Betting Strategy: So you like an underlay favorite, what now?

August 26th, 2023

You’re handicapping and you see a horse you like—a form pattern, a trainer angle, speed figures, whatever the angle. This horse should win, you think. What now?

The key question you should be asking yourself is how valuable is this opinion. If you see the trainer is Linda Rice and the horse is dropping in class at Saratoga—well, you’ve just fallen in love with an underlay favorite. Don’t be ashamed, we all do it. The key is to know that opinion is worth very little in the parimutuel markets, as it will likely go off at 4-5 in the win pools and be used on the majority of exotic tickets. 

Does that mean pass the race? Not necessarily. 

We talk all the time about being for or against an underlay favorite. Often the advice given is simply pass the race when you think an underlay favorite is the most likely winner, or single that horse in a multi-race sequence. But why pass a race when you have a clear opinion?

When you're betting on horses, it can be hard to find value. More data and arbitrage by computerized robotic wagering groups, and less meat on the bone. So what can we do? A commonly held opinion on who will win is worth very little, so moving past picking winners into assessing the logicals and the longshots is paramount. From these handicapping opinions you can begin to construct tickets that acknowledge you need to be right in the right ways to be a winning horseplayer.  

In other words, when you are handicapping and get to a race where you find a horse who you think has the best shot at winning, but you know will be an underlay, there still could be an opportunity there. More of a chicken wing opportunity than a chicken thigh, but still a bet you could make week in and week out and keep a positive ROI. The key is forming opinions about the second and third choice horses. If you love the favorite the same as everyone else, dive back into the race and find the horses you believe bettors will make the second and third choices. If you think they’re legit contenders for the exacta or trifecta, then moving on is most often the right call.

But if you can make cases against the next logicals, then sit tight and start building trifectas with the favorite on top. Toss the second and third choice horses completely, and begin handicapping for horses who could be stepping forward but still are not fast enough to win, horses who could benefit from the pace scenario or track profile, jockeys who are content to get their trainers a check while not overextending their horse for a win—there are many angles to keep in mind for picking horses to run second or third.

Most bettors have their handicapping strategies for picking winners, but having multiple handicapping lenses in mind as you work through the PPs is crucial in today’s markets. Don’t handicap a race only thinking about who will win, but who can get up for second or are a threat to run third or fourth.

Don’t only handicap a race to find your opinion—you also need to be considering how the market will shape up. Maybe you love a horse to improve off the maiden win but also there is that Linda Rice horse who has huge figures, questionable form with the class drop, but even with a regression, would be tough to beat. Okay, now you’re cooking up a solid exacta, but remember the key question: Is there any value in this second opinion about the underneath horse? Or will your sneaky horse be one of the go-to picks in vertical wagers?

Well you never know until the markets close, and with the way last-minute money comes into the pools, you might not know until it’s too late, but you should be able to get a good feel. Is this last-out maiden winner the second choice? Third choice? On the morning line or in your estimation?

If this is a fourth choice or higher horse, you can basically use it to multiply the value of the initial horse you liked to win. How? Ice cold exacta. The Linda-underlay on top of the last-out maiden winner. The further you go down into trifectas, et cetera, the more value you can extract. You’re not going to bet a little to win a lot in these spots, but you can get a healthy return which should be able to keep your gambling in the black.

In other words, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Just because the horse you think has the best shot at winning will be an underlay does not mean pass the race. It takes more time and more effort to dial in your handicapping into finding second, third, or fourth-place types who are not the second, third or fourth betting choice, but if you are up for it, and you begin to see a horse or two who has a real shot at outrunning their odds, then wrap that clean baby up in an exotic bet using those horses and send it in.