Newcomers to the puzzle of horse racing handicapping like to bet because of a horse’s name, a favourite number, a hot jockey or the always popular “grey horse in the mud.”
These are all fun tricks for beginners, but graduating to the more intricate levels of picking winners means combing out and considering so many other hidden angles that can signal a contending horse.
Whether you call them angles or approaches, there is a litany of useful “mini” plays when it comes to picking out a potential winner or a longshot prospect in a horse race. These angles can be used on their own or as part of an entire race examination.
The Third Start off the Layoff
This approach to picking out a ready runner focuses on a horse’s form cycle combined with improvement and freshness factors. It is about the notion that a horse returning from a rest will need a couple of races to reach a peak effort.
Certainly there are horses who will win immediately off a layoff; those who thrive when they are fresh. Becoming familiar with a horse’s past races, and not just the 10-12 recent races publications may offer, is important.
A layoff is defined for these purposes as 30 days or more since a horse’s last race. The longer the horse has been away from the races, the more significant the third start after the layoff becomes, since many horses would need lead-up fitness runs.
The third start after a layoff is often the peak race for a horse in the form cycle. It is also ideal, however, to see a progressive improvement from the first and second races. This could be a better show of speed or improved stamina.
This angle has grown in popularity over the last decade but there are still value plays out there. A class rise of not more than two levels off an improved second start can dissuade a lot of public betting support, but a fresh, improving horse can be dangerous in this instance and generous odds make them good plays in particular in exotics.
Another popular angle with horseplayers is a horse cutting back in distance dubbed the turn-back. This approach often brings out specialists at particular distances and horses who have built up stamina in longer events and are more comfortable with slightly shorter races.
The turn-back is at its most useful when a horse moves from a two-turn route race to a seven-furlong, one-turn event. A horse who may be comfortable running in longer races, but shows a one-paced style of running on or near the pace, will often a have a much better finishing kick when dealing with a quicker pace up front and one-turn to the stretch run.
Seven-furlong races are contested at some tracks a lot more than others (especially if a track does not have the configuration to hold races at that distance) and there are many horses who become ultra-specialists at this trip. It is a distance that requires some speed as well as stamina but is not a distance that mile+ horses often handle.
Utilizing a horse’s past running lines can give you an indication if a shorter race suits the horse’s style, for example, is the horse a confirmed stretch running sprinter that would benefit from the turn-back?
Another approach, similar to the turn-back, is shortening up from six furlongs to five which can be a strong money-making play.
Horses that show speed at six furlongs are not likely to show speed at five furlongs since the very quickest of horses excel at the strict, five-furlong distance. However, speed horses who tend to falter at six furlongs, often can come from just off the pace in five-furlong dashes and light up the tote board. Again, the five-furlong distance is a specialist trip so look through a horse’s record to see if the distance of five, or five and a half furlongs has been attempted successfully in the past.
Boing! How you view the bounce theory
It’s been called the most over-used term in horse race handicapping since speed figures came on the market.
In general, a bounce refers to an unsuccessful effort following a successful or noteworthy race. This theory, however, doesn’t necessarily apply to young horses who tend to continuously improve as they learn with each race.
The original introduction of a possible bounce situation evolved from the creators of speed figures who based their handicapping on horse’s form cycles and patterns. The theory is that a horse that runs a powerful race, better than anything the horse has run before, is vulnerable the next time out. This is also described as a big, forward move in form.
One cannot expect a horse to run the best race of his life and then come right back and do it again, particularly so with lesser type runners.
Many handicappers play the bounce theory if a horse runs a lifetime best effort off a layoff (a month away from the races or more) and is back in action without enough recovery time. This recovery time can vary depending on the horse and the training regimen.
Another branch of this handicapping angle is the bounce off a big debut outing. With value on the odds board taken into consideration, playing a horse who has a huge debut outing, such as battling on the lead all the way and just missing, is a negative play second time out. These horses are almost always overbet and since they tend to come back within three weeks, they are poor wagers.
