How to Start Handicapping

October 13, 2015

Saratoga Jon's Dad Window
The mutual window where Jonathan’s Dad worked for many years. Jon practically grew up hanging around that window as a young boy and teenager.

It always amazes me how many people play the horses that believe they have no chance at winning. To a certain degree they may be right, in that “they” have no chance at winning, but to think that nobody has a chance at winning is just plain wrong. There are and have always been, a small percentage of people who play professionally, or even recreationally, that do in fact beat the game. Why would anyone play a game they believe they have no chance of winning at?

To be clear, when I say beat the game, I mean show a profit on your wagers on a yearly basis. To take it a step further, to truly beat the game is to not only make an annual profit on your wagers, but to earn a living off of them. Yes, just like a full time job. The one glaring difference between this form of earning a living, and say a regular 9 to 5 job, is you will have to work harder and more hours at this shall we say unconventional lifestyle.

Now the naysayers will come out in force and insist you cannot make a living betting the horses. They’ll tell you how there is too much luck involved and how they always lose in the end. I assure you they are wrong, but I’ll excuse myself from arguing the point any further. Instead I’ll just smile at them and share with those of you who believe it is at least possible how it’s done.

First off, I speak from many years of experience. About 40 years’ worth of them. That’s a long time to study anything. It was about that long ago that I decided this was the game I loved and this was the life I’ve chosen. Yes I forayed into different aspects of the game and even at times other areas of life, but for a large majority of those years what and if I ate depended on the outcome of horse races. It was more stressful than many 9 to 5’s I’d imagine. It was a full time career that took many sacrifices, but it was what I loved and I worked tirelessly at it.

Before we get into how to start handicapping, let’s just talk about some of the sacrifices and shine the light on why this isn’t for everyone, especially the faint of heart. First off you have to accept no matter how hard you work, or how much you put in, there are no guarantees of any success. You have to be willing to risk it all, and sometimes often, much like a businessman or entrepreneur who goes all in on a venture. You have to be willing to forego a lot of nightlife, as you’ll be studying for the next day, and also most normal relationships, as your time and schedule will not be conducive to them. Trust me you’ll need some understanding partners. When “normal” people want to go to dinner and a movie, you’ll need to stay home with your racing form. Get used to questions like if you study at night and are at the track all day where do I come in? You can forget many conventional types of financing as most institutions will automatically red stamp declined on any application you submit that shows your profession as professional gambler. You’ll learn to live with big down payments, unconventional financing, high interest, cash purchases, and to do things when your bank roll permits as opposed to your wants or schedule. It’s not easy but if you are not willing to do it you are not going to beat the game.

Part of the blame for people thinking racing cannot be beat rests with the industry itself. The industry almost never promotes itself as a skill game. Unlike poker which embraced the skill aspect of the game and promoted it to the hilt, racing never has. Both are indeed skill games with large elements of luck to them. Both however can be equalized by understanding them and knowing how to play the odds. We’ll come back to that.

Only recently has racing started to promote itself as a skill game and that came by accident really. The growth of tournaments and obvious success of certain players repeatedly have opened eyes to the fact there is a large amount of skill involved. Funny because certain types of tournaments are more luck than skill. For example, a cash tournament such as The Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge is primarily skill. Lock down tournaments are also a majority of skill. Tournaments where you can simply look at the leader board and just take a wild stab at a horse you may not even like, but if it wins puts you on top are basically luck. Nonetheless tournament play is growing, and making people realize this is a skill game we play.

To overcome the inherent luck and start handicapping for real, you must master three things, patience, money management, and value. They are all of equal importance and just as crucial to handicapping ability. Anyone can learn to handicap, just as anyone can learn to pitch, or play chess, but we all won’t play at the same level. That’s because it’s a skill game, make no mistake about it. You then have to learn you are playing against the others betting into your pool. Not the house, not the horses or jockeys, but the other players. This is the very nature of pari-mutual wagering and what makes the game so competitive.

Once you decide handicapping is for you, the work really begins. You are inevitably going to be wrong more than right so a basic fundamental is when you are right make it count. Don’t hedge, double up. Don’t bet place, you are costing yourself more win money than you are saving when you’re right in the long run. Many will argue and disagree and continue to bet place. Smile at them, they’re not beating the game. They’ll have their broken clock winning days, but when it counts at tally time, they’ll need a red pen.

Patience is your friend. Get close with it. Don’t bet every race and every track. Pick your spots. Your strong spots, and wait for them. Increase, don’t lower your percentage. You can’t be prepared for every race at any given track let alone multiple tracks. We make those exceptions on days like Breeders’ Cup but we get a little extra study time so it can work out. There have been many a day I’ve sat with 10k in my pocket without making a bet. Patience is your friend.

Value is something you will have to learn how to identify and find. You can write a book on this subject alone. Some make their own odds and play overlays, some use the morning line, and some assign win percentage chances and play the horses whose odds exceed the assigned percentage. Unlike place betting, I won’t try to dissuade you from any way of finding value. What I will say is this, THERE IS NO VALUE IN A LOSING HORSE. Betting a horse you think likely can’t win because its odds are higher than one you think can likely win is not finding value. It’s finding wallpaper. Value plain and simple is a horse that’s chances of winning are equal to or greater than its odds. There is hidden value to be found as well. Like a horse who is 2-1 on the board but 4-1 in the exacta pool.


You have got to manage your money. Don’t chase losing bets. LIVE TO FIGHT ANOTHER DAY. This is a streaky game. Push when you are hot, not when you are not. Always remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.


There is no shortcut for your homework. Although you may find abbreviated past performances for sale, there are no cliff notes in horse racing. Whatever past performances you use, master them. Know every symbol and every line. Read every line of every horse. Skip and skim nothing, as if you do you’ll beat yourself. There are enough competitors looking to beat you, don’t help them by missing things you should see. Don’t make the mistake of so many players and think “I know these horses”. You know like the ones who tell you who’ll win a week before the race is drawn. Sure they will have their broken clock moments, but at the end of the year they’ll have to borrow your red pen. Read every line of every race. There are patterns there you won’t want to miss.

Use the tools. There are many. Replays are invaluable. Tracking Trips is new and improved and a great part of any level arsenal. Workout reports. The Ragozins and Thorograph don’t provide the edge they did in the past, but they still are an advantage over those who rely on Beyers. You must know how to read them however, otherwise they are just a number.

Remember that when you start handicapping, you will lose many a photo, you’ll cut out that horse that costs you a six figure pick 6, you will be wrong more than right, but if you show the discipline and have the talent, percentage wise you can master and beat this skill game. The more people who tell you that you can’t beat the game or you are not beating the game, the better. Those are the ones you’re beating. Just smile and tell them they’re right.

High 5

Once again it goes to Florent Geroux. He’s riding as good as anyone in the country. We pegged him as the most improved rider in the land last October and he has not disappointed and has only gotten better.

Low 5

Where were the Keeneland stewards following last Saturday’s Grade 1 QE Cup? For that matter where was Drayden Van Dyke? There clearly should have been an inquiry, objection, and likely disqualification. Only the owner of the second place finisher, Miss Temple City, who was clearly best claimed foul. #Headscratcher


Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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