Why planning bets in advance can be helpful

August 16th, 2022

There’s something to be said for structuring betting strategies close to post time, when race-day changes are known and the odds are clearer. But there are also benefits to planning your bets early, even a day or two in advance.

You might be thinking, wait, how can I plan bets when I don’t know which horses will scratch? And how can I definitively establish fair value based only on the morning line odds, which can change meaningfully by post time?

Granted, those are challenges. But to shine a light on the positives, let’s compare and contrast the betting exploits of two imaginary handicappers: Bob and John. And yes, racing fans might recall a singular horse named “Bob and John” as the winner of the 2006 Wood Memorial (G1).

A major Saturday of racing is on the horizon. Bob decides to get a head start and handicaps the races on Thursday. First things first, he checks the weather and notices there’s rain in the forecast for Saturday. To be on the safe side, he handicaps all the turf races twice: once assuming they’ll be run on damp turf, and once assuming they’ll be transferred to the main track.

John spends Thursday (and Friday) playing the daily racing at his favorite tracks. He’s looking forward to Saturday, but hasn’t checked out the entries yet.

Saturday comes, and Bob is armed with a list of possible win bets and the fair odds he’ll accept on each horse. He’s also outlined a series of multi-race wagers, including a ticket for the all-stakes Pick 4. His budget for the day is $300.

John also aims to spend $300, but he’s not exactly sure how because he doesn’t have a plan.

Post time for Race 1 approaches. Bob’s early analysis didn’t uncover any enticing plays, so he passes on betting the race.

John is looking forward to the late afternoon stakes, but handicaps Race 1 to pass the time. He winds up betting $20 to win on a 5-2 shot who finishes third.

The afternoon continues, and post time for the all-stakes Pick 4 is an hour away. While Bob is fine-tuning his strategy to compensate for scratches, John is only now handicapping the sequence. He’s building a $24 ticket around the heavy favorite in a Grade 3 turf stakes.

Suddenly, the skies open up. It’s a torrential downpour! All turf racing is moved to the main track, and John’s single is among the scratches. While Bob confidently takes in the scratches and restructures his ticket to include his planned off-the-turf contenders, John—thrown for a loop by the late development—hits the “ALL” button and goes from using one horse to using eight in the Grade 3 (dirt) stakes.

Bob smiles; his Pick 4 ticket now costs less than he anticipated due to the off-the-turf scratches. John frowns; his planned $24 ticket has octupled in cost to $192. To reduce the price, John hurriedly drops several horses from other races in the Pick 4 sequence, including one horse ironically named Sure Winner.

The Pick 4 gets underway. Bob’s careful handicapping lands him a 24-1 winner in the off-the-turf Grade 3. John likewise catches the longshot, but only because he hit the “ALL” button. In the following race, Sure Winner springs a mild upset; Bob’s ticket survives, but John’s late change costs him dearly.

By the end of the day, Bob has hit the Pick 4, a couple of Pick 3s, and several win bets for a return of $6,733 on a $299.50 investment. John—a skilled handicapper even if his strategizing could use improvement—salvages the day with a winning exacta in the finale. He winds up spending $322 to win $350, profiting $28 on the day, but Sure Winner was his lone miss in a Pick 4 that paid $5,040.

The point of this cautionary tale isn’t to definitively state that Bob’s approach is superior to John’s. Some bettors get along just fine handicapping and strategizing on the day.

The point is to highlight the advantages that can be gained from diligently planning a strategy in advance, so if you’re thrown a curveball close to post time, you shift gears with an effective and well-planned backup strategy. Who knows, it might just save you from missing a big payoff the way John did.