“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.

Andrew’s Play of the Day: 2/11/20

RECORD: 25-10

Happy news is always appreciated around here, so it’s with great delight that I use this space to wish my big sister, Alex, a happy birthday. As I said in a toast at her wedding several years ago, she’s a tough act to follow. She got her J.D. from NYU, made partner at a high-powered law firm in New York City, and has two beautiful daughters…while her goofball brother made a living writing and reporting about horses turning left.

My sister’s always encouraged me to be me. She’s one of my biggest fans, and I hope she knows I’m one of hers, too. Love you, Alex! Go play “Chutes and Ladders” with the kids.

MONDAY’S RESULTS: The return to this space was a good one. Underdog Colgate won outright over BU, Baylor covered by a half-point at Texas, and both plays wound up in the left-hand column.

TUESDAY’S PLAY: I’ve only got one play for Tuesday’s college basketball slate, and it comes in the Big 10. Red-hot Penn State travels to Purdue in a game that could have big bubble implications for the Boilermakers. The number that intrigues me here isn’t the spread, but the total. Both teams can score, so the 134.5-point total seems a bit low to me. I’m taking the over and rooting for lots of offense.

Andrew’s Play of the Day: 2/10/20

RECORD: 23-10

As some of you know, I got in a pretty bad car accident last week where I was t-boned by a pick-up truck. Before I dive into my analysis, here are some things I learned from that experience (or, in some cases, things that were reinforced).

1) Don’t get t-boned by a pick-up truck.

2) If you must get t-boned by a pick-up truck, do it in a Nissan Altima. The car’s almost certainly totaled, but I walked away from the accident with no major injuries.

3) Life’s short. I was t-boned on the passenger’s side of the car, and I was thankfully alone. If I get hit on the driver’s side, the best-case scenario is that I’m seriously hurt. The worst-case scenario, well…

4) Sports are diversions.

5) There are lots of good people in the world, as evidenced by the outpouring of well-wishes I received last week. If you sent me something, know that I appreciate it greatly.

This leads to how I’m going to approach this section for the next week or so. Because I’ve been juggling other stuff (not to mention a busy time at the real job), I haven’t offered anything since the Super Bowl. However, I decided to concentrate on a “play of the day,” rather than several plays each day, largely because I believe concentrated, focused gambling strategies are what pay off in the long run, so I can’t, in good conscience, give out seven plays and be back on track.

With that in mind, I’ll middle this a bit. I’ll be offering two plays a day until I’m caught up, barring a situation where I simply only like one game. I’ll hopefully be back on track sooner rather than later, and with a little luck, it’ll be with continued success.

MONDAY’S PLAYS: My primary action comes in the Lone Star State. #1 Baylor heads to Texas and is giving just 6.5 points. I understand that it’s a road game, but the Longhorns aren’t exactly setting the world on fire and the Bears may be the best team in the country. I’ll take the visitors to cover the spread.

In addition, there’s a fun Patriot League matchup in New England, as Colgate travels to Boston University. The visiting Raiders have quietly put up a 19-6 record to this point in the season, including a 10-2 mark in conference play, and beat the Terriers by nine earlier this year. With all that said, why are the Raiders 1.5-point underdogs? I’ll take Colgate here and hope they complete the season sweep.

Andrew’s Play of the Day: 1/30/20

RECORD: 20-9

Larry Collmus is out as the head announcer at the New York Racing Association. The change was made after Collmus served five years in that post after replacing Tom Durkin and, for my money, did as good a job as anyone on the planet could have in that capacity.

I’m not here to speculate on what happened. However, a lot of people on social media were quick to do just that, and many of those posts did something that I take plenty of exception to. If you made a post along the lines of, “I think Larry should wind up at (insert track that already has an announcer here),” pay close attention: You were wrong.

If Larry Collmus (or any other announcer, for that matter) gets a job somewhere where someone else is currently employed, it means the second person lost it and has to find an opening on a carousel that seems to have fewer and fewer spots each time it turns. Rooting for that to happen, at a time when a lot of people in racing have lost their jobs for reasons that have nothing to do with talent, stinks to high heaven. It’s one thing to wish for Larry (an excellent announcer and a really good guy) to land on his feet, but this behavior was several steps too far.

WEDNESDAY’S RESULTS: We split yesterday’s action after a too-busy Tuesday kept me off the grid. Seton Hall and DePaul went under, but Navy covered an 11-point spread against Holy Cross to salvage the day.

THURSDAY’S PLAY: I’m headed to the Big 10 for a clash in Champaign. The Illinois Fighting Illini host the Golden Gophers of Minnesota, and the spread here puzzles me. Illinois is red-hot, has home-court advantage, and yet is only a five-point favorite over a team that’s shot better than 38.3% from the floor just once over its last four games. Give me the Illini in this spot, as I think they cover pretty easily.

Andrew’s Play of the Day: 1/27/20

RECORD: 18-8 (some confusion about this lately; that’s the right record)

Above all else, sports are diversions. They act as escapes from the trials and tribulations of everyday life, and as things we can turn to for entertainment, competition, and something to talk about that doesn’t have world-changing implications (except Rocky Balboa ending the Cold War in “Rocky IV,” of course, but I digress).

You know where this is going. Kobe Bryant was one of several people who passed away in a helicopter crash Sunday near Los Angeles. Among the other fatalities was his 13-year-old daughter, and seeing videos of those two at games pop up on Twitter was gut-wrenching.

Kobe Bryant was 41 years old. His daughter was barely a teenager. There was a lot of life left to be lived by those on that helicopter, and it’s horrible that this happened and took it all away. Regardless of your personal feelings about Kobe (there are plenty, and lots of them are valid), Sunday’s tragedy, above all, acts as a reminder that life is short.

Go hug someone. Tell them you love them. Don’t take stuff personally (I know that’s something I can do better), and make sure you’re focused on the things that truly matter. In that vein, I’ll finish this up by posting a video my friend Matt Dinerman took following Sunday’s last race at Golden Gate Fields. He’s an excellent announcer, but an even better human being, and he nailed this.

 

SUNDAY’S RESULTS: After a day off due to the hysteria of the Pegasus World Cup, I swept two plays posted on Twitter. Creighton and Ohio State both won by double-digits as single-digit favorites.

MONDAY’S PLAY: The Iowa Hawkeyes are just 2-8 in their last 10 meetings with the Wisconsin Badgers, but Monday’s game hits me differently. Iowa has won four in a row and has seemed to find itself after an early-season injury to Jordan Bohannon threatened to derail the program’s season. Wisconsin, meanwhile, is on the road, where they’re 3-6 on the year, and I don’t think their offense can keep up. The homestanding Hawkeyes are favored by 5.5 points, and I’m taking them to cover that spread.