. In particular, the past performances telling the histories of the horses. There’s tons of data available — typically, the running lines of the last 10 races with speed figures and a race/class level description. Some more advanced past performances add pace, pedigree, and trainer statistics.

Interpreting the past performances entails understanding a horse’s history to predict what that horse will likely do today. Indeed, that’s the essence of handicapping. In interpreting the PP’s, there are many different stories. The first story is simply what happened in a race. It recounts the basic facts of what happened. An example of this is the running line, which tells how far behind/ahead a horse was at certain points in a race. A similar story is also told by speed and pace figures, which add context for track condition/speed. This permits taking a race and comparing it to other races.

Interpreting the past performances entails understanding a horse’s history to predict what that horse will likely do today. Indeed, that’s the essence of handicapping.

But another story is also told by the past performances, and one that requires more than surface analysis to see. This story is crafted by looking deeper into the circumstances surrounding a particular race and understanding why that race may or may not be predictive for today’s race. Importantly, in doing so, this type of analysis raises more questions than answers, but ultimately brings about a relatively accurate assessment of the riskiness of a contender. In particular, relevant data from other contexts, such as trainer intent or class shifts, often informs understanding the previous races and the reasoning behind today’s entry.

Because they are difficult to see, these second stories — the contextual ones that require analysis — are the ones that offer opportunities for profit at the racetrack. In short, context matters, especially when betting against the public.

Image: Lauren Turner, Uttoxeter Races_026. Copyright 2011.

Handicapping Question: Angles — 3 Good & 1 Bad

[As part of the mission of this site to further smart discussion about handicapping, I’ll be asking experienced handicappers to share their wisdom. This week, I asked Gregory Edwards for three handicapping angles that work and for one handicapping angle that doesn’t work. As usual, he really understands the class nuances of smaller tracks.  SA]

Three Handicapping Angles that Work:

  1. A claiming horse winning relatively easily (1 length plus.) while setting a speed figure in range with today’s move up in class. What’s easily? Best way to tell is to be flexible and watch the race!  This is most frequently encountered at smaller circuits where knowing claiming brackets is a must. Often overlooked as being outmatched, this type of horse will be frequently be in good form and move up within his/her claiming bracket effectively and at a price. An example would be a move from 7500N2L to 7500N3L.
  2. The second place finisher first out in maiden special weight running for a leading barn and well-bred. This horse tends to go off at short price, but can be a great horse to use as a “key” vertically and horizontally. Conversely, horses in cold or average barns are great bet against when they go off with heavy favoritism. When these types pop up, its time to find a price elsewhere.
  3. My last one requires a very fine eye, but when this occurs it cashes handsomely. The angle is a high-priced claiming horse entered in N2X allowance company. The caveat? The race must be devoid of any impressive maiden 3-year-old or 4-year-old winners. The claiming horses are frequently left bare on the board, but have been racing against top claimers on the grounds. This angle is especially amplified in the first quarter of the year when these races are composed of stalled 4 year olds.

One Handicapping Angle that’s False:

  1. Bet against maiden 3-year olds/4-year-olds facing winners for the first time. This angle is atrocious in my book. Any lightly raced maiden winner that wins impressively is a huge contender first out in n1x company. These races are often filled with horses stuck at level. A well-meant lightly raced horse can devour this level and often the next. Of course, pace scenarios must always be considered.

Image: Dennis Forgione, “Rounding the bend.” Copyright 2014.

Featured Post: Arapahoe Park

[Editor’s Note:  I asked Rich Halvey, who blogs at and is also quite active on twitter @rich_halvey, to provide some background on Arapahoe Park. Due to ADW restrictions, I can’t play the track from home in Colorado, and most of my action is simulcast. Small tracks can also provide some good betting opportunities and entertainment.  The photo is from “somewhere near Arapahoe Park.” Rich will be in the paddock at Arapahoe Park on Sunday, July 20. SA]

I grew up a stone’s throw from Saratoga. It was the first real racetrack I ever went to, and for me it is still the best venue in racing. Saratoga is wonderful – interesting people, the best horses in the world, fabulous grounds, lots of history. The Vatican of racetracks.

A few years after breaking my betting maiden, I decided to move to Colorado. In those days when simulcasting was barely an idea, if I wanted to bet horses it was going to be at Centennial Race Track, an austere but functional facility located in the southwest part of the Denver metro area. It may not have had all the pageantry and names of Saratoga, but I really learned to love betting at a “small” track. And to be honest, I never had more successful years than I did at Centennial. Then in 1983 they announced Centennial had been sold to land developers and the old racetrack would be no more. Horseplayers were given hope in the form of Arapahoe Park. The price of land being what it was in Denver, it was decided to build Arapahoe Park about ten miles east of the last vestiges of civilization, and on my first drive out there I was taking it on faith that eventually I would run into a racetrack, since there seemed to be little else to indicate that Zebulon Pike or some other explorer had discovered that part of Colorado.

