04/25/2013 11:22AM

Bob Pandolfo: Spotting weak favorites is an essential skill for handicappers

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One of the most important aspects of betting horses is finding weak favorites to bet against. There are two types of weak favorites: vulnerable favorites and overbet favorites.

Let's start with an overbet favorite. In this case, the public appears to have chosen the right favorite. The horse appears, on paper, to be the horse to beat. But the horse does not have a big advantage. Perhaps the horse should be 5-2 but goes off at 7-5.

The vulnerable favorite also is overbet, but even more so because he is a questionable favorite. When I'm handicapping the Meadowlands, I find quite a few races in which I can't figure out which horse deserves to be the favorite. If you follow my picks at www.ustrotting.com, you can easily see which races I mean because my odds line on the top four contenders might look like this: 4-1, 4-1, 4-1, 4-1.

In this type of wide-open race, chances are that whichever horse goes off as the favorite will be a vulnerable favorite.

There are a number of things you can look for to spot weak favorites. A term I like to use to evaluate the strength of the field is the "spread." There are a few ways to use this device. First, there's the morning line. A betting line, like the line that I give out, is better, but the morning line can be useful too.

The more ambiguous the morning line, the more wide open the race. Let's look at a morning line for an eight-horse field: 3-1, 7-2, 4-1, 9-2, 5-1, 8-1, 10-1, 30-1. From this line, we can see that the linemaker feels that only one horse, the No. 8 horse, is a toss-out. The first five horses are all closely matched.

Here's another line: 7-5, 3-1, 6-1, 8-1, 10-1, 15-1, 20-1, 30-1. Here, you can see that the linemaker feels that this is a much less competitive race.

If you feel that the linemaker does a reasonably good job, you can quickly see how competitive a race looks on paper just from the odds line. Chances are that a race with a smaller spread between odds is going to be more difficult to handicap. And in that race, it’s more likely that the favorite will be a weak favorite.

Another way to use a spread is with speed figures. This works best in races for horses with well-established form. In other words, it's not recommended for maiden races or 2-year-old races that have lightly raced horses who could improve sharply.

Here's an example. In an eight-horse field, I write down each horse's best speed figure in his last two races: 91, 90, 89, 88, 87, 86, 85, 79. The spread here from top to bottom is 12 points. But note that the No. 8 horse has a 79, which is significantly lower than the rest. If you eliminate that horse, the spread on the main contenders is only six points. This is extremely low and clearly shows that this is a wide-open race.

In this type of race, the favorite could be vulnerable. A lot depends on the odds, but generally speaking, when I see a small spread like this, I want to try to beat the favorite.

But sometimes you'll see a spread like this: 91, 90, 83, 80, 77, 75, 74, 73. Here, the spread from top to bottom is 18 points. And the number of horses who are closely bunched in figures is only two, the 91 and the 90. In this race, it appears that you can safely eliminate most of the field, and the race is likely to be won by one of two horses. In this race, the favorite should be tough to beat because he only has to shake off one horse.

When you're handicapping a race, it often becomes clear when a race is wide open. These are the races that are the toughest to handicap. If I'm having a hard time figuring out which horse to pick, that's a race in which I sort of expect an unpredictable result. That's the type of race in which the favorite is vulnerable.

But there are other things that tip off a potential weak favorite. One of the oldest angles is the overbet favorite who shook loose on the lead and won. This is a horse who was able to get the early lead pretty easily, rated his own pace while not being challenged, and won. These loose-on-the-lead winners often go off as the favorite in their next start but get pressured and come up short.

This type of favorite is particularly vulnerable if the pace in the last race was slow to average. And often the horse is stepping up off that win, and that makes him even more suspect.

There are a lot of clues that an alert handicapper can use to spot a weak favorite. Many times, I see a horse win, but one or two of the main contenders broke or had bad trips, such as poor cover. For instance, say a horse is at 5-1 and goes first over against the 8-5 favorite, but the favorite breaks past the half and the 5-1 shot inherits the lead. Then, the 2-1 second choice starts to make its move, and he also breaks.

The 5-1 shot strolls home an easy winner by five lengths. In its next start, most of the people who are betting the race have no idea that the two horses who were the most likely to win both broke, and the winner got lucky. I see horses like this go off as the favorite all the time, and they rarely repeat. That's why if you don't watch the races, you should always go back and check the result charts.

I've mentioned this many times, but it's important: We have to be aware that the betting favorite often gets a tough trip. That's because the driver has to drive the horse aggressively. This holds true for Thoroughbred racing too. Jockeys and harness drivers like to give the public a run for their money. It looks bad if a driver saves ground and gets boxed in or doesn't get involved in the action.

So, if a horse is at 8-5, there's a good chance that the horse is going to have an energy-depleting trip. That's why I'm not crazy about betting favorites who won their last race off an easy trip. The chances of that happening again are not good. I really think this is one of the most important handicapping factors. I don't bet favorites unless I feel that the horse can go first over and win. When you bet a favorite, you want a horse who you feel can just take control when necessary.

Sometimes I'll see a public handicapper pick a favorite and make a comment like, "May be closing off a disputed pace," or, "Has the rail and may get a ground-saving trip."

These are not confident comments. In these cases, the favorite is probably vulnerable. I would prefer to see a comment like, "Crushed similar and should repeat," or, "Takes a key drop and looks tough to beat here." So, if you follow a public handicapper, the comments can tip you off to a weak favorite.

Finding a weak favorite is an important component of betting horses. If you're the type of bettor who strives to bet on value horses, you first have to find a favorite worth betting against. Once you've indentified a weak favorite, your chances of making a good value bet are greatly increased.

To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories, check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, his free picks at handicapping.ustrotting.com/pandycapping.cfm, or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Road, Northampton, PA 18067.