Monday, 05 August 2019 23:40

How to handicap and pick winners

Written by Curtis Stock
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Century Mile is getting the crowds and while it’s getting better with fuller fields, they aren’t getting the betting. It’s a guess, but it’s my belief that it’s a new crowd unfamiliar with betting or handicapping.  So what I thought I’d do is write a column - admittedly a long one on just that - how to handicap and pick winners.

It’s fine if you want to bet on the prettiest horse, the horse that winked at you in the paddock or your favourite number. But if you want to consistently come out ahead here’s a bunch of things to think about:


Class is a good place to start. Horses don’t compete against the same horses every race. The better horses run in stakes or allowance races. Cheaper horses run in claiming races. When a horse is in a claiming race he can be bought for the race’s particular claiming price whether that is $4,000 or $50,000.

Claiming races keep the races competitive. If you owned a $50,000 claimer that was competitive in that class you wouldn’t drop it in for $4,000 because somebody is invariably going to claim (buy) that horse. By contrast, only the most optimistic trainer would jump a horse from $4,000 into a $50,000 claimer.

Claiming races are the easiest races to judge class. The higher the claiming price the better the horses. This applies to maidens (horses that have never won a race) all the way to older horses who have won a dozen times or more.

One of the biggest value plays is a horse that is dropping from a straight maiden race (not a claiming race) and drops into a maiden claiming race. There is an asterisk however. Some claiming races are wide open - it doesn’t matter how many times the horse has won in its career. Other claiming races can be for non-winners of a race other than maiden or claiming or non-winners of two, three or four races. The non-winners of any race other than maiden or claiming are obviously - for the most part - going to be easier than a non-winners of four race.

Sometimes the racing secretary will also write races for non-winners in the current year. The bottom line though is that if a horse was running, for example, in $15,000 claiming races that horse is going to be tougher if the trainer drops it in class to a $7,000 claiming race. One particularly good play is the one-up, two-down class move. If a trainer thought enough about a horse to move it up in class in its previous start and then drops two classes for today’s race, take note.


Next to the date of a horse’s last race and the track condition (fast, slow, muddy, soppy) in the program is the distance a horse has been running at. Don’t expect a horse to do something he’s never done before. By that I mean if a horse has been running in longer races with some kind of success and then drops into a sprint race at a distance it has never won at before beware.

On the other hand if a speed horse that has been running at shorter distances tries to stretch out at a longer distance and he’s the only speed in the race you can catch some nice longshots. Speed as I’ll refer to later is a dangerous weapon. It’s especially dangerous on a sloppy or muddy track where the front-runner won’t get mud kicked in their faces.


Horses get into trouble all the time. A horse you may have liked and wagered on could wind up four wide around the turn. Or that horse may have been boxed-in — caught in behind traffic with no place to run. Or it could simply be a case of a horse not getting off to a good start.

These are races that you can capitalize on. If you liked the horse before and it got into trouble you’ll probably be able to wager on that horse at inflated odds.

You can watch the replays or watch the race live at Doing that consistently will lead you to several longshot bets.


Watch for noticeable jockey changes. Take a careful look at horses where top jockeys like Rico Walcott, Rigo Sarmiento, Wilmer Galivz, Dane Nelson or Prayven Badrie climb aboard for the first time. Especially Walcott, who is starting to roll again after surgery to remove a brain tumour.


Posts don’t matter as much on a mile track which Century Mile, of course, is but they still play a factor. Watch for horses who have drawn a series of outside posts - especially when those starts resulted in wide trips which you can see in the comments line in the program or the Daily Racing Form - and now draw an inside post.


Unless forced I don’t bet favourites very often. Especially short-priced favourites. I’ve been betting horses and handicapping races for over 50 years and I still much prefer value plays on long shots. Roughly 30 per cent of all favourites win which means that 70 per cent of the time it’s someone else.

Over betting favourites is a common trap. Look for value.


It’s a short racing season in Alberta. Trainers and owners want to see their horses run as often as possible especially when they are doing well. If a horse hasn’t raced in more than a month it’s a red flag. The only caveat is when a horse has been off for a considerable amount of time but shows a series of good works between it’s last race and today’s race. This is especially true for horses that come from winning stables.


If you see a horse that constantly makes up ground in the stretch without winning, those horses are often over bet.

This is especially true when a horse makes a really big move in its last race and hasn’t shown that closing kick before.  Bettors often think that those horses are going to be tougher next time out. Far too often those kind of moves really get over bet. Horses are not machines. Especially cheaper horses. Often a horse that unexpectedly makes a big move in the stretch in its last appearance has just run it’s race and will digress next time out.


Speed is a huge factor and in my opinion one of the most important variables to consider. At Northlands on a five-eighths mile track horses invariably had to be on top or close to the pace to come home in front. While Century Mile is a mile in circumference it still plays to speed too.

What does that mean? Simple. Try and find the horse with the most speed in each race.

How do you do that? It’s more complicated than all of the above advice but once you get the hang of it, it’s not that hard. The fractions for the horse’s previous races are listed in the program right after the date of the horse’s last race, the name of the track, the track condition and then the distances for the previous races.

Here you’ll see figures like 22.95, 45.20. Those are the fractions for the first quarter of a mile and then half a mile. Those are the fractions that the leaders set and NOT the horse in question.  The next figure is the final time of the race. For the moment just stay with the first two figures. The only fairly difficult part (after a while it will become second nature) is determining how fast the particular horse you are looking at ran those early fractions. The key is to remember that one length equals one-fifth of a second.

Now go to the running line of the horse in question which is in the  middle of your program -  right before the name of the jockey who rode the horse the last time and the weight that the horse carried last time out. What you are looking for are figures which show what position the horse was at the different stations of a race - most important being, again, the first quarter and the half mile.

You’ll see that, as an example, a horse was in 5th place. The next number - raised slightly in the program - is the lengths the horse was behind the leader. Let’s say that second number is a 5. So, you have a horse that was in 5th place at the first quarter and five lengths off the lead.

So, let’s go back to the examples I chose of 22.95 and 45.20. Using the formula of one length equalling one-fifth of a second, the horse in question would have then run the first quarter of a mile in 23.95 seconds - five times one-fifth of a second equalling a full second.

You do the same thing for the half-mile time. Take the 45.20 figure and see how many lengths the horse was behind the leader. Let’s say this time the numbers show the horse was now in fourth place and four lengths off the lead.

Use the formula again - one fifth of a second equalling a full second. Now you have a horse which was four-fifths of a second off the lead at that point. So he would have run half a mile in 46 seconds: four-fifths of a second (or eight tenths) added to the 45.20 base figure of the leader.

You need to do the same thing for every horse in the race. If you can come up with a horse who figures to be the fastest to the quarter and half mile stations you may have found a good bet.


There are speed figures in your program but the one I much prefer is available only in the Daily Racing Form. It’s in bold type and is called the Beyer Speed Rating, named after the inventor Andy Beyer. The higher the figure the better. Overall, the Beyer number reflects not only the winning time, but the time of the race and how fast the track was on that particular day.

It would be easy if every race was conducted over a track that never changed from day to day. But the fact of the matter is that the track continually changes - especially with all the rain we’ve had. Beyer does all those computations for you. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time handicapping you could do worse than just betting the horses in every race with the best Beyer number.

But if you want to increase your odds of winning you’ll also include all the above information. It’s a lot to digest. But the more often you handicap a race the easier it becomes.

Good luck and we’ll see you at the mutuels.

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