THE DARK DAY FILES: Slumps, Family, and Lady Eli

“I suck.”

Not the way you expected this to start out, huh? Well, that’s what was going through my head this past weekend.

If you’re visiting this site, you probably know that, in addition to my duties as a Web Producer for the Daily Racing Form, I’m the featured handicapper in The Pink Sheet, the daily racing insert in The Saratogian. I had picked the first winner on the first day of the meet…and then proceeded to go 1-for-the-next-18 on my printed top selections.

Every handicapper goes through slumps. I’ve actually written about how to get through them and bounce back. That said, when you’re putting your name behind your picks, and your picks aren’t coming through, it’s incredibly frustrating. Add in my insane competitive streak, a chip on my shoulder (the reason for that is best saved for another column many years from now), and a general desire to put forth good work, and what you get is where I was Saturday afternoon.

Welcome to the life of a public handicapper. On its face, the task seems simple: Handicap every race, every day at Saratoga from mid-July through Labor Day, pick your top three horses, and do better than the people lined up against you. Following the retirement of Nick Kling (a world-class horseplayer and an even better guy), my responsibilities expanded to include race-by-race write-ups and a bankroll blurb, the latter of which was directly inspired by the “Battle of Saratoga” blurbs in the New York Daily News, which I devoured every time I went to the races as a kid.

When you’re going good as a public handicapper, very few things feel better, especially if you’re cashing tickets as you go. When you’re running bad, the cards seem to go by slower, and about the only thing you can do is eye the next day’s program and see if there are any opportunities to catch up. The “boo birds” do come out on Twitter occasionally, hiding behind fake names and using pictures that aren’t their own, but that, I can deal with.

I’ve always been very good at dealing with other people telling me that I stink. I’ve gotten hate mail from a Kentucky Derby-winning owner and upper management at one of the most prominent racetracks in the country. I’m blocked on Twitter by the current head of a conference whose stalwart program I worked as an athletic communications intern for from 2010 through 2012. I’ve been name-called, abused, and told I’m horrible at my job, all by the same person and all in the past two and a half months (go on Twitter; it’s not hard to find). Long story short, I’m pretty confident in my own ability to take punches that are thrown by other people.

When it’s ME telling MYSELF I stink, though? Oh, boy.

I’m extremely fortunate to have a great relationship with my father. He taught me how to handicap, he brought me to the track once a week during the summer when I was growing up, and I’ve always said that if you hang around him for five minutes, I suddenly make much more sense (this has been confirmed by many friends and co-workers over the years). Unfortunately for him, this meant that any horse racing chatter we had via text message Saturday included me bombarding him with updates on just how badly I was doing and how badly I felt about it. Not helping matters was that his computer was, in layman’s terms, throwing up all over itself, or that he possesses the most annoying text message alert I’ve ever heard (a fact that I’m sure accounted for about 15 percent of his annoyance level!).

We were both about at our respective wit’s ends before the Diana. Lady Eli, one of the best stories in racing, was running, and in fact would go off as the heavy favorite. However, before the race, she and stablemate Antonoe both broke through the Saratoga starting gate.

In the case of Lady Eli, it didn’t matter. Neither did the weight she gave to her rivals, or that she may not be quite as explosive as she was before she endured her life-threatening battle with laminitis. She and jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., circled the field and put away the game Quidura, giving the mare another Grade 1 victory in a career that has featured such wins at ages two, three, four, and five.

It’s tough to feel bad about anything in horse racing after seeing something like that. I don’t do “sappy” much, but it was nice seeing a reminder that I’m doing what I believe I was born to do, which is talking about horses to audiences that will hopefully make some money along the way. Things got even better the next day, when I was given the green light to contribute selections and analysis on DRF’s GamePlan from time to time. The day after that, I had three winners and a second-place finish from six originally-picked winners (three scratched). It’s not the start I’d hoped for, but at the very least, whatever negative juju I once had seems to be gone.

Sorry for being a pain in the neck, Dad.

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This is the first weekly installment of “The Dark Day Files,” and I sincerely hope you enjoyed it. Got an idea for a future column? Click here to contact me.

