How to Be a Better Bettor

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Derek Simon

July 3rd, 2015

I hate excuses.

In fact, one of the things that makes playing the ponies so appealing to me is that bad luck is irrelevant. Sure, one can whine and complain that their horse missed the break, they got a bad ride or — my personal favorite — the track was playing to speed (note: most tracks do) but, in the end, cashing tickets is all that really matters.

In the words of Vince Lombardi: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

Yet so many horseplayers seem to seek solace in excuses. After Giacomo won the 2005 Kentucky Derby, all I heard from losing bettors was that his victory was a “fluke,” the product of a blistering pace. The refrain following the 2008 Belmont Stakes was eerily similar.

“Da’ Tara stinks. He only won because he set a slow pace and something went amiss with Big Brown,” the cynics howled.

OK. Let’s assume that both opinions are correct — Giacomo and Da’ Tara were simply lucky. How much money does such a post-race acknowledgement make one? How much does one learn by adopting such a stance?

Look, I understand that misery loves company (what else explains the various Kardashian fan clubs?), but commiserating with others over a seemingly inexplicable result is just a waste of time and, sadly, a great weakness of far too many bettors.

Albert Einstein once noted that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” Well, I don’t think he’s rolling bones to determine the results of horse races either (although I’m pretty sure racetrack executives hope he likes slots).

The point is, only by assuming that there is an order to the Sport of Kings, can one hope to become a better bettor (as opposed to a bitter bettor). Recognize the fact that horses aren’t machines. Poor horses, mediocre horses, great horses — at some point, they all lose races they are expected to win.

Despite capturing the Triple Crown and setting four track and three world records in 1973, Secretariat lost three times that year — to Angle Light at odds of 1-5, Onion at 1-9 and Prove Out at 1-5. The combined lifetime record of those steeds? 114 starts, 28 wins — hardly the stuff of legends.

And were Big Red’s defeats predictable? I think so. His loss to stablemate Angle Light in the Wood came just two weeks after Secretariat tied a track record and earned a subpar (for him) late speed ration (LSR) of -8 in the Gotham. His defeat at the hands of Onion was his first try against older horses and his second-place showing in the Woodward came after Prove Out waltzed through an opening half-mile timed in 0:50 (+5 early speed ration).

A more recent example of an “improbable” result in a prestigious stakes race came on June 28 at Santa Anita Park. The fourth race that day was the 1 ¾-mile San Juan Capistrano Stakes and the 3-5 favorite was Going Somewhere.

I ask: Even without seeing the rest of the field, does this horse look like an odds-on favorite?

Yeah, his last race was pretty good — if we ignore the abysmal 85 Brisnet speed figure (the San Juan Capistrano par was 98) — and, sure, the son of Sulamani has kept great company — check out those group races in France. But he’s six years old now and hasn’t won since December 15, 2012! Worse, all of his wins (and there are only three) came in South America.

Now, take a look at Crucero:

Not only does this guy rank third on my Win Factor Report with 6-1 fair odds (better than the 7-1 on Going Somewhere), but his last race was one of the best of his career from a pace standpoint (note the -2 LSR).

But the icing on the cake was trainer Keith Desormeaux, who’s produced a ridiculous 440% ROI (higher now) in graded stakes over the past year.

It’s a tired axiom, but beating the races isn’t about betting the best horse, it’s about betting the best horse at the best price. At 23-1, I think Crucero fit the bill beautifully.