02/02/2012 5:29PM

Dispelling the conventional wagering wisdom


I have spent the past 30 years doing 90% of my horse wagering at Northfield Park, but in the past year, for obvious reasons, I have begun looking at other tracks. Since I do not have the expertise on these tracks that I have “at home,” I asked some Northfield regulars what they look for when they are seeking out a new or additional track to bet. As we talked I heard a lot of the same concepts over and over. They are ideas I have heard for years and on the surface they certainly make sense. But, when you dig deeper, there are some exceptions. This month, we will look at how the conventional wisdom can be wrong.

Only small tracks favor speed

With those tight turns and short stretches, horses have to be near the front on the smaller tracks, so it is a good idea to look at bigger tracks where the racing is fairer for closers, thanks to the long stretch and sweeping turns. It seems logical, but this year at the Meadowlands 49% of winners have been first or second at the head of the stretch and over 70% of winners have been fourth or better. At Woodbine, over 56% of winners have been first or second at the three-quarter pole, with another 16% sitting third, meaning a remarkable 73% winners are within easy striking distance late. So much for always playing the closers at the big tracks.

Bigger fields at bigger tracks mean fewer favorites

I always agreed with this and that is why I would sometimes play the Meadowlands or WEG. The problem here is that with more horses and better payoffs, you will not cash as many tickets. An argument can and should be made that the patient player can do just as well at a small track if he picks his spots. For a player like me, who looks for a minimum return on his favored win bets (we have upped the needed payoff to play from 2-1 to 4-1, as explained last month), there are more wagering opportunities at a track like the Meadowlands. But, that also means we have to have a better strike rate. We need to cash more often since we are making more plays. I was shocked to find that while favorites are currently winning nearly half of the time at Northfield (over 49%), 43% of favorites are winning at the Meadowlands. At Yonkers, with shorter fields due to their half-mile oval, the favorites score just 36% of the time, despite the advantages of the inside posts. Head up north to Woodbine and favorites are winning just 33% of the time. So we can find value in places we might not expect. We just have to keep our eyes open and not take anything for granted. I will concede that the favorites in races with large fields often pay more than those in short fields, but it sure seems that there have been plenty of $3 horses just about everywhere the past couple of months.

Only bet into tracks with large pools

Obviously, a large player needs to be aware of this. He does not want to bet a $50 exacta and have the payoff drop from $27 to $9. But for most players, this is a minor consideration. True, for a value player, smaller pools may reduce the number of available plays, assuming favorites do get overbet, but if we are truly disciplined, this becomes a bit of a red herring as well. And there is another crazy dynamic of playing the smaller track and that is the potential to take down the whole pool, even with a small wager. I remember several years ago being at Lebanon Raceway and boxing a 5-2 second choice with a 4-1 and an 8-1 in a trifecta. I was very pleased when the payoff came up $371.10 (they posted $1 payoffs on the video screens there). But when I put my ticket in the machine for a voucher, it would not cash. Had I punched the bet wrong? Upon closer view, there was a message to go to the IRS window. Turns out that mine was the only ticket, and even though they posted $1 prices, the actual payoff was $742.20. I had taken down the whole pool with my $1 ticket. Sure, I had to sign for it, but the extra cash made it worthwhile.

Only bet into tracks with low takeouts

Regular readers know this has been my credo for many, many years. Low takeouts, carryovers and guaranteed pools help our bankroll in the long run and paying 28% for the privilege of wagering is ridiculous. BUT, the key is cashing tickets. So, if you have a very strong play, either a straight wager or a strong key in a horizontal (pick three, pick four, for example), do not ignore the wager just because of the high price. There is nothing wrong with buying a more expensive product now and then if you can get satisfaction from it. Otherwise, nobody would ever buy a prime rib roast. They would buy hamburger. Thus, if you have a stakes race or a horse you have been following who is on your bet-back list shipping to a high takeout track, make the play. The difference between 20% takeout and 28% on a $20,000 win pool is $1,600. A horse who is 5-1 at 20% takeout is still better than about 4-1 at 28% takeout. So why pass up a $10 winner simply because he would have been a $12 winner elsewhere? Just be sure to use the high takeout track for spot plays only, not as your main wagering menu.

So there you have a few ways to play against the conventional wisdom. Now go cash. Good luck. We will see you next month.