Many methods of playing the horses are boring and laborious, far more difficult than honest work. But there is one approach to handicapping that is an intellectual adventure, that can make a bettor feel as if he is engaged in exciting detective work.
That approach is to study the machinations of individual trainers, to discover the cireumstances under which they win races, and then, figuratively, to follow them to the betting windows.
Any horseplayer, no matter what his principal method of handicapping, should have some understanding of the trainers in his area. He should know who is generally competent and who is not. He should know the specific strengths and weaknesses of various horsemen A Maryland bettor ought to know that Buddy Delp excels with 2-year olds, that Dick Dutrow does his best work with older sprinters, that Pedro Briones wins mostly with distance runners.
Such information about trainers usually represents only a small part of an analysis of a race. But there are occasional situations when the role of the trainer becomes so important that it renders all other handicapping factors irrevelant, and gives an observant bettor opportunities for fabulous profits.
One such situation arises whenever James W. Murphy saddles a first-time starter. The Maryland-based horseman may saddle more first-out winners than anyone in America. I don't know his winning percentage, but I do know that any bettor who did nothing but bet Murphy first-timers in 1978 would not have to spend this winter at Bowie. He could be lying on a beach in Aruba.
Maryland bettors have become so attuned to Murphy's expertise that his winners rarely pay much any more. But there are countless other trainer angles that will yield big prices, that are waiting to be discovered.
To analyze trainers' methods, I get a stack of back issues of the Racing Form and look at the winner of every race at a track. If the horse won under interesting circumstances over which the trainer had special control, I make a note of it on an index card. I look especially for first-time starters, horses returning to competition from a layoff, horses shipping from one track to another and, best of all, horses which seem to have been manipulated with larcenous intent.If a trainer has two or three interesting winners, I will plow through even more old Racing Forms to determine if he has a modus operandi that he uses year after year.
While studying the trainers who will be at Gulfstream Park this season, I discovered ore little-known man who seems to win one race each winter with a longshot paying anywhere from 20 to 1 to 50 to 1. The horses usually have raced once or twice after a lay-off, and have finished so poorly that no rational handicapping method could possibly point them out. I know that this one scrap of information could make my whole year profitable.
The methods of trainers are not always disclosed through analysis of horses' past performances, because shrewd men will change their tactics or adapt them to suti the animals they are managing. But they still may tip their hands by the way they bet those horses.
When I was a college student, I noticed that certain trainers at Suffolk Downs usually bet their "live" horses in certain ways. J. J. Kelly's money would show in the last two minutes before post time. Harold Nutter apparently would put his money through the windows at a steady rate, although only on a Saturday or a holiday. But in recent years I have not noticed any such patterns, and I believe I know the reason. With the proliferation of exactas, insiders do not have to bet to win, affect the odds and thus advertise what they are doing. They can wager much more quietly in the exacta pools.
In New York, there is a school of handicappers that has recognized the importance of exacta betting. They call themselves chartists and they spend their days with clipboards in hands, standing in front of television monitors that show the changing exacta prices. They all look for sharp fluctuations that indicate a horse is being bet by insiders. The good chartists know the betting habits of various stables -- who bets early, who bets late, who bets heavily.
I know of no handicappers in Maryland using this technique, although it might be very profitable. The performances of horses from some major stables often seem to be greatly affected by drugs that make standard handicapping methods useless. But it is possible that a student of the exacta monitors could ferret out the stables' intentions when a student of the racing Form could not.