The Ten Commandments of Handicapping

by Dick Mitchell

1. Thou shalt know thy track.
2. Thou shalt understand Ability.
3. Thou shalt understand Form and Condition.
4. Thou shalt understand Angles and Hot Stats.
5. Thou shalt understand "Wager Value."
6. Thou shalt make a Betting Line.
7. Thou shalt not bet against a legitimate favorite.
8. Thou shalt recognize false and vulnerable favorites.
9. Thou shalt keep detailed records.
10. Thou shalt never stop learning about handicapping.

If you follow and abide by all ten, you can't do anything but win. You have no choice. These laws are as inviolable as the law of gravity. If you're not winning, or not winning as much as you should, the chances are you're violating one or more of these commandments.

The first commandment is very simple: know what's going on at the tracks you play. You must figure out what winners are doing, and only bet on horses that have the winning profile. You must also know the trainers, and their manipulations. You should be able to identify the jockeys they win with, and the jockeys they rarely succeed with. You must be aware of any track bias. In general, you should be fully cognizant of what wins and what loses at the racetracks you play.

The next four commandments are the core of the handicapping process. Together, they comprise an orderly and structured approach to handicapping. The first thing to do is assess the ability of each contender. Those horses found lacking in ability are eliminated. Second, determine the current form and condition of each of your contenders. Horses not meeting form and condition standards are then discarded. Third, look for extenuating circumstances or angles. These include "hot stats" and other reasons, outside the mainstream of speed, class and form, that a horse should still be considered. Fourth, look for value.

One of the biggest frauds ever perpetrated on the handicapper is that the name of this game is picking winners. That's simply not true. Nobody picks winners better than the public. The public, year in - year out, gets approximately 33% right, betting every race, and still loses money. If you bet every public favorite, you would receive less than eighty-five cents for every dollar that you wagered. There's no handicapper on earth, Tom Brohamer, James Quinn, Andrew Beyer, Mark Cramer, Gordon Pine or anybody you can name that's going to get 33% right betting every race. It's just not going to happen. If you know anybody who feels they want to take this up as a challenge, please send them to me. I'll book their action as long as they bet the same amount on every race. I'll pay track odds. We'll settle up at the end of the race meeting.

There are handicappers who achieve rates higher than 33%, but they don't bet every race. They're very selective. That's their edge. The name of this game is not just picking winners. It's picking winners that offer value. You can pick winners at a rate of 25% and make a very nice profit. If your average odds are 4-to-1 and you're picking winners at the rate of 25%, you're making a very handsome return. Picking one winner in four and getting paid an average of 4-to-1 means that you're losing three out of four bets. When you win, you win four units and when you lose, you lose one unit. Hence, in four bets you gain one unit profit. That's a 25% return on investment (ROI). There are investment fund managers who would give at least one of their vital organs to get this kind of return.

The sixth commandment is the key to winning at the track. The question most often asked at a racetrack is, "Who da ya like?" It's typically answered, "I like the five horse but I'm afraid of the nine." This answer is vague at best. A much better answer would be, "I'll take the five at 5-to-2, or the nine at 4-to-1." Most handicappers refuse to bet on any horse other than their top pick. This is what keeps many of them from the win window. How often have you heard a handicapper complain after a juicy longshot wins, "I circled that horse - I had him!"? When you ask if he bet the horse, he answers in the negative. The reason he didn't bet the horse was that it wasn't his top pick.

You should always bet on horses that offer value and avoid the low-priced underlays. An underlay is a horse that is offering less odds than its probability of winning demands. If a horse has a 33% chance to win the race and he is going off at even-money, it's no bet.

An overlay is just the opposite. Consider the same horse with a 33% chance to win going off at 3-to-1. What a bargain. That's the time to "send it in."

The seventh and eighth commandments remind us that races are divided into two groups: races that have a legitimate favorite and races that don't. A legitimate favorite is the class of the field, the speed of the field, and is in form and condition to deliver his ability. Anything less and you have a vulnerable favorite.

The ninth commandment is probably the most violated commandment of all. The vast majority of handicappers haven't the foggiest clue about their performance. Not one in a hundred could answer the following questions: What is your overall win percentage for the past 200 races? What's your average mutuel for the past 200 races? What's your ROI in turf races? What's your ROI in dirt sprints? If someone were to wake you up in the middle of the night and ask you these questions, and you could answer them correctly, it's certain you're a winning handicapper.

The last commandment should be self-evident. This game is dynamic. It's forever changing. In the seventies, you could win a lot of money using speed figures to predict adjusted final times. Today, you'd be lucky to break even using these methods. (The published Beyer Speed Figures bear witness to the truth of this statement. If you bet the highest last-race Beyer figure, you’ll win around 27% of the time, and lose close to 20 cents on the dollar.)

Please notice the tenth commandment didn't say to never stop learning about money management. That's because money management is finite and mathematical. The truth of mathematics is absolute. In mathematics, what was true fifty years ago, will be true a thousand years from now. Once you learn the principles of money management, they're yours for life. My best advice on this subject is to read and digest Barry Meadow’s Money Secrets at the Racetrack. It's a book devoted exclusively to the subject of money management. Once you digest its contents, you'll have solved a huge part of the thoroughbred handicapping-investment puzzle.

If you obey the ten commandments of handicapping, you can't avoid getting to horseplayer's heaven. If not, handicapper's perdition is your destination. In either case, you have my best wishes. I have friends in both places.