Betting Strategy: Finding an edge as a horseplayer

June 23rd, 2023

I recently followed up with a friend whose interest in betting horses peaked last year but then waned soon after. He’s had his share of success with poker and stocks, and is a genuinely smart and contrarian guy, so I was surprised he pushed away from the game so quickly and wanted to know why.

His answer: he just didn’t see where he could get an edge.

He doesn't have a computer model and he’s not an insider: like many of us, he just wanted to handicap races and be the smartest person in the room often enough to turn a profit.   

He’s right that many of us are showing up to a steak dinner with a spoon, but I still feel the individual horseplayer can find an edge without a computer model or a string of texts from barns touting their horse. Often the first thought behind having an edge is knowing something others don’t.

But the individual horseplayer can find an edge by seeing the same thing as everybody else but reacting to it in a different way.

Yes, we need to be good handicappers, but in order to find an edge in this way, we need to shift our mindset from making cases for why horses will win or lose to which horses are consistently overbet or overlooked. We need to sharpen our ability to perceive why markets shape up the way they do. We need to recognize the narratives which drive the markets in specific directions.

There’s obviously a lot that can be said about these statements, but I want to zoom in on one key aspect to this. The individual horseplayer can find an edge by analyzing races for vulnerable favorites that for one reason or another will be consistently overbet day in and day out. 

Let’s take a common saying next to this to help clarify. “If it’s in the PPs, it’s in the price.” Ask yourself, what is it that is driving the money behind this horse? Maybe it’s the speed figures, pace set-up, pedigree, form, or trainer stats. Maybe it's the string of bullet workouts. The PPs tell a specific story, and often another way of saying a horse is the favorite is saying a horse is the most obvious story in the PPs.

Maybe the speed figures all point to one or two horses, or maybe the connections’ winning percentage in the applicable categories is 25%. These are two significant scenarios to hone in on, and they just scratch the surface of potentially overbet horses we can intentionally take a stand against to have an advantage in the market.

For example...

In Race 3 on Thursday (June 22, 2023) at Ellis Park, there was a three-year-old trained by Brad Cox that opened up at 1-9 and went off at 1-2, Everso Mischievous. He’d earned a big figure on debut, though he lost by a head, and then broke his maiden impressively at Churchill on Derby day. He’d been working sharply with Verifying ahead of that performance, and in his first two races, he’d been bet to favoritism, odds-on in his debut. He didn’t improve between his first two races, he had trip trouble clearly noted in the PPs, and his workout times had been slower since his last race. Maybe more significant than all of those knocks was the fact that he might not get the lead, and the main track at Ellis had a heavy front-running bias.

These are the types of horses that we know will be overbet, and if we can make a handicapping case against them, then we need to take a swing to realize this edge. Beating any favorite in horizontal wagers is crucial, but horses like Everso Mischievous are the keystones of the public’s money in multi-race wagers. If favorites like these lose, the majority of tickets are left in ruins. 

Everso Mischievous ran another strong speed figure, consistent with his first two. But he finished second as Heartbreaker, the horse to his inside that had proven form as a front runner, wired the field of five horses and paid $7.89-1. The horizontal payouts proved, as well, how overbet the favorite was. There are horses like Everso Mischievous running every day. 

For so many of us, we bet into the pools because we love it, are degenerates, and have been right enough to think we are pretty damn smart. Sadly, that just doesn’t cut it if you want to be able to be profitable, at least enough to continue on as a gambler and a horseplayer and make this a lifetime hobby.

To stay in the black, we need to know the consistent mistakes that the betting public makes. If we relegate our major plays to these pools and keep track of our performance over time, this is one way we can realize an edge as horseplayers.