12/16/2014 10:41AM

Fornatale: Finding cap horses in tournaments


Last week, I wrote about the importance of odds caps in handicapping contests. Today, with the help of some of the best contest players around, I want to get to the heart of the matter: How does one go about finding cap horses to play in contests?

On the DRF Players’ Podcast, Matt Bernier, Mike Hogan, and I have been talking a lot about the importance of race flow. Race-flow analysis attempts to answer a simple question: How do the way the pace sets up and the way the track is playing affect the outcome of a race?

Dennis Decauwer, twice second in the National Handicapping Championship, said that trying to predict race flow can be the key to finding cappers.

“Does the horse look like he could be the only speed in the race? Does the horse look like it could benefit from a great pace duel and make a run that perhaps it hasn’t shown before?” he said in “The Winning Contest Player.”

Similarly, you can use the race flow of past races to upgrade certain horses by excusing seemingly poor efforts. That fifth-place finish, beaten eight lengths, might look rotten on paper, but if it was made by a closer racing against a loose leader on a speed-favoring strip, it’s a lot better than the paper suggests. And maybe today he’s signed on to run on a fair track with a lot of speed in the race. Hashtag: overlay.

When it’s obvious that a certain horse is going to make the front, it’s of little help to longshot players. But contest guru Eric Moomey seeks out possible front-runners who don’t look good enough on paper.

“A lot of times, the riders will leave a longshot on the lead alone, thinking he can’t make it that far,” Moomey said. “Look at Little Mike in the Breeders’ Cup Turf in 2012.”

Moomey also pointed out that a high percentage of cap horses fall into one of two categories: “They get loose, or they have a good late kick. Those are the trends time and time again.”

Another area to look for with cap horses is equipment changes. Just last week, Hogan picked longshot winner Catholic Cowboy right on top in the podcast. He liked the horse on paper anyway, but when it was announced that he was a first-time gelding (the ultimate equipment change), it was truly all systems go.

Garett Skiba, third in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, said, “Change is key for me when it comes to a longshot. Form will always be suspect for the given race or condition. Otherwise, the horse wouldn’t be a longshot.”

Ken Massa, the HTR handicapping software creator, who owns a second-place finish at the NHC, underlined this last point: “Longshots aren’t longshots because they look good on form or have good speed figures,” he said. “The reason that they are longshots is that they look lousy on paper. In order to get them home, you need to find factors of improvement.”

Common changes include horses changing distances, switching surfaces, adding blinkers, or going out for a new barn. With Formulator, you can do further research about specific barns and determine which changes might have added significance. In fact, that’s the subject of a webinar Hogan and I will be doing Wednesday on DRF.com. You can sign up here.

Perhaps the best piece of advice I’ve received about finding cap horses comes from one of the most successful professional gamblers in the country, Mike Maloney. He points out that a careful examination of the charts and a look back at the past performances can yield big dividends.

“If there’s a price horse that hits the board, the first thing I’m going to do is look back at the past performances and try to figure out ‘Where did that come from?’ ” Maloney said.  “All a guy has to do is hit the board twice when he shouldn’t have, and you need to be aware of it.”

Players can save copies of PPs or make PDF copies to use for these purposes. With Formulator, you can always access not only the charts but the individual PPs of any horse who has run in the last five years – as long as his trainer has a horse entered currently. Going through these old PPs and looking for patterns has yielded many cap horses over the years.