Beginning horseplayers often yearn to find an easy, untaxing way to beat the races. But as they come to understand the nature of the game, they realize that it is a lot like the rest of life. What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.
And so one of the most crucial, potentially profitable handicapping factors also happens to be one that requires incredibly hard work to understand: the physical appearance of horses.
Horoughbreds are not machines. Because of the toll of frequent competition and the effects of drugs, their condition may vary greatly from week to week. A horse may have earned a big speed figure and made a dazzling visual impression in his last start, but all that will be irrelevant if he has deteriorated physically. A man who can recognize the changes in a horse's condition from race to race, who can look at an animal and tell how he is feeling, possesses a priceless skill.
Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to learn this skill than to master aspects of handicapping that only require study of the racing form. Most expert judges of horses' appearances have spent part of their lives working with horses. And even if they are inclined to do so, they have difficulty imparting their knowledge to others, because their art is such a subjective one.
The two best judges of horses' appearance I know are Post handicapper Clem Florio and a New York professional gambler named Charlie. Yet even they view horses very differently; an animal who looks great to Charlie might appear negatively unruly to Clem. (One thing they both like to see, though, is a horse who charges aggressively toward the starting gate when he gets his first look at it.)
I know one horseplayer who did start from scratch to learn about thoroughbreds' appearances. He went to the paddock in New York every day and made notes about such things as the size of their ankles, the size of their knees, the slope of their hooves. He observed their changing appearance from week to week and correlated these changes to the horses' performances. He did this for a year without making a bet. After this selfeducation, he was able to eke out a living as a professional gambler.
Readers might well despair at the difficulties involved in handicapping. Learning to judge horses' appearances requires enormous effort. Making speed figures involves lengthy and tedious mathematical computations. Trip handicapping requires exceptional visual skills and powers of concentration. Betting on trainer patterns demands extensive research.
Isn't there an easy way to beat the races?
Not really. But there is one valid way to play the horses that is easier than most and that can be spectacularly profitable. That way is to capitalize on track biases.
Horseplayers will occasionally encounter track conditions so aberrant and so important that they alone determine the outcome of races. Even the ability of the horses becomes practically irrelevant.
Biases take two basic forms. Sometimes the inside part of the track is so hard and fast that the horse who gets the lead on the rail is an almost automatic winner. Or sometimes the inside part of a track becomes so deep and slow that no horse can win there.
Local horseplayers still have fond memories of the great Pimlico bias of 1977, when speed on the rail won everything. Similar conditions existed at Saratoga in 1976. The opposite bias prevailed at Bowie last winter, when the rail was a bog and horses on the outside won almost all the races.
Any horseplayer should be able to wait for such conditions to arise, and then bet accordingly. It takes very little sophistication to judge the horse who will get the lead on the rail over a speed-favoring track. In fact, lack of sophistication is desirable. Good horseplayers often make the mistake of paying too much attention to the fundamentals of handicapping, when they should disregard them and let the bias dictate their bets.
Track biases illustrate an important aspect of handicapping: the everchanging nature of the game. When Robert Dowst wrote his influential handicapping books in the 1940s, he never mentioned biases, possibly because they rarely existed. In his era, racing was conducted only during the temperate months of the year, when there was less likelihood that severe weather would create freaky track conditions.
Just as biases have become an important new factor, just as closedcircuit race replays have given birth to new handicapping methods, there undoubtedly will be other dramatic changes in racing in future years.
People who aspire to beat the races will have to recognize these changes. Successful horseplayers will have to adapt, or even jettison, their present methods to stay on top of the game. Nobody can ever say with smug finality that he knows how to beat the races, now and forever. That is what makes handicapping such a perennially fascinating and challenging activity.