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Golden Rules
Monday, May 14, 2012 - By Bob Marks

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Before he became marketing manager for Perretti Farms in New Jersey, Bob Marks was an accomplished racetrack tout on the New York circuit. The following is a primer on harness handicapping that he wrote in his Top Trotter’s Weekly Letter in the 1970s, but its tenets still ring true today. Hoof Beats presents this edited version to help bettors make more money at the track.

This is not a system, nor is it a procedure designed to tip you to a winner. It is a “crash course” in handicapping using the same steps as does a master professional. You will learn how to go about beginning your own handicapping processes. This way you will incorporate tried-and-true principles via a step-by-step method designed to eventually assist you in becoming your own handicapper.

Like any of a zillion other tasks or chores, handicapping is actually a process of steps and counter-steps with an end in mind, which is hopefully the location of the winner. Adherence to the steps taken still may not land you on the winner’s number as only our own mental processes can do that. But still it should make for at least an effective method of discarding a number of horses who, for various reasons, simply cannot win.

1. Identify the Participants
You’d be absolutely astonished by how many handicappers actually begin the process of handicapping without first getting straight in mind just who is in the race. Realistically, how can you determine who will win the race if you’re not sure who is in the race? Scan the program. Identify each of the participants. Where did they race last? Are there any shippers? First-time starters? Even now at this preliminary stage you may actually begin to handicap as automatically one horse may stand out over another. If that’s the case, then you may have begun the process by eliminating an obvious loser.

2. Define the Race
What kind of race is it? A claimer?  A conditioned race? What does the race mean? Do these horses race each other every week?

Is it a stakes race? Or perhaps a prelude to a stakes in terms of being an elimination. In elimination races, horses are seeking to qualify for big purses later on. Consequently, the significance of finishing first or second may be minute; therefore, it’s a poor betting race. In stakes races with big purses, drivers may take risks they ordinarily wouldn’t for the simple reason that in this case, the theory of “now” is prevalent over tomorrow. Therefore, projecting movements is difficult. Conclusion? Tough betting race.

Now let’s define the race in terms of the participants involved. Are there front-runners? Closers? How many? Who is likely to benefit? Who will not? The moment you can discern some sort of structure or pattern to what is likely to happen out there, the closer you are to locating where the winner is likely to come from.

3. Check for Continuity
Have all these horses been racing regularly? Are they in form? Are they not in form? Have they been racing here? In other words, is there a discernible pattern to how they have been performing?

4. Check for Differences
Has there been a stable change? A driver change? A class change? Is one horse dropping down? Moving up? Did a slumping horse show some wake-up last time out? Is a horse getting his “favorite thing” such as an inside post, sloppy track or preferred driver? These can drastically affect form and must be analyzed before proceeding further.

5. Examine That Last Race
The last race is the last look that you have at the horse in question. Unless, of course, you’re a professional able to discern form by merely watching an individual warm up. Mind you, the last race is not gospel, but it does provide an inkling into what you’re supposed to be looking at. Examine it. Are there excuses for poor performances? Was a winner lucky? Did he get a trip? Was a horse locked in? Parked out? All of these factors will affect your appraisal of his anticipated performance. It is best to actually trace the last race as closely as possible in order to determine what actually happened. Then and only then can you make a sensible projection as to how the horse may perform this time around.

6. Check for Excuses
Too often a poor performance is assumed to be reflective of a change in current form so that a horse is passed over for being out of shape the next time around. All too often, he comes right back to his previous form and wins, paying a far better price than he would have had that last sub-par race line not been on the program. Most often there’s a reason for that sudden “bummer.” He could have been boxed. Moved too early. Moved too late or even have been raced uncharacteristically by either leaving or not leaving. It is imperative to discover that excuse if it exists, otherwise you cannot confidently discard from consideration any horse whose last race is not up to the standards of the ones immediately that precede it.

Horses are creatures of habit and tend to enjoy what’s called consecutive form cycles. This means they’re good when they’re good and bad when they’re bad. Before assuming that sub-par performance reflects a change in the consecutive form pattern, it’s best to see if there’s a valid reason for it.

7. Look for Form Alterations
Here you’re actually looking for change and trying to pinpoint why it occurred. Perhaps a horse was dulled after being roughed-up battling for the lead. Perhaps he was claimed. Perhaps there’s a driver change. Since any of these can seriously alter form, it’s best to locate all the possibilities. At this point certain horses may stack up as obvious “losers” and may be eliminated accordingly.

