10/17/2012 10:13AM

Keith Gisser: Two heads are better than one in handicapping

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I don’t get to travel to as many race tracks as I once did, but over the past month or so, I have seen live racing at Freehold Raceway, The Red Mile, the Delaware County Fair, Scioto Downs, and Northfield Park. And frankly, my handicapping has been average at best. I have always been a grandstand apron guy, the kind of guy who likes to shoot the breeze while watching warm-ups and post parades while looking for an edge. But on these trips, generally to tracks with which I was not familiar, I found that interaction with other handicappers was absolutely critical to any success. And I am not talking about “Hey, who do you like in the third?” I am talking about legitimate collaboration.

Collaboration is frowned on by many folks, but I think it can be a very valid way to verify your own opinion or to have an angle you missed pointed out.

At Delaware, it was my friend Scott from Atlanta, making his biennial visit to the hallowed saucer that hosts the Little Brown Jug with whom I worked. We both have pretty strong ideas about how to handicap and we don’t always agree, but the exchange of ideas was very helpful to me. As a result, we hit a number of pick fours and a pick five that neither of us would have hit singly. That additional set of eyes and ears can be critical.

“I really like the eight, but I don’t think we can leave the five off the ticket.” The process generally worked like this – we each structured our own ticket, usually trying to keep it around $50. Then we compared notes and, in some cases, really campaigned hard for certain value horses that we felt must be used. When we agreed on a strong single, we would generally buy two tickets, one with the single and then going deeper in the other legs and another with a two horses in that leg, but not going as deep elsewhere. And the $50 was not a limit. It was a starting point.

I also ran in to a fellow named Derick Giwner while at Delaware, and he confirmed my judgment that collaborative handicapping was especially important at a Grand Circuit meet like Delaware or the Red Mile, where horses and drivers were coming in from multiple regions.
The talking heads at Delaware are among the best around. Sam McKee, Dave Bianconi, Roger Huston, and Ellie Sarama all know their stuff and are not afraid to express their opinions. In fact, at one point, I thought the four, all good friends, were going to come to blows over the purpose and significance of the morning line. I baited Huston with the same topic the next morning, and he was still pretty fired up about the topic. And while some of the picks were a bit chalky, there were some gems. As I have said since Day 1 of this column, back when I was one of those talking heads, if you are strictly betting a public handicapper’s picks, you are doomed to fail. But if you use him/her as a resource, listening to their observations, they may give you a live horse to wrap up a trifecta or to add for value in a pick-three leg.

(Column aside – it would be really helpful if more tracks had their on-air guys give pick three, four, and five plays before the first leg of the wager. There is nothing more frustrating than hearing that the 15-1 horse you sort of liked, but left off the ticket, had a troubled trip last time, but not learning about it until the talking head mentions it three races into the pick five. Rant over.)

Just a couple weeks earlier, at Scioto Downs, for Ohio Super Night, I ran into my “old” Delaware crew. Jeff, J.D., and others. We worked hard to brainstorm a ticket for the pick eight, and we were all over the place, with the Scioto regulars basing their picks on what they knew of the track itself, its bias, and the drivers they liked. I came in armed with Ohio Sires Stakes standings through the legs and some strong ideas on “fresh” horses in the 2-year old events (an important consideration in the upcoming Breeders Crown, too, by the way) and we structured a ticket that cost just less than $50. The wager was a 25-center, which was odd, and we ended up with six of eight. The ticket paid several thousand on seven of eight, so although we just missed, we were in the ballgame by collaborating, while we would not have been anywhere close working on our own.

Scioto’s talking head track announcer, Barry Vicroy, is an astute handicapper. He is not afraid to throw a value horse on top of a ticket, and he watches the races closely enough to be able to justify that pick. If you are there, give him a listen (and hopefully next year there will be improvements to the sound system so you can hear him a bit better).

At Freehold, a track I had not attended since the 1993 Breeders Crown, I was pretty clueless (insert your own joke here), other than to know that horses needed to be close-up at three-quarters to have a shot. Fortunately, on Open Space Pace Day, I got talking to a number of the regulars who gave me some great insight into the racing, before the card began. This allowed me to take a long hard look at more than just the form. It was not truly collaborative, but it sure was helpful.

As I have said in this space for years, you need to trust your own judgment first and foremost when handicapping, but there are times when it makes a lot of sense to work together on a ticket. Having said that, remember that the word parimutuel means “among ourselves,” and if we bring in too many partners, we are betting against ourselves. It can help stretch a bankroll, and it also can provide a different perspective that freshens your own outlook. And if your collaborator comes up with something totally crazy, you can always say no. That’s it for this month. Go cash, no matter what track you are at.