Betting Strategy: 'You don't want to force any of it, that's the key'

Profile Picture: Kevin Kilroy

June 17th, 2022

If you follow Churchill Downs racing, there’s no doubt you know racing analyst Scott Shapiro. Or if you bet through, you’ve likely watched his expert videos. Or if you tune in Friday nights to Louisville's ESPN “Inside Churchill Downs,” you'll find him there too. There are few sharper handicappers than him, and even less that work as hard. Follow him on Twitter @ScottShap34 

Kevin Kilroy: What pools do you dive into most?

Scott Shapiro: I put way more than 50% of my budget into the horizontals, mostly Pick 4s. But I am mindful of both playing within the race vertically and in the win pool. If you have a strong opinion either against a favorite or a number of the logicals, or there’s a horse that you really like at any price, I have definitely learned that trying to take money out of that race is the way to go. There will be too many instances when you’ll have a 6-1 single come in, or you were against a favorite and a big price wins, so you were right but then you miss in another leg, and you don’t get anything for it; in fact you lose money. 

Kilroy: What sort of situations convince you to not play a Pick 4?

Shapiro: Let’s say in three of the four races I can't separate the logicals or am struggling to and if I put a ticket together I would feel like I needed to play all three of them. If that's the case, I might think, well, it's not worth it because there's not enough upside, so I will look around the race to see if doubles or Pick 3s are more advantageous to my opinion. Maybe I’ll look at a Pick 3 that starts the race before it and play with my opinions in that race that are a little bit more unique or give me more of a chance to separate. 

Kilroy: How do you work with morning lines, and how do they affect the psychology of the market?

Shapiro: I think the best way to take advantage of an inflated morning line, like a 12-1 that you know is going to be 4-1, is to single or use narrowly at the back of a horizontal. So if it’s the last race on the card, that’s obvious, you do it with the horizontals that end there. If it’s race 5 or race 6, you might want to play it in a Pick 3 or a double. The further the race is from the beginning of the sequence where you are going to see the money, the better chance that people get a little lazy and they overspread because they want to be live to the finale, or they’ll get lazy and be more inclined to use the morning line favorites as opposed to doing a little more work. I have noticed there is a better chance to take advantage of an inflated morning line in the last leg of a horizontal wager, or the second to last leg of a Pick 5 or Pick 6. 

Kilroy: Alright, so there’s a favorite I’m against in the Pick 5 sequence that I know will be odds-on tonight at Evangeline. How should I play it?

Shapiro: If you're against the favorite, any kind of wager can work. It would be good to beat the Pick 5, but if you think the horse is overbet, you want to try to take something out of the race, too. Up your portfolio of wagers for that race and be aggressive when you think there is a spot like that. Don't bet that race the same as you would bet a race where you like the three favorites in a trifecta. Press your luck. 

Kilroy: What do you do with your bets when you get aggressive?

Shapiro: The first thing is I am betting more. If it’s a 10-race card and there are two races where I am against the favorites, those should be the races where I am betting way more than the other races. Because if you’re right, it makes your day. I’ll consider a trifecta wheel like 3 x 3 x 6, or an exacta, all depending on how against the favorite you are and your other opinions in there. When you beat favorites out of a trifecta, that’s huge. In terms of being aggressive and using multiple pools, that’s all based on what my other opinions are.

Kilroy: What’s a situation where you tend to get aggressive in horizontals?

Shapiro: When I start handicapping a race I’ll already be looking at the favorite and ask if he’s beatable. It’s a good thought process to ask how the public is going to bet this race. And if you find yourself in the same exact boat, then what kind of edge do you have. If you find yourself slightly different, then maybe play smaller tickets. Nibble just nibble, don't take the rubber band off the bankroll. But one of my favorite situations in horizontal wagers is when I am against the favorite but I love the 2nd, 3rd, 4th favorite—well, I am singling. Because not only are most people going to single the favorite, almost everybody is going to use the favorite. So you are putting together a contrarian ticket that separates you from the pool. And it’s likely I will spread more aggressively in the other legs and hope to catch one of the longer prices.

Kilroy: I find myself fading favorites I think could win the race simply to grab equity by building contrarian tickets. It pisses me off when those favorites come in and I get knocked out.

Shapiro: If you are really trying to be a winning horseplayer, you need to know when to sit out races if your thinking is twisted about whether your tickets reflect your opinion or you are just making decisions to be contrarian. Don't be contrarian just for the sake of being contrarian. 

Kilroy: Once you've handicapped the card, what do you do to narrow in on the sequences you are going to play?

Shapiro: How many favorites do I like and how many horses would I consider singling—those are the first things I assess. If it’s a sequence where I look through and I see I don't have any favorites on top and I wouldn't be shocked if three 10-1s won their race, not only will I be willing to spread more, I am willing to spend more because this could be thousands and thousands instead of hundreds and hundreds. And then after that assessment about how much I can see it paying overall based on my opinion, next I am asking are there horses in here I want to single? If so, are they favorites, or 2nd or 3rd choices when I am against heavy favorites? You don't want to force any of it, that’s the key.

Kilroy: Alright let’s look at this late Pick 4 sequence on Friday at Churchill Downs. What does your ticket look like?

Shapiro: In the 6th, I picked the favorite over the 2nd-favorite over the 4th-favorite so that doesn’t fit that profile of having separation. In race 7, I picked a 5-1 over a 7-2 over a 6-1. Nothing crazy there but a little bit unique. In race 8, I picked a 6-1 that I made my best bet so now I am thinking I want to build one of my tickets around singling this horse. Because that will be contrarian. In the 9th race, I picked a 10-1 over a 6-1 over a 21-1, so that fits the open race I am looking for where I have a serious shot at separation.

So to me, this sequence is in the middle of that spectrum—it doesn't look chalky but it doesn't look like it will make my month. A medium-sized budget is my thought here, so I would probably play one ticket where I single the 6-1 in the 8th and I’ll be aggressive in the 6th, 7th and 9th. Then I’ll play a smaller ticket where I will play my back-ups in the 8th and then only use my As in the other races. And in race 8, I will play trifectas keying this horse for first or second. Make sure you are pressing up on your opinions when you are against the public.

Scott Shaprio’s main Pick 4

  • Race 6        1,3,6,8
  • Race 7        1,6,8
  • Race 8        3
  • Race 9        5,7,9,10,11

Scott Shaprio’s second Pick 4

  • Race 6        3,8
  • Race 7        1,6,8
  • Race 8        1,2,3,5,9
  • Race 9        10,11

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 after subtracting my action bets--tell ya what I was a kid in a candy store the first month--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 2-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.