Handicapping Slumps, and How to Beat Them

Some of you who have visited my new site have been nice enough to write in through the ‘contact’ feature. I read every message I get, and one I got Monday resonated with me in a very particular way.

It was from Ed in New Mexico. Ed is a handicapper (and by all indications, a very nice guy!) who admitted he seemed to be in a rut, and he asked me if there was anything I could recommend to get him out of it.

It takes a lot of guts to admit you’re in a slump, and it also takes strength to reach out and ask for advice. That isn’t something everyone does. As such, this blog post is intended to serve as my two cents on slump-busting, and hopefully, horseplayers out there can take something from it.

My take on slumps is this: It’s not if you’re losing, or even how much money you’re losing (although one should certainly bet within his/her financial means at all times). More than anything (to me, at least!), what’s important is HOW your bets are losing. That makes all the difference in the world, and if you can correctly diagnose the problem, then chances are you’ll have taken a big step towards future handicapping success.

The first thing I suggest is to study your bets, relive your philosophy, and see where things went wrong. Go into your betting archives (every ADW website has them), watch replays of races you’ve bet on, and take yourself through why you made the bets you placed.

If you consider yourself a skilled handicapper, there’s a reasonable chance that, a sizable percentage of time, your pre-race opinion will actually be closer to what happened than you’d like to admit. Maybe you thought a horse would get loose on the lead, and it did, only to get run down. Perhaps you thought a race would set up for a closer, and it did, but you bet the wrong late-running horse. Alternatively, from a betting standpoint, maybe your three-horse exacta box ran 1-3-4, maybe the longshot you put a win-place bet on ran very well, only to finish third, or maybe your Pick Four ticket went 3-for-4.

If any of this sounds familiar, I’ve got good news for you: That’s just racing luck. You aren’t doing as much wrong as a profit/loss sheet will show you, and you’re not seeing the ball badly. It’s the horse racing equivalent of a baseball player getting ahold of a fastball and crushing it, but it going to the deepest part of the playing field and getting caught, or getting lined right at a defensive player. The stats only show it as an out, and it looks the same as a weak ground ball to the pitcher, but the hitter did a lot right that the stat sheet won’t show.

Once you clear that mental hurdle, look at the horses you’ve bet on. Did they fall victim to track biases? Are you overvaluing certain connections or angles that aren’t as profitable as they’ve been in the past? Is there one condition or route of ground where your ROI really suffers? Handicapping is like anything else in life in this respect: The more homework you do, the more prepared you’ll be for success moving forward.

If it turns out you’re off by a considerable margin, look at the horses that do well at certain tracks, class levels, and routes of ground. What trends do you see? How does this go against your handicapping? Is there a measure you can take to tweak your approach to those races, and are there races you should skip because you’re not confident enough to bet them consistently? Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the tough questions. Often, answering them will make you a better, more profitable horseplayer.

I made a baseball reference earlier, and there’s another comparison between sports that needs to be made. Baseball players and handicappers both tend to fail similar amounts of time. Good handicappers strive for about 30% winners as far as win-only selections are concerned, and good baseball players strive to hit .300. The important thing to remember is that a 30% success rate means a 70% failure rate. If you fancy yourself a serious handicapper, you must come to terms with the fact that you are going to be wrong most of the time in some way, shape, or form.

What’s important is not how often you fail, but how you apply what you know every time you look at a race, go to a betting window, or fire up your ADW account. If you get knocked out of a Pick Four sequence early, and realize you’re seeing the ball well and have confidence in your selections, jump back in with a double or a Pick Three. If your top picks are running second and third consistently, box exactas rather than keying that 10-1 horse you think can win. If you know you’re not having a good day and you see your handicapping is all over the place, relax, find something else to do, and regroup once you can re-examine where things went amiss. This game is a marathon, not a sprint, and gambling opportunities are plentiful every single day.

Not everyone wants to shine a light on where things went wrong. However, doing that, and seeing where, why, and how certain bets may have gone haywire, is something I’ve found key to busting out of slumps. It’s a confidence-booster if the horses you like run well, and it’s an instructional tool if your approach needs refinement. Ed: Hopefully, that answers your question.

Got a question? Got a gripe? Think there’s something I should know? Head to the ‘contact’ section, and send me a message. Like I said, I read everything that gets sent my way.