By Ray Wallin
Has this ever happened to you?
You spent the night before handicapping today’s card. You found a couple of good betting opportunities that got you excited. You canceled your plans to go watch the ball game with a few friends because you knew you would be rolling in cash after playing these races. You got to the track and found a good spot to camp out for the day. Yet, when the track announcer read off the scratches and changes, all your great betting opportunities were affected.
What do you do?
You have a couple of choices. You could throw yourself on the ground, kicking and screaming like a two-year old. You could get back in your car and see if you could still make the ball game with your friends. Or you could review the scratches and changes and assess if you still have any good betting opportunities and if any new ones have turned up.
While I am sure you have seen some horseplayers on the ground crying like a baby, those that make their living playing the races are the ones that have a plan for when there are scratches and changes to deal with.
As part of your general handicapping process, you can do a few things to prepare for changes to the races you handicap. Some are easier than others.
Handicap turf races for on and off the turf
If you aren’t sure about the weather, you can handicap a turf race for both the grass and the main track. There will be more scratches in this case that you can account for, but by spending the time to treat this race as though it was being run on the main track will at least be a starting point when you need to assess the race for the final changes. The heavy lifting will already be done. You would have looked at the pace of the race, the class, and the connections of the horse. Now you need to make the changes for the horses that aren’t running – under either condition.
Organize your handicapping
At my old stomping grounds, the second floor of the old Meadowlands grandstand, Bruce the Mathematician was a strong pace handicapper. He had an Achilles’ heel though. If there were scratches in a race, he couldn’t make the necessary adjustments. This would knock him out of a couple of races per card when either one of his contenders or his critical pace horse would scratch.
How could he have overcome this problem?
I often use my software to calculate the pace and determine my critical pace horse in a race. When I know I am going to the track I have a couple of options. I could bring my laptop, which I do when I am playing a tournament with a reserved table or when I am going with a few friends. Generally though I don’t want to have to carry it around all day, search for an outlet to plug into, or see one of the local degenerates walk off with it. Instead I make notes on my printed past performances with the track-to-track pars I used, the pace assessment that I used, and note the critical pace horse. This way should one of my contenders or the critical pace horse be scratched, I can manually make the updates to my analysis without having to reinvent the wheel.
By keeping your handicapping organized and showing the work on your printed copy, you will be able to make quick changes without having to guess at which running line you used or start you analysis over from scratch.
Have a plan
This is something I yell out to the youth travel soccer team I coach about 1,000 times per game. Nothing is worse than not having a plan. When you handicap a race you should have a plan to follow, almost like a checklist to make sure you didn’t miss anything, you should have a similar plan for assessing the impact of a scratch or change.
For example, when reviewing scratches and changes, I always ask myself a couple of the following questions:
How does this scratch affect the pace of the race? Does it help or hurt my critical pace horse, contenders, or any of the pretenders in the race? Does this race change any of my contenders? Does this change the style that is most likely to win this race (early speed, presser, stalker, closer)?
How does this change affect my contenders? Is the horse getting a good or bad rider switch? Is the equipment change helpful or hindering the horse’s ability to win this race (blinkers, Lasix, first time gelding)?
By having a plan you won’t miss that horse that suddenly went from the one-dimensional frontrunner you dismissed to the horse that can take this field wire-to-wire for fun.
Revisit every race
Once you hear the scratches and you realize that your contenders are safe, you can bet as you originally planned, right?
In every race where there is a scratch or change you need to assess the impact. Because a scratched horse isn’t your contender doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to impact the outcome of the race. What if the horse that scratched was a pretender or dead-ender that was going to pressure a weak early pace horse causing them to fail, but in their absence that early pace horse looks like they can go wire-to-wire? You’d hate to miss an opportunity like this for an easy wire-to-wire winner.
The dynamics of every race can change based on the impact of one horse, even if they are flying under your radar.
The next time you are at the track and you hear the track announcer calling out the scratches and changes, take note and revisit your handicapping. Nothing is worse than missing one leg out of that Pick 4 that you think is a lock because you missed something that should have been obvious in your handicapping, right?