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Horse Racing at Saratoga

Two Professional Bettors Take Their Handicapping Expertise and Wallets to Saratoga
Brad Thomas
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

(continued from page 1)

The biggest mistake made by recreational horseplayers, and many professionals, is accepting potential returns that are lower than a bet's actual chance of winning. Marc and I feared that this race, like so many New York events, lacked enough quality contestants to sufficiently spread betting support. We would not wager on Glorious Purple at only 5 to 1. Harsh experience had taught us the patience and discipline to realize that such a price merely reflected her true value and gave us no long-term advantage. Luckily, the public chose to dismiss our choice at 11 to 1. Why?

Glorious Purple has poor speed figures. Figures, or numbers, are handicapping aids that attempt to quantify the quality of a horse's performances by measuring how fast or slow her past running times are relative to the speed of the racing surface. Decades ago, when speed figures were in their infancy, the few who used them enjoyed lucrative profits. Today, however, they are mass-produced, with the result that horses who might have been 6 to 1 bargains 10 years ago are now losing propositions as 2 to 1 favorites.

The purveyors of speed figures generally market them as a quick, easy-to-use, highly sophisticated and infallible means to beating the races. In truth, they are only as good as the handicapper using them. The average 12 year old can be taught to make good figures in about 30 minutes. Yet promises of "quick" and "easy" draw consumers like moths to light. As a result, thousands of horseplayers interpret figures in a strictly literal fashion and have become so preoccupied with reducing a complex sport to slight numerical differences that they ignore more important questions. The key to successful handicapping is understanding why, beyond raw ability, a horse ran fast or slow in the past, and how that will affect today's performance.

Most figure players did not watch Glorious Purple's previous race closely enough to fully understand the seriousness of her traffic trouble or appreciate her athletic movement. They did not have the imagination to see her scope for improvement or the knowledge to appreciate the full value of her rail position, especially when two turf races earlier in the day were dominated by inside-running horses. Most successful speculations are stances taken contrary to the masses. Examples like this race, when conventional handicapping theory proves vulnerable, are prime situations for Marc and me.

We bet on Glorious Purple to win at 11 to 1 and hedged by putting her in the second slot in exactas (a wager requiring the top two finishers be selected in exact order) with the other contenders. We were playing a horse we thought was worth about 6 to 1 just to win, but structured the total bet in such a way that we would receive between 7 to 1 and 9 to 1 net return should she finish either first or second.

When the expected front-runner, Sunshine Lindajane, left the gate poorly, Glorious Purple's inside stall allowed her to fall into an easy lead. She led into the stretch, where she was passed by a filly named Cut the Pot. If Glorious Purple held second, this was fine for Marc and me because the Cut the Pot/Glorious Purple exacta combination was one of our strongest plays. Then, a rival named Skip One moved up along the inside to challenge Glorious Purple. The two were almost even, but the closer began to flatten out and could not make the pass. Suddenly, Skip One's rider pulled sharply on the reins, as if he had been cut off, and Glorious Purple went on to be second by daylight.

Almost immediately, the numbered lights on the tote board blinked at us in mockery, indicating that the stewards were viewing videotapes to determine whether Glorious Purple had committed a foul. If they judged that she had, our "winning" bet would become a losing one. Not only would we be denied boom profits, but we would also lose all of our original investment.

All gamblers know that luck, good or bad, influences just about everything. Many comfort themselves by believing that fortune arrives in streaks and evens out in the end. Sure. That is like saying that someone is destined to hit the lottery for millions in 1996 but will be run over by a truck in 1995. Marc and I never have been moved to a winning position via disqualification but have been taken down twice in crushing fashion. After the lights stop blinking, it became thrice.

Horseplaying is a game of momentum that feeds on bettor confidence. Winning fuels the sharp decisions and aggressive wagers that lead to huge scores. Losing fuels the hesitant questions and scared wagers that are the slow road to ruin. Nothing wreaks more havoc in a player's mind than being right, but still wrong.

August 20 (Travers Day)


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