So in 1984 Arapahoe Park opened. There were porta-potties instead of real bathrooms (there was a problem with the water quality) but it was real live racing. 1984 was as good a year as all those years at Centennial. But that was the last year of racing at Arapahoe Park for eight long years. It reopened in 1992 and has operated every year since, lately with a 39 day meeting with racing Friday through Sunday for 13 weeks from around Memorial Day to the middle of August. Arapahoe Park runs a mixed meeting, mostly thoroughbreds but a healthy mix of quarter horses and Arabians. Along with Delaware Park, Retama, and Pleasanton, Arapahoe is one of the top Arabian tracks in the county. There are 38 stakes races worth $1.6 million, topped by three $100,000+ races, the Arapahoe Park Classic (Aug 16), the Mile High Futurity (Aug 17) and the long-running Gold Rush Futurity  Aug 17).

Arapahoe Park really gives the local Colorado horsemen a place to shine. Long time Colorado trainers such as quarterhorse specialist John Hammes, Holly, Colorado native Temple Rushton, Monk Hall, Bill Brashears, Shawn Davis (son of Colorado legendary trainer Dean Davis), Kenneth Gleason (and the other Gleasons, Tyrone and Justin), and Owen Bringhurst give many of the stakes races a familiar Colorado flavor. At this point in the season the top thoroughbred trainers list has a familiar ring. Kenneth Gleason is leading in money won, followed by Dwain Eaton, Sharlot Martinez (the leading trainer in wins), Temple Rushton, Cole Jackson, Jonathan Nance, and Kim Oliver. The aforementioned Tyrone Gleason, Owen Bringhurst and Monk Hall round out the top 10.

Arapahoe is a standard one-mile oval. Most thoroughbred races are run on the dirt at the sprint distances. Only 10-15% of the races are at a mile or longer. There is no turf course at Arapahoe. Arapahoe has one of the most unique 7-furlong courses in America, starting from a chute just beyond the end of the homestretch and running on an angle to the end of the clubhouse turn where they straighten out for the backstretch run. As with the 6½ turf course at Santa Anita, experience in running the 7-furlong distance is an important handicapping factor.

As with every track, the riders who understand which trips win at the various distances inevitably top the jockey standings. Travis Wales is currently comfortably on top of the jockey standings, in terms of wins, money won and in-the-money percentage. Gate specialist Dennis Collins is second. If he is riding an early speed horse, he inevitably seems to break on top, move to a good part of the track, and hold the horse’s speed together. Russell Vicchrilli seems equally at home on top of quarter horses or thoroughbreds. Karlo Lopez has lately been riding well and threatening to move up the jockey standings. Mike Ziegler, Brian Theriot, Luis Rodriguez and Kelsi Bridges have also been riding creditably.

Trust me. Betting at a track like Arapahoe is not exactly like betting an “A” track, but if you work at it, there is plenty of money to be made. All races with more than four betting interests have WPS, exactas, and quinellas. Races with more than six betting interests have trifectas and superfectas, and the minimum on those bets is $1. There are daily doubles on the first two and last two races, but no pick 3/4/5/6 or other exotic bets. My experience is that a lot of the sprint race winners are presser/midpack sorts that circle wide around the turn and finish mid-track. Speed horses hugging the rail seem to struggle in the stretch. Occasionally a rail bias develops, but most often look for a wider horse within a few lengths of the lead coming out of the turn to have the advantage. Trip handicapping is critical at Arapahoe. Horses who have had a start over the track are definitely at a competitive advantage once the meet gets going. My other piece of handicapping advice – don’t get lured by the 0 for 20 horses that have competitive figures in maiden races. They are a historically bad investment.

No, Arapahoe Park is not Saratoga or Del Mar, but if you live in Colorado you should make it a point to occasionally support local racing. There is free parking, cheap admission, plenty of free grandstand seating and it is always a fun day.  

Image: David Herrera, “Mount Evans and Denver skyline.” Copyright 2009. 

The Generic Horseplayer Revisited

I wrote this column back in the summer of 2006.  Back then, I had been playing the races seriously for a few years and was beginning to put some central ideas to paper.  While I don’t agree with every word in it (I hope not after eight more years of playing!), the core message of the challenge of continued contrarianism remains one of the important obstacles facing horseplayers.  Enjoy!

The Generic Horseplayer

Conformity is a curious thing. In many walks of life, it is a pathway to comfort; a means to attain a predetermined level of security. If you play along, do what you’re told, obey the rules, then you’ll be taken care of – an above-average, yet cookie cutter life will exist for you. There’s almost no risk in taking the safe path; while the non-conventional person may attain or acquire more or less, conformity brings safety, although perhaps not deep satisfaction.  However, if you lean towards conformity and its resulting safety, then I’m fairly positive that you shouldn’t be expecting to profit from the horses, whether recreationally or professionally. Because in playing the horses, it’s exactly the opposite of many other aspects of life. Thinking like everyone else will not create even an average level of success. As in any speculative activity, profit can only result from an opinion that is different from the norm, so long as the difference of opinion is based on something tangible, and not merely different for difference sake.

