Handicapping Insights


MAY 18, 2012

by Dick Powell

Each Triple Crown season we get more information than we could possibly use. Replays of all the prep races are easily available. Workouts are sometimes recorded and hardly any are conducted without someone describing how they were achieved. Interviews with owners, trainers, and jockeys are everywhere.

But, does it help us handicap the race? I certainly have my doubts as too many people get caught up in the hype and hysteria and get away from handicapping's fundamentals.

A field of eight is entered for a $20K claimer somewhere in America. What do we know about those horses? We have their past performance information, some trainer and pedigree statistics, jockey trends and maybe, if you are really serious, replays of previous races.

What we don't have for 99.9 percent of the races that we bet on is the constant subjective information that we are provided with during the big races. A horse was claimed last time out and we have no idea how he/she has settled into their new barn, how they worked for the race and why the trainer is moving them up or down in class. Yet, we bet those races with confidence since, over time, we are able to weigh the objective data.

A perfect example of why subjective information is not always accurate is the HBO boxing series which is run over four weeks leading up to a big, pay-per-view fight. Two weeks ago it was Floyd Mayweather against Miguel Cotto and each week we got to get a behind-the-scenes peak into their training and lives.

These human interest shows have vaulted pay-per-view boxing into a new level of acceptance. For those who like Mayweather, we get to see his dysfunctional family life, his throwing around hundred dollar bills like they are confetti and his awesome boxing talents in the ring during camp. For those that hate him, we get to see how he treats people and it gives more reason to purchase the fight and root against him.

Years ago, when Mayweather fought Ricky Hatton, after four weeks of the show,= you would think Hatton had a chance to pull off the upset. He looked fast in training and he and his trainer looked supremely confident.

But, for anyone who understood boxing, you knew Hatton was nothing more than a club fighter who had no chance at winning. His record, other than an upset over Kostya Tszu, was sketchy and he had not proven himself at the higher weight class. The subjective information that the HBO series gives you clouds your thinking to where the impossible seems possible.

If we only relied on this kind of subjective information, we would have no shot beating the races.

Before the Derby, the connections of the very fast Trinniberg announced that they might not go to the lead. It created a quandary for me since, for the most part, it never pays to listen to trainers talk about their intentions.

But, in this case, they were telling the truth. When the gate sprung for Derby 138, Trinniberg was not hell bent on making the lead and let Bodemeister go to the front without any real challenge. Most one-dimensional speedballs in the Derby have connections that want their horse to go to the front since they want to see their horse and silks in front. Even when connections tell the truth, it's hard to take them seriously.

What you need to develop, especially this time of year, is a filter that can decide what's relevant and what's not. Even if you decide to ignore something that turns out to be important, a filter has to be consistently applied. The minute you start making exceptions, you can throw away your filter since it is no longer working.

In a perfect world, I would pay little attention to the Derby until the week before and then start handicapping it like any other race. I like to watch as many workouts as I can since I don't want to rely on someone else's perception. Video replays are available so I can go back and watch the prep races I want. I watch as few interviews as I can so that I have a clear head.

There's an old media saying about how you don't root for the horse but root for the story. Thus, many people covering the Derby are rooting for some human-interest story that will make it easier to cover. These same media people are then the source of much of the subjective information being communicated. Be aware of this when you "consider the source."

Many media people covering a race watch it live in the press box then run down to start interviewing connections that might have seen very little of the race. They ask questions about trip, tactics, etc. and the trainer winds up giving stock answers that have little relevance. When I read accounts of big races, I am always amazed at what doesn't get reported. Track biases, pace issues, form regressions are never reported. You can do better on your own and don't hesitate to hone your skills at filtering out unnecessary information.

It was nice to see Hall of Fame rider Jerry Bailey on NBC's coverage of the Derby. He and Laffit Pincay III did a great job during the undercard and hopefully he will be a permanent fixture on their horse racing coverage.

One thing I did not understand about NBC's coverage is why did they go to a three-man booth for the Derby show? Tom Hammond and Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens have worked together for years and have developed a good rhythm. Adding anyone to the mix upsets the flow. I think one reason Jerry and Laffit did a great job was that it was just the two of them and nobody else. I never liked the three-man booth when ABC/ESPN covered racing and I didn't think it helped things last weekend.

For a handicapper, the overhead replay is a dream from above. In high definition, you can go back and isolate on any horse that you want and follow them around the track without missing a beat or suffering through multiple camera changes. It's great stuff and it enables you to make your own determination about a horse's trip.