Remain Calm: 3 Steps to Remove Emotions From Your Handicapping

By Ray Wallin

As handicappers we are faced with tough decisions every day. Often we find ourselves agonizing over which off-the-pace horse is the better play or who might challenge the one dimensional frontrunner in a field. We sometimes let our heart make those decisions instead of what the past performances or our own eyes tell us.

Horse racing betting slip.

Think of our good friend Rail Guy. He has spent the night handicapping the card at Monmouth and he runs up to see you when you arrive at the paddock before the first race. Out of breath he exclaims, “I got da lock in da fifth race, ya can’t beat dis one.” After he catches his breath and wipes the sweat off his face with his stained shirt sleeve, he goes on to tell you about how he narrowed this field down to two horses and finally eliminated one. “I love dat kid Jersey Joe Bravo, not gonna beat him on da grass even though da other hoss is a sharper closer.”

We’ve all fallen victim to that one. We can’t find a reason to pick between two horses, so rather than accept that we have two contenders in a race, we let our emotions about a horse, jockey, or trainer take over our decision.

It gets worse.

We will then use any small positive that we can find to justify why we picked what we did. Rail Guy remembers some turf race a decade ago where Bravo wired the turf field on a 20-1 horse. That score has stuck with, and cost him money, since.

3 Steps to Handicap Objectively

As handicappers, making decisions with our emotions and the logical part of our brain will cost us money in the long run. So after talking with a few guys I know who make their living playing the races, here is the advice they provided to help you take the emotion out of the critical decisions you are making at the track.

1 Identify What Is Driving Your Choice

Before running up to the window to put down your hard earned cash on a wager, you need to ask yourself what is driving you? Are you sure this play meets your criteria to play or are you bending your own rules a bit and forcing a play that isn’t there to happen? Is it the need for action? Is it that you are sentimental? Is it boredom?

One of my full-time horseplayer friends plays by a set of hard rules. There is no bending them, even when he handicaps a race and sees a horse that he thinks has a good chance. Why? The horse doesn’t meet his set criteria to be a play. He could be right, he could be wrong, but he knows well enough what works for him and what doesn’t.  There is no other reason to play a race.

I am sure we’ve all been there. You find a horse that your guy tells you will win the race. Then you start to justify to yourself everything positive about his chances today. You’ll bend your rules this one time.

What is the worst that can happen? You find out once your horse finishes a lackluster fifth. You gave away a chunk of your bankroll.

Stick with what you know works. Don’t let your mind talk you into action you don’t need to play.

2 Ask Yourself Questions

Another horseplayer friend of mine likes to ask himself a number of questions when he thinks his emotions, and not logic, are doing his handicapping.

When he arrives on his contenders, he goes through a number of questions.

  1. Does this horse meet my pace profile for this race?
  2. Does this horse have good enough class to win here today?
  3. Would I play this horse if he had a different jockey or trainer?
  4. If I was down to my last dollar, would this horse be a worthy choice?

These questions keep you grounded. It is perfectly logical to have several probable pace scenarios, but this horse needs to benefit from at least one of them. The horse needs to be able to run with the field today and while he might meet the conditions, will he be competitive against a group of classier horses than himself? Is the only reason I like this horse because of who is in the irons, or does he meet all the other criteria that you use to be a play. Lastly, if you were down to the last buck in your bankroll, would this be a bet that makes sense to play?

If you can confidently answer all these questions without saying “but”, you have a logical play.

3 Be Willing To Accept The Reality

At some point in your career, you have come to the track with a horse that you know can’t lose only to find that your lone play of the day has scratched. You smartly reassess the race and find that it is no longer a play. Dejected, you are determined to try to save the day by finding another race to play. You hunker down and think that you can make something of the sixth race. Face it, you didn’t come to the track for the craft beer and food options, you came to win money.

Does a winning horseplayer put down money on a wager they don’t feel confident about? You know that answer.

As another horseplaying friend of mine shares that you need to be willing to accept that reality of situation. You no longer have the play you planned on making a killing with, so it is time to move on and save your bankroll for another day at the track.

When you are disciplined with your wagering you will increase your profits. Recognizing that you are not making the best decisions is the best way to ensure you aren’t throwing your hard earned money away at the windows. Ask yourself a couple of questions to see how confident you are about the plays have and don’t be afraid to take a pass today if the nothing looks like a good opportunity. Your bankroll will thank you later.

Ray Wallin
Ray Wallin is a licensed civil engineer and part-time handicapper who has had a presence on the Web since 2000 for various sports and horse racing websites and through his personal blog. Introduced to the sport over the course of a misspent teenage summer at Monmouth Park by his Uncle Dutch, a professional gambler, he quickly fell in love with racing and has been handicapping for over 25 years.

Ray’s background in engineering, along with his meticulous nature and fascination with numbers, parlay into his ability to analyze data; keep records; notice emerging trends; and find new handicapping angles and figures. While specializing in thoroughbred racing, Ray also handicaps harness racing, Quarter Horse racing, baseball, football, hockey, and has been rumored to have calculated the speed and pace ratings on two squirrels running through his backyard.

Ray likes focusing on pace and angle plays while finding the middle ground between the art and science of handicapping. When he is not crunching numbers, Ray enjoys spending time with his family, cheering on his alma mater (Rutgers University), fishing, and playing golf.

Ray’s blog, which focuses on his quest to make it to the NHC Finals while trying to improve his handicapping abilities can be found at www.jerseycapper.blogspot.com Ray can also be found on Twitter (@rayw76) and can be reached via email at ray.wallin@live.com.