In the example shown, Rootham Triple E’s was well prepared off the winter layoff to win the Star Shoot Stakes in career best fashion. Her manner of winning was impressive but shrewd bettors at Woodbine knew that she was vulnerable to a regression in form in her next race, the Fury Stakes.
Some unusual Angles
Years of playing the horses have led to yours truly finding some hidden gem angles.
They are not mainstream betting angles you will find in other handicapping publications, but there are reasons that they can present you with a lovely longshot.
>> In from the “Also”s
The Also Eligible list is a group of horses entered in a race that did not get in to the main body of the field (due to the date of its last race, overfilling etc.).
Horses that draw in from the list when scratches are announced before the card begins are potential winners or, at the very least, contenders for inclusion in exotics.
The predominant reason for paying attention to these horses comes down to two factors: they are often overlooked by the betting public and they offer betting value.
In addition, a horse getting in from the AE list will have an outwardly post position and you will often see a speed style from this runner as the rider wants to get the horse in a good position right away.
Occasionally, a trainer will have two or more horses entered in a race and may scratch one from the body of the race to allow one to draw in, suggesting the trainer feels strongly about that horse’s chances.
>> Uncoupled entry
This is one of the most contentious of discussion topics with many handicappers: two horses in a race for the same trainer (different owners), uncoupled and one is much lower in odds than the other. On occasion, the higher priced horse will upset his more fancied mate.
There is at least one reason that you should often give a second look to the higher priced part of this pairing. A barn’s main jockey might be on the lower-priced stablemate, perhaps with some other races in the future in mind. In other words, the race may be a stepping stone for other events but because of reputation and the preference shown by a rider, the odds will be lower and the mate may be overlooked.
Determining which entrant of the pairing is best suited to the day’s conditions is key. When value hunting you are almost always better off going with the secondary half of an uncoupled entry.
>> Light bulb moment
Betting on horses who are longtime maidens (you know the type that have come close to winning many times) has burned a lot of public betting money and just can’t seem to get it done. The light bulb moment is a nifty angle where such a horse finally wins his maiden and comes right back to win again.
While some may argue that horses don’t actually know if they have won a race or not, many times a horse who breaks through for a win, passing horses through the stretch to get a victory, come right back and score again. This wake-up form cycle can also be attributed to any type of equipment change or surface change.
Vigilare (above) is one example of a horse having the light bulb moment and there are many others. This gelding took 28 races to win his maiden but did so when trainer Robert Gerl added blinkers for his race on Nov. 21, 2012. He broke through that day and promptly scored again to end his season at almost 5 to 1, at a higher level.
>> Turf-to-main track
For the sake of this discussion, the switch from a grass race to dirt or all-weather is lumped under the heading of “main track”. This is a popular and sometimes overused angle but one that often offers value when picking out a potential winner.
The angle is sometimes used by trainers who will race their horses on the grass as an experiment or to give them an easy race before the next main track event comes up on the schedule. This is why you may see a horse entered to race on the grass even if the horse has never been a factor in any previous turf efforts. You may see in the running lines that when a horse gets back to the preferred surface, the horse will wake up.
The introduction of all-weather surfaces at North American tracks has allowed some horses who prefer turf to enjoy success on this softer surface. However, on most occasions, horses who prefer turf will run their best races on that surface; the same can be said for all weather and dirt specialists.
The turf-to-main track move is more dramatic since many top trainers know that running a horse on the turf is a great way to keep a horse with physical problems fit and sound while pointing towards a dirt race.
>> Bullet five-furlong workout
Workout times can be fast or slow depending on trainer intent, how hard the horse was being asked for a top effort in the morning and whether or not it had the race-day equipment or medication.
The bullet (fastest of the morning for the distance and surface) five-furlong workout five to eight days before a race, however, has been found by this author to be a strong indicator of a ready horse. It is not a short, fast blow-out which could just mean the horse is sharp and it is not a stamina building prep where the horse may have gone slow or fast at various parts of the prep. The five-furlong move in bullet time needs a blend of both speed and stamina and as it is a popular distance most mornings for workers. A bullet means that horse was really doing something strong.
Those are some of the author’s favourite betting angles. More of these will be found in the upcoming eBook, Modern Handicapping, available later in 2013.