As a devoted horseplayer, I’ve had my own experiences with the pressures of conforming. When I began handicapping, I was wildly successful, despite only using incomplete bits of knowledge based on repeated observation to reach my selections. My first big winner (35-1) was selected on a drop in class combined with a last race decent close — an analysis derived solely from watching several races mixed in with a good dose of common sense. Believing that I was probably just lucky and wishing to perpetually sustain this luck, I embarked on a journey to learn as much as I could about the game. In the following months, I read the classics of Ainsle, Beyer, Brohamer, and Quinn – and a host of other authors who all added something to the equation. In fact, as of this writing, I own and have read 47 books related to handicapping – all catalogued neatly in a veritable library of truth in my office.

After reading all these books, I was armed with an almost complete body of handicapping knowledge. However, after incorporating this information into my handicapping, I noticed a not-so-positive change in my thought processes and in my ultimate selections. I now routinely settled on favorites or other top horses, and I no longer found the less than obvious horse. I routinely supported the horses that met the proven, well-trodden angles learned from the books, such as best last race finish, top speed, top trainer and jockey, best class, and improving form cycle. At the same time, I was chanting to myself the mantras of value at every turn. Although I was acutely aware of the importance of the overlay, I would incorrectly support false overlays repeatedly. And then, one day, I realized what had happened. I had become nothing but an organization man – an unthinking disciple of a dominant ideology. Stripped down of my early individuality, I had become a generic horseplayer.

Aware of my now commonplace handicapping, I began to suspect that the success at the beginning was more than just beginner’s luck and that it contained seeds of an individualized method that I had abandoned to subscribe to the views of the orthodoxy. Determined to recapture some of the methods that had worked so well at the beginning, I began to disregard conclusions based solely on the surface of the form. In an effort not to be swayed, I would make my selections ignorant of the odds, and only bet when the public did not mirror my assessment. I tried to predict how the public would value the horses – using the knowledge that I gained in my exhaustive study of the literature – and tried to find less than obvious reasons why the public might be in error. But, mostly, I tried to unlearn what the books led me to believe – that the past performances completely reflect the possibilities of the race and that an individual race can predicted with accuracy. Indeed, I discovered that, in a speculative endeavor, the illusion of certainty can be fatal. By returning to a view that anything can happen, which I held at the beginning of my horse playing days, I recaptured the looseness of thought necessary to distinguish my thought process from the crowd.

These duel perils of extensive handicapping study – conformity and the illusion of certainty – present traps for the novice and experienced player alike. For the novice player, I would caution against too much early infusion of the technical handicapping techniques of others. Seek only to understand what a past performance means and only approach the technical works when you have the base of knowledge to critically assess them. However, anything dealing with the game that does not involve the technical part of picking winners, i.e. bet structuring, money management, or emotional control, is incredibly useful to the novice (and veteran) horseplayer. And, for the seasoned horseplayer who has read the classics and is familiar with all the established techniques, a consistent check to see if you have entered the realm of the generic is always useful. This game’s ups and downs can push all but the most emotionally disciplined handicapper into moments of doubt and towards more accepted approaches and a vain quest for certainty.

– First published July 16, 2006


Podcast #1: Mark Cramer

Check out the debut edition of the All Day Racing podcast, featuring noted handicapping author, Mark Cramer!

Listen to Podcast #1:  Mark Cramer

We discuss:

  • Value — What is it? What isn’t it?
  • Belmont Stakes Review
  • False Favorites
  • Making Past Performances
  • Using Data Differently
  • Precision
  • Betting Personalities
  • Skipping races
  • Small-tracks and the joy of the day at the track


All Day Racing Schedule for June 30 – July 5

An exciting week of races ahead, capped by a terrific day of stakes from New York on Saturday.  A few changes to note.  First, outside of major races, race previews will now appear in their entirety on twitter at  In addition, instead of featuring a single race, I will be focusing on one particular multi-wager sequence that can be played effectively by a recreational player.  This includes daily doubles, Pick 3’s, Pick 4’s, and Pick 5’s.The entire sequence will be previewed and hosted on twitter.

The website will continue to feature essays on handicapping as well as commentary on the sport, as well as previews of significant races.   I’m reworking the tag cloud to provide an easy way into the increasing content of the site.  In addition, a podcast is also set to launch later this week.  This week’s episode features handicapping author, Mark Cramer.  Mark’s books are the seminal works on value and bettor psychology, and are an absolute must for any serious horseplayer.   Mark now lives in Paris, but still keeps an eye on American racing, especially the classics.   We discuss value and recap the Belmont Stakes, among other topics.

I’ll be live on Twitter @alldayracing for the following:

Monday, June 30:  Delaware Park, Late T-bred Double (Turf and 2 year old), Races 6 and 7, Coverage begins 3:15 PM ET.

Wednesday, July 2:  Belmont Park, Turf Sprinting Double (2 6f turf sprints), Races 8 and 9, Coverage begins at 4:40 PM ET.

Thursday, July 3: Belmont Park, Early Pick 4, Races 2 through 5, Coverage begins at 1:30 P.M. ET.

Friday, July 4: Ellis Park, Early Maiden Claiming Double, Races 1 and 2, Coverage begins at 1:35 P.M. ET

Saturday, July 5:  Belmont Park, Stakes Coverage, featuring the Belmont Derby.   Coverage TBA.