08/24/2011 6:26PM

'Little Andy' having big impact at Spa

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Andy Serling (right) analyzes a Saratoga card with Steven Crist of Daily Racing Form.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Horse racing suffers from no shortage of opinions. Almost every track's closed-circuit TV features handicappers offering analysis and making picks. The two national racing channels devote more of their air time to talking about races than to televising them.

Some of the analysis is helpful to novices, but much is so superficial that serious players ignore the chatter. This summer, however, one handicapping program has been must-see TV for the entire spectrum of the racing audience. When Andy Serling dissects the Saratoga card at 11:45 a.m., high-rolling professionals as well as casual fans watch intently, either on television or at www.nyra.com/talkinghorses. Serling has acquired such a following that he has had an unmistakable impact on the tote board at America's premier race meeting.

Even the most self-reliant horseplayers took notice when, on the second day of the season, Serling picked five winners, paying $11.80, $11.40, $16.80, $7.50 and $9.10. On the day of a pick six carryover, his top selections captured the first three legs of the wager, paying $11.60, $15.80 and $10, and then he nailed an impossible-looking $27.60 winner who helped produce a pick six return of $78,716.

Of course, any handicapper can have hot days and hot streaks that make him look temporarily like a genius. But Serling is valuable even on days when he goes 0 for 10. His goal is not merely to make picks but to uncover information that other bettors don't have. "To make money at the track," he told his viewers, "you have to be cleverer than the rest of the betting public."

To do so, Serling scrutinizes films of horses' past races. He studies the performance of trainers in specific circumstances by using the Daily Racing Form's Formulator software. He researches pedigrees -- particularly those of horses running on the grass for the first time. He overlays the basics of handicapping with a healthy skepticism and a reluctance to jump to obvious conclusions.

Almost any horseplayer looking at the fifth race on Aug. 1 would have concluded that Counterparty was virtually unbeatable. A month earlier at Belmont Park, the 3-year-old filly had won her racing debut impressively, earning a speed figure that dwarfed those of her rivals. She was trained by Todd Pletcher, who dominates the racing at Saratoga. Case closed?

Serling thought not. He had mined the Formulator database to find this information about Pletcher: With horses who had won their career debut as a 3-year-old and were now making their second start, the trainer's record (by his lofty standards) was mediocre. Most of these horses went off at low odds, but they won only 16 percent of the time.

Serling then showed a film clip of Counterparty drawing off to victory over a very wet track. Wet? The official chart had labeled the Belmont track fast but the visual evidence showed otherwise. Serling argued that Counterparty should be viewed with a double dose of skepticism because she was still unproved on a true fast track and because of the weak Pletcher stats. He went on to make a case that Precious Soul was the best alternative to the favorite. Finding vulnerability in an odds-on favorite is valuable even if you're only right half the time, and this time Serling was right: Precious Soul won at 6-1 while Counterparty finished out of the money at odds of 3-10.

Serling is at his best when he puts video clips on the screen and analyzes horses' trips, often defying conventional wisdom. When Lenders Way was favored to win an Aug. 14 maiden race because she had been blocked in her prior start and then rallied to finish second, Serling showed a film of the trouble -- and then dismissed its significance. He proceeded to explain why the filly had not really had a difficult trip because she had benefited from "race dynamics." (And he was proved right, when she lost at 9-5.)

In other situations he'll stress the importance of the subtlest events in the running of a race. This is handicapping at its most sophisticated level. Other analysts, knowing that their audience is filled with novices, teach Handicapping 101. Serling unapologetically offers the equivalent of a graduate-school seminar.

It takes a passionate, obsessive person to study races in such depth, day after day. Having grown up in Saratoga Springs, Serling has had the passion since his childhood. I met Little Andy (the sobriquet he has carried for life) in 1975, and remember him as 13-year-old hanging out with adult horseplayers and lecturing them on the nuances of the game. He was always opinionated, frequently arrogant, and prone to launch into intemperate rants on any subject about which he felt strongly.
After his career as an options trader on Wall Street came to an inglorious end, Serling joined the New York Racing Association in 2008.

"We knew Andy had the intelligence and the ability to bring [public handicapping] to a new level," said NYRA president Charlie Hayward.

What surprised everybody was the evolution of his on-air demeanor. Serling is still opinionated and cocky, but his presentations are tempered by good humor and even an occasional dollop of humility. Most important, he has the patience to explain sophisticated handicapping concepts with clarity and without condescension to his diverse audience.

Most casual visitors to Saratoga listen to "Talking Horses" in the hope of getting some good tips for the afternoon, but in the process they are getting an education, too. Leaders of the Thoroughbred industry regularly fret that the sport can't attract new fans because it is so complex, but the neophytes in Serling's audience see that a person willing to study the game can make sense of it and, possibly, make money from it. They'll observe, too, that it helps to be a little bit obsessive to be a successful handicapper.

© The Washington Post 2011