Betting Strategy: Game Selection with Ryan Pipenger Part 1

Profile Picture: Kevin Kilroy

July 17th, 2022

After my first season as a public handicapper, I looked at my betting account and realized one thing: I need help. Picking 349 races, I had 97 winners (28%) with an ROI of $2.08. But I had lost 15% on my personal bets. Clearly, I need to spend more time structuring my wagers. I will use this column to learn from people I respect about how to better express my opinions. Kevin Kilroy is an author, handicapper and two-time NHC qualifier cashing in 2021. Serving as the Publicity Specialist for Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots and a freelance horse racing writer, you can find him @trustyourluck on Twitter.

Ryan Pipenger is a horseplayer living in Indiana. Following him on Twitter, I quickly realized how extensively he keeps track of pace and post positions at the tracks he is playing. He offers charts tracking all this data that are better than many pay for. With a strong following, he is able to drum up helpful conversations about specific races, offering his analysis, but also about betting strategy in general. Game selection is essential to a successful betting strategy, and Ryan walks us through that and more. Follow him on Twitter @HandicapperRyan.

You tweeted, "It's crazy how when you buckle down as a bettor and decide to pick your spots, your ROI seems to rise. Find your bread and butter races and increase your wagers. Eliminate betting on races with so many variables." Talk to me about the work you've done to find your bread and butter races.

I was in the “I can get the winners, but need to learn to bet” group for some time. When the whole pandemic hit and everyone was sitting around the house, I started going back and looking at my bets from the last year and began breaking them down by distance and surface in a spreadsheet. What I learned quickly was that dirt sprints are where I was having the most success. It made all the sense in the world to me. Those races fit my handicapping style of matching up pacelines of horses and seeing who can run to each other’s pace. I’m a sucker for speed and with the way racing is today, speed kills on the dirt when sprinting.

What gets me excited is seeing a short-priced favorite in a sprint that doesn’t fit the race shape. The other big thing I look for is if the favorite has ever faced a pace that the projected leader is capable of running in today’s race. If they cannot, I look to capitalize as much as possible. These scenarios and types of races have become huge for me.

On the flip side, maiden races, and especially with many first-time starters, are not my strength at all. I look to avoid these races as much as I can because too many weird things happen, and no one is proven yet.

How has figuring out your strengths as a handicapper affected your ROI?

Part of going back and looking at my past betting history was seeing what wagers I showed the most success with. For me, it was win bets and the daily doubles.

Now when I go to look at a card, I am looking for dirt sprints and building tickets around them. Realizing that I can get to the winner in those dirt sprints at a good percentage made me go after the horizontal wagers harder. I’m a big fan of the daily double and look for those opportunities all the time now with my betting. Those daily double wagers have been huge for my bottom line.

This past Oaklawn Park meet was more than nice to me since they have no turf racing. I was playing a healthy amount of doubles and was able to spread to runners in routes since I was confident in narrowing down the fields in sprint races.

Realizing what not only my handicapping, but betting strengths are has been huge for me. I’m going after races I have shown success with and also betting in a way that I know I can make a profit.

What do you mean by "eliminating betting on races with so many variables"?

Any unknown in a race is a variable as a handicapper we have to make an educated guess on. With how I handicap, I want to see what the horse has done in the past on this surface and at this distance. If I don’t know what to expect from this horse, I tread lightly.

The two biggest variables I battle with are sprinters stretching out, and first-time starters. When I encounter a race with a bunch of first-time starters or runners that are coming out of sprints and going two turns for the first time, I will almost immediately pass the race.

Just passing those types of races have been huge for me ROI-wise because now I can focus my money on races that I have proven success with. This game is hard enough as it is. Throwing in any more unknowns will eat at your bankroll as it did mine. I found it best to pass these races entirely and move on.

What is your record-keeping process?

My record keeping is pretty simple for the most part. I’ve split my bankroll into my main bets of straight win wagers and daily doubles. For my win wagers, I’ll chart which track and then surface and distance so I can see my breakdowns there. I feel it is important to be able to see which tracks you are doing best at because part of winning is your handicapping philosophy. If you are winning a good amount of specific races at a track, this is something to look into deeper and find out why. Is it something I can look for at another track? I try to use it all as a learning tool to make myself a better player.

With tracking daily double bets, I keep those as a running tally and will chart which track they were made at. I know most times I am spreading in one of the two legs so I am more worried about the plus/minus column than what types of races they are. If I go after any deeper horizontal sequence, I will take that bet out of my daily double half of the bankroll.

A gambler's psychology is so huge in this sport, too. How do you stay disciplined?

The mental side is huge! This sport humbles you very quickly. As a bettor, I think we all have gone on tilt at some point and it's bit us big time “trying to get some back.” Not a good feeling.

How I’ve combatted this is by not focusing on my success day to day but month to month. When I switched my mentality to looking longer term, those bad days didn’t affect me going into the next day because now I’m more worried about the number at the end of the month. I’m going to show up the next day and play the right way. More times than not, things will work out when you focus on what you can control. 

I like to look at it as baseball. Those players that hit over .300 in a season have a month or so where they rip the cover off the ball, and the rest of the year they grind it out. I see it the same way as a bettor, you get hot for a few weeks and you go on a tear that gets your bankroll way up, and the rest of the time you are grinding it out.

I think we all see the handicappers that go on and on about how they placed a win bet in one race, an exacta in another race then took a swing at the pick 6 but only hit five races. To me, that isn’t a disciplined approach to this game. Part of keeping records of your bets is to help you stay more focused on the task at hand. When you can look back on your betting and see you really struggled with those exotic bets or maybe pick 5 or pick 6 wagers, you’ll realize that if you want to keep the profits you worked hard for, you won't throw money away at a bet you are not successful with.

What does "finding your edge" mean to you?

To me, it is knowing where you are at your best as a bettor. Part of tracking your play is to know what races and wagers you have a grasp on that maximize your profits. I realized that I was a horrendous pick 4 player. I was playing them way too much, and those losing tickets were eating at the profits I was showing with my other wagers. That is when I doubled down on myself. I know I am showing a good return on win bets, but I need to almost eliminate my pick 4 wagering. That is what I did, and my ROI as a whole grew.

Now as that happened, on the side I would play mythical tickets for the longer horizontal wagers, such as the pick 4 or pick 5. That was big for me because I could follow along, see my ticket structure, and where I need to be stronger. It did a few things for me. First off, I had to stick to staying narrow in the races I targeted. I used to play defense and add horses that would cut into potential profit just for the sake of hopefully cashing. Second, I realized how many times I was blindly stabbing at these sequences. Part of playing these big bets should be because you have a feel for those races, not for action.

With that all being said, there’s no pressure like actually punching the tickets and seeing your money on the line. You cannot replicate that feeling. What you can practice is the strategy you will use and how you decide if it is worth pushing your chips in or not when the time comes.

That is all the time we have for now but we will continue this interview in a Part 2 here on TwinSpires!