You Should Know How to Do This: Playing the Ponies

When I was 11, my mom thought it would be fun to go to the track for Mother’s Day. Someone showed me how to read the DRF in a cursory sort of way and let me pick my own horse and placed a $2 bet for me. It was supposed to be a life lesson on how gambling is not a good way to use your money, but I won on a longshot and it paid off huge– something like $30, which is a lot of money when you’re in sixth grade. Thus began my terrible descent into a low-level gambling problem.

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The bible of American horse racing.

So, unlike, say, roulette, you can’t just point to black or red and hope for the best. There’s no way to be good at picking out your horse since this is, after all, a game of chance, but there are ways to not be bad at it. At the end of the day, there’s no such thing as a sure thing, and the favorite may come in dead last. You just can’t know. All my guidelines for being a fool less likely to be parted with his money are after the jump.

Get you a copy of the aforementioned DRF ($7) and go to town. I wrote this the night before the Kentucky Oaks, so that’s the race I’m looking at. Before we begin: the odds? Those mean nothing, exactly. Ignore them. I always do, and I’m definitely up in the lifetime winnings column.

The odds are a hype measurement. It tells you how many people have bet on that particular entrant, not how fast it is. Now, why might some horses become the odds-on favorites? The morning line picks.

The morning line picks are the best guesses made by professional handicappers first thing in the morning. The handicappers will say “3 looks good” or “that gray mare isn’t going to perform since the track is fast.” This is a good way to get a feel for the field, but don’t take it as gospel. It’s just a place to start.

So survey the field. How many horses are there? Is there a jockey or trainer you like? It’s okay to place a bet on a sentimental favorite or even silks, but make those your low-stakes bets. It’s a fun surprise when those pan out.

The race we’re looking at today, the Kentucky Oaks, is a fillies race– 3 years old, 1 1/8 miles on a dirt track. Eleven fillies are running. The purse is $1,000,000. Here are the factors you want to consider, for this or any other race:

  • What’s her overall record? Is this a horse that can win? 
  • What kinds of tracks has she won on? What were the track conditions at those races? What’s the weather like today?
  • How long was the race? When was that?
  • What were the stakes of the races these horses have run?
  • Has she seen any of the other horses in this field before?
  • What’s her post position?
  • Who’s on the damn thing?

Now, how can you determine this? 

For the record overall, there’s a box labelled “life.” This will show you how many times she has won, placed, and shown (1st, 2nd,3rd) and also how much money they’ve won overall. The money might not sound like a big deal, but a ton of cash shows that she’s run in some big races and this is The Biggest Race. It’s loud, there are a lot of people– some horses can’t handle that and you want to her to be able to handle it. This can’t be known until the eleventh hour, after bets are due, because you can’t synthesize the noise and frenzy. Helpful hint:  if your pick pulls or rears at all while they’re trying to load her into the starting gate, your money is definitely, irrevocably lost.

This is the Kentucky Oaks field this year.
This is the Kentucky Oaks field this year.

Now, to the right of that is an overview of what kind of tracks she’s won on. This matters more than any other factor, in my opinion. If it’s a horse that has only ever run on synthetic or turf, well, she’s less prepared for a fast dirt track. Is the track wet and sloppy? That’s a game changer. The track officials will let you know what the course is like that day. Make sure to take this into consideration before placing your wager. On Oaks, it’s scheduled to rain some, making for a somewhat sloppy track. Three horses in this field have winning records on a wet course, and that’s going to be a considerable advantage.

Head down to the bottom left of the horse’s profile. There, you’ll see a race history. The race history shows you the date of the race (don’t bet on someone who ran yesterday, because she’s tired, but don’t pick someone who hasn’t run in months), the length (can she run that far? This is a long one.), and the time it took them to run the course.

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The highlighted names are those of horses she’s beaten in the past who are running in this specific race. You know Unlimited Budget can definitely beat at least 2 other fillies in this group..

The last two factors to take into consideration are somewhat intangible. One is the post position. If you think about it, the horses closest to the rail (lower numbers) have a slightly shorter course– when you’re dealing in a matter of seconds, a few yards matter. Too close to the rail, though, and the horse can get crowded. You want someone to the low middle– in this case maybe a 3-5 range.

The other question is the horse’s rider. Did you ever play Mario Kart as a kid? Remember those orange mushrooms? Refresher course: the orange mushroom can be used only two or three times, so the trick is to use them judicially. All the Mario Kart cars are as fast as one another.

A good jockey does basically that. The horses are all approximately as fast as one another. Every so often, you’ve got a Secretariat, a horse that is so obviously faster than all the others that there’s no question who is going to win and how, but mostly, they’re all about as fast as another. The best jockeys in the business know when to use their orange mushrooms, but they all have their own styles. Calvin Borel, my favorite jockey, loves to wait to use his mushrooms until the very last second. Ron Turcotte, Secretariat’s rider, would get way out in front and let everyone else try to catch up. It’s a matter of their discretion, and their judgement calls determine the day.

Inside your form, there will be a guide for how to place your bet at the window. Make sure you follow this guide and be ready to go when you get up to bet. I’m too terrible with numbers to explain how trifectas and superfectas and pay offs work in practical terms, but once you feel a little more confident in your picks, this is a fun way to show off and seem like a real genius when you win.

I’m not an expert, but I hope this helps. Good luck today, and I hope you pick the winner! I’m staying mum on my bets until after the race has been run, but you had better believe I’ll be insufferable when I pick the winner.

So, who’ve you got?

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