05/02/2016 9:50AM

Zoccali: Inside the mind of a past morning line oddsmaker

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Bettors react to the morning line and actual odds when wagering.

Since leaving my position at The Meadowlands three months ago, I have been asked one question repeatedly by both friends and colleagues in the industry.  Do you miss it?  Of course, is my answer.  Specifically interacting with the TVG audience, analyzing the races and creating the morning line are unique things I loved to do.  Of the many functions I performed at The Big M, setting the morning line was actually what I enjoyed the most.  It was like a bi-weekly crossword puzzle, entertaining, time-consuming (if done correctly) and challenging.

Creating an accurate morning line is something that I felt carried a great deal of importance.  For many bettors, it is the first piece of data they look at in the program and while the morning line may not have a great deal to do with a horse’s final odds, it certainly carries some weight and even more weight in impacting the payout of multi-race exotic wagers.

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People refused to believe how much time I put into that one part of my job.  But there is a reason for that.  When creating a morning line, the oddsmaker is not analyzing a race to determine which horse he thinks is best, he is analyzing the race while trying to determine which horse the betting public will like the best, and that is no easy task.

When handicapping races, horseplayers have certain angles that they like to wager on, and other angles in which they like to bet against.  Imagine analyzing a race while trying to objectively determine that a horse will be favored because of a handicapping angle that you typically bet against.  Imagine analyzing a race and determining that you like something obscure about a horse that would likely attract your wagering dollars, but being forced to measure that against whether others will feel the same way.

Charles Singer, the original oddsmaker at The Meadowlands, is typically viewed as the gold-standard of setting the line.  My predecessor at The Meadowlands, Dave Brower, is another who was as close to dead-on as possible.  But we all miss things and we all make mistakes; perfection is unattainable.

But one thing that Singer didn’t have to contend with that impact others like myself, is the age of instant information through the internet and social media.  In order to watch replays 20 or 30 years ago, you had to record them somehow, or purchase race videos from the racetrack.  If a horse was locked in while raging with trot, a handful of people saw it.  Now, you can watch just about any replay, from any track at any time.  In other words, now everyone sees it and as the oddsmaker, you better have seen it too.  In addition, there weren’t countless handicappers on social media forums, like Twitter, identifying what they thought to be bad morning lines prior to the races being contested.  In a nutshell, the job has gotten far more difficult, with far more scrutiny.

Once you identify who should be favored and how the other horses fall into line behind the favorite, the oddsmaker still must determine what odds to assign each horse and how big of a favorite the favorite will be.  There is a great deal of math involved.  Every horse’s odds equate to a certain number of points and all of the horses in the race have to add up to a number that fall within a specific range of total points, regardless of field size.

One thing I was a proponent of that not every oddsmaker agrees with is that the morning line odds for a horse that will be an overwhelming favorite should reflect that fact.  For example, Bee A Magician in The Hambletonian Oaks, a likely 1/5 favorite, should not be made 5/2 on the morning line.  Not only because of the final odds of that horse, but the final odds of every other horse.  By making her 1/5 or 2/5, which will be her final odds, the oddsmaker has to make the odds on all the other horses higher, as they will be at post time.  By making her 5/2, horses will be listed at 8-1 or 10-1 on the morning line that are really going to go off at 30-1 or 40-1 or even more.  Having an eight-horse race where every horse is listed between 3-1 and 8-1 is frankly absurd, and that race might as well not even have a morning line.  It is a disservice to the betting public. 

The morning line should be as accurate in predicting the final odds of every horse as possible.  The oddsmaker is not doing the job to win a popularity contest. It is a thankless job and as oddsmaker, you accept that fact. 

I even had a trainer criticize my 50-1 morning line of his horse in a Hambletonian elimination a few years ago.  I was told “people don’t put up this kind of money to see their horse 50-1.”  I told the trainer that has absolutely no impact on my determining what a horse’s odds should be and regardless of the morning line I set, the owners are going to see their horse at 50-1 come post time regardless of my morning line.  My responsibility is to the betting public and I had no doubt that the betting public would establish that horse’s chances at 50-1 or possibly higher, and making the horse 15-1 instead wouldn’t have benefited anybody.  For the record, the horse went off at 60-1.

The most common question I was asked as The Meadowlands oddsmaker was “what is the most important factor in determining your morning line.”  Simply put, there is no one factor.  Every race is unique; no two races are alike.  What is very important in one race might be less important in another because of a variety of angles that appear or don’t appear in each race.  In my opinion, there is no computer formula that can predict a morning line.  There are simply too many intangibles that only a human can both identify and then use reasoning and logic to determine the impact those intangibles will have on the shape of a race and each horse’s final odds.

Interestingly enough, the best races in the sport are often the easiest in determining an accurate morning line.  The premier horses tend to hold their form longer.  A horse coming off a win in a stakes race will be viewed with more confidence by the betting public than a horse coming off a win in a nw5000L5 event for that very reason.  Further complicating the issue is that one bottom-level condition claimer could be much weaker in terms of field strength than another race carrying the same condition.  This is why watching replays and looking back at the program pages of previous races is critical to the job.

In closing, creating the morning line certainly is a thankless job.  No one ever says, “hey you got 12 out 13 morning line favorites right last night, good job,” but someone will always point out the one you got wrong.  That’s just the way it is.  Call me crazy, but I still miss it.  I’ll especially miss the days leading up to The Meadowlands Pace and Hambletonian Day, working through all the different possibilities I could conjure up to be prepared for anything at the post-position draw.  Yes, I will miss that the most.

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