Updated on 09/18/2011 1:02AM

The ABC's of multi-race betting


The following is an excerpt from "Exotic Betting," the new book by Steven Crist, published by DRF Press. This week's excerpt deals with ranking all horses in a race and constructing your multi-race tickets accordingly.

There are all sorts of ways to rate or rank horses when handicapping a race for Pick 4's and Pick 6's, ranging from using simple checkmarks and crossouts to constructing a mathematically correct fair-odds betting line on the entire race. Each horseplayer must arrive at his own method, one that reflects both his particular handicapping methods and the amount of time and precision he wants to invest in the endeavor.

You must, however, have a method of some kind that forces you to consider, evaluate, and ultimately decide what to do with every horse in a race. My own such method has evolved over the years to a letter-grade system that ultimately determines the mechanics of my multirace wagers. I rank each horse in a race, in descending order of appeal, as an A, B, C, or X, and construct my tickets accordingly.

It's not quite that simple. There are at least two stages to the grading process - a preliminary assessment of the race, then a fine-tuning that incorporates value and strategic considerations. Between those stages, a horse that began as a B may well descend to a C or even an X rating. Also, like any waffling teacher grading papers, I often end up adding pluses or minuses to the ratings as a final separator. In the broadest sense, though, here are the characteristics of each tier of horses:

A Horses: Primary contenders, likely winners, or horses that are going to offer spectacular betting value, such as a horse you think will be 20-1 but actually has a 20 percent chance to win. Usually there will be from one to three A's in a race. In some cases, an initial A horse may be one that you will ultimately bet against, even strongly, solely because of his actual or anticipated price, but that is a later decision

B Horses: Reasonable contenders, next most likely to win if the A's fail but less deserving of emphasis for reasons of ability, value, or both. B's often become C's in final refinements.

C Horses: Unlikely winners who can't be entirely eliminated and who may warrant minor inclusion on at least some tickets, depending on how the other races in a multirace sequence shape up. I usually end up further refining C's into three subcategories: C+'s, who I definitely want to use in some minor way, usually because of their price; C-'s, who ultimately merit only the tiniest, most defensive inclusion; and Cx's, horses I acknowledge can win but finally decide I will allow to beat me, effectively downgrading them to X's.

X Horses: Eliminations, horses who lack the ability to be competitive to win, are clearly running on the wrong surface or distance, and/or figure to be completely compromised by the way a race will be run. An X horse might be a perfectly reasonable inclusion on the bottom of a trifecta or superfecta ticket, but so many things would have to go wrong in a race for him to finish first that he is an unwise inclusion to win.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that these grades involve first-place finishes only and have no application to intrarace wagering. I do not play my A's over my B's in exactas or construct A/A, B, B/A, B, B, C, C, C trifecta part-wheels. My grades speak only to prospects of outright victory, and incorporate three broad factors: likelihood of winning, value relative to likely odds, and strategic ticket-construction decisions.

Let's examine each of those three elements discussing a hypothetical maiden race, assigning the nine horses fictitious names that reflect their broad credentials, and my preliminary grades:

No. 1 Bold Debut A

No. 2 Hot FirsterAB

No. 3 Old ReliableBC

No. 4 Jockey SwitchC

No. 5 Obscure FirsterC

No. 6 Dreadful FirsterX

No. 7 No AbilityX

Bold Debut, whom we regard as close to a cinch unless Hot Firster is indeed a sizzler, is the simplest sort of an A. He is the likeliest winner and there are no knocks on him. Hot Firster is the one to fear, and one of the crucial questions we will have to decide in Step 2 is whether to give him equal prominence on our tickets with Bold Debut or to create a separate B tier for him.

Old Reliable is the third most likely winner of the race and we can't draw an X through him, at least not yet. He's clearly not an A, and the question of whether he's a B, C, or X will be based on value and strategy, not on simple ability.

Jockey Switch is the kind of horse you can't draw a line through on the first pass. We have given him his name because we're supposing that after two dull performances under identical conditions, today he is switching from a 10-pound apprentice to one of the top five riders at the track. We could have just as easily named him Just Claimed, Off Slowly Last, or Equipment Change. The point is that he's the kind of horse where something a little different or interesting is happening today, which means we can't eliminate him until we take a closer second look.

We'll also wait and see on Obscure Firster, a debut runner who is highly unlikely to be as good as either Bold Debut or Hot Firster but has no strong negatives among his connections, workouts, or pedigree. If the race falls apart and the favorites fail, he might be good enough to win by default.

It's not too soon to draw an X through Dreadful Firster, who comes from a trainer who is 0 for 62 with debut runners over the last five years, has been working slowly and infrequently, and is being ridden by an exercise rider who rarely gets mounts in races. No Ability also gets an X off five starts in which he has been trounced by lesser fields of this kind while showing no improvement whatsoever.

So we're left with five open horses after Round 1 of assessment. Some bettors, bless them, would stop at this point and use all five of them in equal strength in a double or pick three, maybe even in a pick four or pick six if they have a great deal more money than common sense. Such a play is obviously highly inefficient because you are devoting 80 percent of your investment to beating Bold Debut, a horse we think is 50 percent or better to win the race, while allotting the same amount of money to both Bold Debut and Jockey Switch, a horse we have kept eligible by the slender thread of a single positive factor.

Further thought, research, and refinement might cause the following change of grades. We might decide to make Bold Debut an A and Hot Firster a B because we think that the mistake the public will make in betting the race is to undervalue the quality of Bold Debut's performance. We might then decide that the chances of a misfire by both favorites is sufficiently slim that we should downgrade Old Reliable from a B to a very defensive C, which is where we'll also leave Obscure Firster.

What you do with Jockey Switch will be a factor of your own handicapping methods. I personally would almost never spend money on a horse because of a change in riders alone, without some corroborating evidence that vastly improved performance was coming today. These are some of the toughest decisions in handicapping, and my general opinion is that horseplayers usually make too much of individual change factors and overbet them. Just because you are smart enough to notice something different today, it does not compel you to spend money on a horse.

So we'll let Jockey Switch beat us, leaving us with one A, one B, and two somewhat weak C's. Now what? It all depends on what pool we're playing and what the other races look like. Almost every possible answer to what to do with these selections, however, involves the same key strategy: The one thing we won't be doing is buying a single ticket that uses all four of them - at least not on the same ticket.