8. How Do They Stack Up?
By now you know who’s in the race and what kind of race it is and you have a pretty good idea of who did what last time around. How do they stack up? Who’s the class? Who’s the new boy in the class? Who’s dropping down? Moving up? Immediately you’ll be able to eliminate more obvious “losers” simply by answering those questions.

9. How Will the Race Be Run?
As best you can, try and chart a projected “path” for the particular race. Immediately, several factors come into focus. Outside front-runners are likely to get parked if there are diehard front-runners inside them. A superior closer who figures to be no worse than fourth at the top of the stretch may nullify all other closers who figure to turn for home behind him. At this point, certain horses, regardless of form, seem destined for tough times due to the projection of their trip. In other words, they may be losers simply because harsh circumstances prevent them from winning this time around.

10. Pinpoint Positioning
Try and figure just who will be where at several points in the race. Momentarily try and pinpoint the positioning at the quarter pole, the half-mile pole, three-quarters and top of the stretch. It’s amazing how many horses that look good on paper suddenly look not so good in actuality once you’ve charted where they are likely to be at the quarter or half. In addition, you’ll also be assigning an energy expenditure factor for each horse as you’ll determine just how much each horse was used in getting where he is. Once you do that, it becomes a bit clearer if a closer can actually mount that close or if the front-runner will be able to stave off the late charges.

By pinpointing position, you are in effect plotting the race while anticipating moves or lack of them. This enables you to project whether the pace is likely to be fast or slow, thus disclosing whether it’s likely to be a front-runner’s race or a closer’s race. If at first you find that pinpointing the positioning of the entire field too monumental a task, try to at least pinpoint the positions of the designated contenders so that at least you can measure one against the other in regards to who is where and at what point.

For example, if two horses can close in 30 seconds and generally mount their stretch charges at about the eighth pole, then the one in front of the other will probably prevail. He may not win the race, but he should at least out-finish the horse behind him. Of course if one is uncovered and the other covered, the reverse may be true as the uncovered horse will have blunted his customary stretch surge by the mere process of mounting the uncovered challenge.

First, figure how the race will be run. Then take it one step further. Actually try and pinpoint positioning. You’d be surprised how many “on paper” winners suddenly stack up as potential losers due to the likelihood of a difficult trip.

11. Eliminate Losers on Projected Trip
Start weeding out those who seemingly can’t win simply because they’ll be unable to do whatever it is they must do in order to win. Remember, there are 99,000 ways to lose a race and only one way to win. If it looks like a horse will lose because of positional circumstance, chances are he’ll simply fail to win.

12. Pinpoint Contenders
Pinpoint the major contenders remaining. Measure them against each other as best you can. How have they done under as similar to today’s circumstances that you can locate? Immediately you may eliminate one or more as a potential loser just by pinpointing and measuring the contenders.

13. Plot a Course for Each Contender
Now you’re in the final stages. What will each contender do at each point of call? Where will they be at the head of the stretch? Say two closers are relatively equal in ability, but one turns for home fourth and the other looms back in seventh. They are no longer equal. The one in arrears has far too much ground to make up. If there are two equal front-runners, one must be parked out. As soon as you have plotted a course for each contender, just which contender has an edge over his contemporary will be apparent.

14. Plot a Course for Your Horse
It’s axiomatic. In football, you can’t complete a pass without knowing the whereabouts of your receiver. Consequently, you can’t win a bet unless you have an idea just what the horse is going to do within the running of the race. For example, the horse figures to go to the top, but the dictates of the race make-up disclose several other front-runners.

Conclusion? He’ll either be parked out getting there or may never get there. Chances are, he’ll lose.

If you cannot plot a course for the horse you like, it’s almost impossible to say with any justification just why he will finish ahead of his contemporaries. Simply because he’s faster is delusionary.

Remember Murphy’s Law: if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. If the unexpected can happen, it will happen. If an outsider has the potential to leave, he very well may leave. In other words, don’t assume that your front runner is the lone speed simply because it looks like he might be. Make sure. Examine past performances. Study driver behavioral patterns. Remember, if it wasn’t for Murphy, we’d all be rich!

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.