By Ray Wallin
I’ve crossed paths with a lot of different characters at the track in my 30 plus years of horseplaying. There have been guys you could laugh at like our good friend Rail Guy, people you shake your head at like Every Race Eddie, and those you learn something from like my late Uncle Dutch.
I have met and picked the brains of some whales and professional horseplayers as well as some great amateur weekend warrior handicappers. I have taken nuggets of wisdom from each one along the way. I have added angles to my handicapping arsenal, created and tweaked my own figures, and learned to spot the physical aspects of winners and losers.
One crusty old gentleman I met in my misspent teenage years on the apron of the Monmouth Park grandstand taught me a great deal about approaching the races. The lessons this old timer taught me could be applied to life, but he delivered them to me in the context of horse racing.
We called him “Flyboy,” but I never knew his real name. I don’t think anyone did. He was a gray-haired, wiry guy with leathery skin and a blurred tattoo on his right forearm. Story was that he was a fighter pilot during the Korean War, and I had no reason to doubt him. Flyboy always had a new story to trade for a Marlboro Red or a can of Budweiser.
One day Flyboy said that being a fighter pilot was a lot like playing the horses. My teenage mind immediately thought of horses with anti-aircraft guns on their backs and jockeys riding with a scarf flapping in the win like the Red Baron. But Flyboy was serious. Looking me straight in the eyes he said, “Son, I’m not kidding you. It is all about situational awareness.”
My head tried to wrap around what he meant my situational awareness.
After grabbing him one of Dutch’s cans of Budweiser, he started to explain. As a fighter pilot, he had to be aware of everything that was going on around him at every moment he was in the air. He needed to be mindful of his fuel level, his altitude, his formation, where he was in relation to his squadron, where the enemy was, and the weather conditions where he was heading. Even when engaged with the enemy, he had to be mindful of all these factors at the same time as trying not to be killed.
How does this relate to playing the ponies?
There are a lot of factors that every horseplayer must keep in mind in the minutes leading up to the race.
As Bob Dylan once sang, “you don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.” This is true if you are at the track, but if you are simulcasting, you can’t see the dark clouds rolling in or that squall that is popping up out of nowhere. Most horseplayers don’t check the weather too closely when they are simulcasting or playing from the comfort of their living room.
Even if you are at the track you need to think ahead about what the weather conditions may be later in the day. Sure, the track is fast now, but did you notice that thunder storm warning issued for later this afternoon that hits right when you get to the third leg of your Pick 4? Does a race end up coming off the grass or going off in the slop? How would this affect your wager?
How many times have you handicapped a race and landed on a nice colt that has a morning line of 5-1? How many times does that 5-1 shot go off at 5-1? Your excitement over a double-digit payout is erased when the previous race is made official, and your horse shows 1-2 on the tote board. Maybe he recovers to 2-1, but we all know the odds are going to make one final change after the race is off and the simulcast money is added to the pool. While you were initially salivating over the thought of a nice steak dinner, you are looking at that hot dog cart as you are lucky to get 7-5 on your play of the day.
When you play the smaller tracks with smaller pools, it takes a lot less money to move the odds. Be mindful of what your fair odds are for the horse you want to play and be careful not to sell yourself short by not paying attention to the tote board.
Seeing the probable payoffs goes together with monitoring the odds. I am sure that many of you reading this article know of someone, or have had the bad luck yourself, of placing and winning a series of exacta or trifecta wagers only to lose money. Of all the combinations that you played, the lowest paying one came in and didn’t cover the cost of all the combinations that you played.
When this is the case, you need to consider changing the level of investment on certain combinations to either win or at worst, break even. This may be as simple as playing a $1 exacta on some combinations and a $2 exacta on other chalkier combinations. You only get to see will pays before your races goes off on exactas, quinellas, and daily doubles, but you can extrapolate an exacta payout to a trifecta payout.
Scratches and Changes
You need to ask yourself with every scratch or change in a race, what does this do to the pace of the race? What does getting Journeyman Joe instead of Top Jock James mean to my horse’s chances today? What does a sloppy track do to my critical pace horse?
Scratches and changes are not just simply crossing out a horse or jockey in your program, they can impact the outcome of the pace of a race.
This seems kind of obvious, but it is amazing how many people never look at the horses they are betting on. Some horseplayers have a keen eye for a horse that shows even the slightest negative sign before a race. While I don’t profess to be a great expert in horse body language, there are a few tell-tale signs that I know to look for in the paddock and post parade. You can pick on signs from a horse’s ears, tail, eyes, and even how much they sweat (or don’t).
While I’ll never know if Flyboy was making or embellishing his tales of war, the one truth is that to be a winning horseplayer, you need to have situational awareness at the track. There are a lot of factors to consider beyond the numbers in the past performances. By staying aware and on top of everything that is going on around you, you too can start getting on the path to making your living playing the races.