Some Thoughts on the Fundamentals of Handicapping

by Dick Mitchell

If you're in the mood for some bombast and iconoclasm - read on. If not, skip this article.

I personally think that the class factor is bulltickey. I'm with Andrew Beyer, who says, "Class is speed." All the romantic notions of brilliance, endurance, competitiveness, determination, willingness, courage and tenacity make for interesting reading but can't be taken to the bank. I've listened to handicappers tell me that when a "classy" horse, meets a "nonclassy" rival and these horses duel eyeball-to-eyeball, the non-classy horse will always succumb to his superior. As evidence, they point to the fact that on the same day a lowly claimer ran faster than an allowance winner, and everybody knows that the claiming winner doesn't stand a chance against this classier allowance horse - it's simply a matter of class and adjusted final-time doesn't mean squat. If you've taken vows of poverty, then subscribe to this lunacy. If you've decided to divest yourself of your worldly possessions and don't want to waste time, you now know how to do it with alacrity. Keep betting on class horses that run slower adjusted final-times than their so-called lower-class rivals.

Adjusted final-time is always a function of pace. The chances are more than reasonable the slower allowance final-time was the result of a monstrous early pace. If you don't believe that class is speed, then please explain why every single set of par times that I've ever seen has higher classes running faster final-times than lower classes.

I get a big kick out of reading some of the comments of the Daily Racing Form handicappers when they talk about class drops. A wonderful example comes to mind. This particular race was a $20,000 claimer at Hollywood Park. An entry had just raced in a $32,000 claiming race. Trackman commented that this "'two-level class dropper must be considered as a real threat." The truth was the horse was making a dramatic rise in class. The horse had won a maiden claiming $32,000 race in subpar time. Its adjusted final-time put it below the claiming $10,000 level, which was the bottom of the barrel. After its maiden victory, it was then entered in an open $32,000 claiming race, and was promptly slaughtered. What class drop? This horse had as much chance of beating $20,000 winners as Bill Clinton has of being president after January 20, 2001. Yet, a very good professional handicapper was fooled by this so-called class drop. Class has nothing to with the level that a horse is entered at; it has to do with the horse's adjusted final-time. If a maiden claiming $32,000 horse runs open claiming $40,000 times for all three calls, you must conclude that you're looking at a $40,000 horse in the very worst case. To determine the class of a horse, you need only ask two questions:

1.) Has this horse won at today's level or higher?
2.) Can it run to the pars and profile needed to win at today's level?

If the answer to either question is affirmative, there's no need to consider the class factor any longer. This horse has the class to win. It now becomes a question of form and condition. All the class in the world means nothing, if a contender isn't in form and condition. Ask Mike Tyson after he fought Buster Douglas.

If you think that my views on class are somewhat simplistic, you'll be happy to know that my views on trainers are downright retarded. If you ever want to become a zillionaire, all you have to do is open up a race-betting window that caters exclusively to trainers. The only group less informed than trainers are owners. Trainers are single-dimensioned. They only know about their horse. The rest of the field is mostly a mystery to them. I love it when I hear a punter say, "They're shooting with the four-horse today." What the hell do you think the other eleven barns are doing - trying to lose?

Handicapping trainers, instead of handicapping horses, can be mental incompetence taken to a lower level than idiocy. Consider the best gymnastics trainer in the universe. What's his or her chances of getting you to win a gold medal in Athens in 2004? It's about the same chance that a superior trainer has of getting an inferior horse to beat a superior rival that has a lesser trainer. It's true that 20% of the trainers at your track win approximately 80% of the races, but they do it with superior horses. Even the very best trainers lose many more races than they win. The reason that they lose has nothing to do with their skills as trainers; it's simply that their charges faced superior competition.

The bottom line is simple. The hierarchy is uncomplicated. Quirin gave it to us in 1983. The most important factors, in order of relevance, are:

1. Ability
2. Form and Condition
3. Angles (extenuating circumstances)
4. Value

The first thing you must do is assess the ability of each contender. If a horse can't run to the pars and profiles demanded of winners at todayís class level, then itís a throw-out. Second, determine the current form and condition of each of your contenders. Horses not meeting form and condition standards are discarded. (One of the absolute best sources of form and condition eliminations can be found on the videotape Common Sense Form Factor Analysis available in the cyberstore.) Next, look for extenuating circumstances, or angles. These include "hot stats" and other reasons out of the mainstream of speed, class and form that a horse should still be considered. This is where your knowledge of trainer maneuvers comes into play, not before. Finally, you must insist on value. Each wager must carry a positive edge. The horse must be going off at odds greater than its true chance of winning.

A great majority of handicappers resist the concept that thoroughbred handicapping is an orderly process based upon fundamentals. They steadfastly refuse to learn the fundamentals. They prefer instead to look for shortcuts. This is why books on the subjects of trainer maneuvers, body language, tote board reading, and situation handicapping are so popular.

I view these books the same way that I view books on the subject of diet. Anybody with half a brain understands that diets don't work. If you want to change your body shape permanently, you must change your eating habits permanently. The same thing is true at the racetrack. If your results are less than consistent profits, you must change something.

I have the good fortune to personally know many winning players. I don't know a single winner that doesn't apply the fundamentals of speed, pace, class, and the form factor before the trainer enters his or her consideration. The trainer factor is a secondary factor. Please don't listen to so-called "trainer experts,'' who claim to win using only trainer statistics, and nothing else. I promise you that they could improve their results dramatically by adding good solid fundamental handicapping to their present methodology.

See you on the short line.