Updated on 09/15/2011 1:20PM

Sharp players recognize 'risk' is a four-letter word


LEXINGTON, Ky. - People who know little or nothing about horse racing tend to believe that racing fans are reckless risk-takers, making huge bets on a whim, with little rhyme or reason. Although there are a few who fit that description, the majority are actually staunchly conservative. Their average bet size is small, well within their means. Over the years, they have developed a long list of handicapping rules and restrictions that are designed to remove as much risk as possible from a handicapping and betting process that is inherently filled with risk.

Any handicapper who is new to the game will sooner or later be told by more experienced players to avoid the following: Maiden winners facing allowance horses, allowance winners facing stakes company, horses moving from a minor track to a major track, horses switching from a sprint to a route, horses moving from a route to a sprint, horses moving from dirt to turf, horses moving from turf to dirt, horses racing over a different track for the first time, horses switching from a popular jockey to a less popular jockey, and horses switching from a popular trainer to a less popular trainer.

Horses who ran a bad race last time are poor bets because they are either slow or off form. Horses who are fast and in good form, and ran a good race last time are poor bets since they are bound to bounce next time out. Horses who offer high odds are bad bets because they are cold on the board. Horses who come up hot in the betting are bad bets since they are underlays who are being overplayed.

All of these rules and angles are valid some, if not most of the time. But every one of them can, and should be broken on occasion. It all comes down to risk vs. reward. When you believe a horse looks strong, and he is being offered at 5-1 rather than the 5-2 you think is fair value because he is breaking one or two of the rules listed above, you've found a good bet. The other side of the coin is that horses will occasionally be forgiven by the betting public for breaking many of the rules listed above. When you find one hammered down below even-money, you have discovered a vulnerable underlay.

The merits of Love at Noon were obvious in the Grade 3 Dogwood Stakes, run at Churchill on May 26. She was unbeaten in two starts. She set a track record last time out when she ran 6 1/2 furlongs in a remarkably fast 1:14.34, and won by 8 3/4 lengths. She is trained by Bob Baffert, and was ridden by Pat Day.

Betting value comes from finding unrecognized, or unappreciated strengths in a horse. Which part of Love at Noon's resume was unrecognized, or unappreciated? Was it her perfect 2-for-2 record? Her track record? Her famous trainer? Her famous jockey?

In this case the only unrecognized, unappreciated handicapping angles were the risk factors. You get the possibility of a $3 win payoff on an inexperienced filly with only two career starts, both at sprint distances. She's stepping up in class from a first-level allowance race into a Grade 3 stakes while trying a two-turn route distance for the first time. All of her opponents have more seasoning than she does. One of them, Nasty Storm, finished second in a Grade 1 sprint stakes, and also shows two second-place finishes in Grade 2 route races.

Love at Noon accomplished a lot in the Dogwood. She proved that she didn't have to go 44.50 seconds through her opening half-mile. Instead, she rated kindly while 2 1/2 lengths behind a 47.11 split, and was still relaxed while a half-length behind a comfortable 1:11.69 six-furlong fraction. Her second-place finish, a neck behind Nasty Storm, suggests that she has a bright future that will almost certainly include stakes wins at route distances.

But old-school handicappers recognized that she wasn't the right horse at the right price while trying to overcome these hurdles for the first time. Sometimes it pays to be conservative.