“Best Bets,” Public Handicapping Philosophies, and the Need for Education

It’s been quite a while since I’ve put pen to paper (or, more fittingly, text to a Word doc) and written something for this site. In typical fashion, though, members of the horse racing community provided the basis for something that kicks around in my head every so often.

Matt Dinerman, the track announcer at Golden Gate Fields, is a friend of mine. On Sunday afternoon, he asked the Twitterverse a question that I get asked at least once a year and one that a lot of public handicappers weigh on a constant basis.

 

I’m in a unique position to answer this question. I’m part of a rare breed of handicappers that still participate in “pick boxes” each season at Saratoga. Recently, though, I’ve also taken on a daily bankroll blurb inspired by the “Battle of Saratoga” section in old editions of The New York Daily News. This, of course, is in addition to everything else I do online for a variety of outlets, sometimes for no other reason than that I love this game and want to do what I can to offer content people enjoy.

With that in mind, this is a question where dealing in absolutes is a fool’s errand. There is a very vocal group of handicappers on Twitter that tees off on anyone who doesn’t act as though betting 1/5 favorites will give you coronavirus. While a small sect of those people needs to seriously re-examine its unjustified sense of importance, I like and/or respect most of these people a great deal for what they bring to the table (both strategically and in their financial support of the sport at the betting windows). However, what I’m about to lay out is going to make those people go apoplectic.

Here’s the concept: If you’re a super-advanced handicapper, the idea of a “best bet,” as it was laid out by Matt and as it’s understood by those who enjoy going to the racetrack…isn’t for you.

Before you put me in the same category as out-of-touch businesspeople who would prefer handicappers shut up and bet (copyright @InsideThePylons, all rights reserved), allow me to expound. If you hop into a time machine and go to Saratoga on a typical, pre-pandemic day, you’ll see thousands of people, most of whom make one or two trips to one of racing’s few remaining cathedrals each summer. An overwhelming percentage of these people aren’t looking for game theory, at least not when they walk through the door. They don’t want people talking down to them about ticket structure, takeout, breakage, or any number of other topics you’ll find racing enthusiasts complaining about on a consistent basis.

No, these folks just want to cash a few tickets, and they shouldn’t be judged negatively for that. With that in mind, if I think a heavy favorite isn’t going to lose, I’m not just going to put the horse second on principle. My job, in that pick box, is to pick horses to run first, second, and third. If I think an overwhelming favorite is the day’s most likely winner, I’ll put that horse as my “best bet” in the pick box without much hesitation (important note: We do have a “top longshot” designation as well).

This philosophy causes at least one of my Pink Sheet counterparts, who thinks we should be judged by ROI rather than total wins, plenty of frustration. I’d argue, though, that the infrequent track-goer buying the paper and betting the picks outlined within it doesn’t care about the average return on a $2 ticket over the course of a season. They’re here for a quick dose of fun before snapping back to reality. Betting winning horses is fun, so it’s my duty to provide as many of those as I can, short win prices be damned.

However, here’s where the bridge to the more advanced stuff comes in, and this is where I begin to repair relations with the more vocal, jaded horseplayers that are reading this. If someone is betting my picks and I’m having a good day, the chances of them wanting to learn more go through the roof. That’s when concepts like ticket construction and squeezing value arrive on the scene. Rolling that stuff out to a casual audience who has no patience for it is often a fool’s errand.

That’s why the bankroll section came into existence a few years ago. It provides another avenue for horseplayers to learn about money management and how to get the most out of your wagering dollar. If I like a horse who’s likely to be odds-on, perhaps I’ll punch a cold double or key it in exactas with bigger prices underneath, and I’ll use that section to explain why I’m doing that.

That strategy isn’t sexy, but if I successfully key a 3/5 shot in a cold double that pays $12 for a $2 bet, I’ve turned that 3/5 favorite into a 5-1 proposition. Instead of a $10 win bet that returns $16, the $10 double I’ve just hit returns $60. Even if I add a second horse in doubles in the second leg, that’s a 2-1 return on my investment, which more than triples the win odds of my key horse.

I’ll never bash handicappers for taking aggressive swings. It takes guts, strong opinions, and plenty of self-confidence to do that, and those are all qualities I respect that this game needs more of. However, what we also need more if is fans who go from the beginner, “once or twice a year” level to the intermediate, “have TVG on in the background more and more and begin reading books on the topic” level. It’s easier to cultivate that growth than it is to find new whales, and I wish people took that responsibility more seriously sometimes.

That’s my primary goal with everything that I put out there, and it’s my belief that lessons like the one I outlined with the cold double are ones we need to teach in order to drive growth in that area. Right now, there’s a gigantic gap in fan education between 101-level studies at Horse Racing State College and doctoral-level classes at the Andrew Beyer Institute. There isn’t a middle ground where we can teach beginning horseplayers more about how to optimize winners, and do so in such a way that isn’t condescending and rude, but welcoming and constructive.

Sometimes my efforts to do that work (cheap plug: If you haven’t subscribed to the new weekly “Champagne and J.D.” show, do so so you don’t miss any of our uploads!). Sometimes they don’t, and I welcome feedback from people who have the game’s best interests (rather than their own fragile egos) at heart. If you want to talk to me about this, I make it really easy to find me. There’s a “contact” feature on my website that will send me an email, and I read everything that comes in. I’m also around on Twitter at @AndrewChampagne, and as people around the industry will readily tell you, I’m on there a lot and reply to most things that come my way, provided we share the mindset of having a constructive conversation (I’ve come to the conclusion that engaging with fools is, well, foolish; life’s too short).

All of us want the same thing. We want horse racing to thrive and be around for our kids (and their kids) to enjoy. We just likely have different ideas about ensuring the growth of the betting audience, as evidenced by some of the conversations I’ve had lately.

Given the state of the world and the current status of social discourse, it’s my hope we can have these conversations at a racetrack near you shortly. Once this clears up, come find me. I’m 6’5”, so just look up.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s