Saturday, November 3, 2012

And He's Off!

(Last of a Series on Thoroughbred Horse Racing)

As promised earlier, I celebrated my annual 21st birthday at Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley last Saturday afternoon, along with my wife, Elizabeth, my sister-in-law Margaret and her husband Charles.

Comfortably seated in the exclusive Turf Club high above the track, we had lunch while seven races thundered by below. I bet a total of $72. I won back $68. I predicted it would go like this.

My biggest win was $35 on the fourth race, the $100,000 Pikes Peak Dancer Stakes. I placed an “exotic” bet known as the “superfecta wheel”: one horse to win for sure (the wheel), the next three to cross the finish line in any order. It cost me $6. The winning horse was Miss Empire, her jockey Russell Baze, the winningest jockey in North American racing history. (Note: “Bet Russell Baze” = good betting plan.)


Since my interest in horse racing sped from a slow trot to a cavalry charge, what has struck me is how intellectually strenuous, even exhausting, handicapping and betting horse races can be . . . that is,  if you choose to take it seriously.

Casual bettors don’t need to pour cans of brain fuel into playing the ponies. All it takes is a few minutes before a race begins, sitting in the Turf Club or with the hoi polloi in the stands below (who I think have the better view), studying the program, getting a sense of who’s good and who’s not so.

Make straight, modest one-two-three bets on horses with the best odds (factoring in their jockeys), and you’ll have an exciting time and keep most of your shirt on, plus or minus a few buttons. Serious bettors call it “good money management.” Maybe you’ll get lucky betting $20 on Last Place Nag, that 20-to-1 male in the sixth race, but more than likely not, (though my brother-in-law did, on a horse named Reigning Rubies in the fifth)

Played this way, a day at the racetrack is cheap compared to most other entertainments. (Admission at Golden Gate is only four to six dollars.) Most of the track’s money comes from off-track betting. The food is mostly fairly priced (though beware the liquor prices at the Turf Club.) I’ve easily wasted more on a Saturday evening on Piedmont Avenue.

But, as in all sports betting, betting to win more than five or ten bucks, the payoff for most casual bettors, takes serious concentration, analytical skill, and plates of moxie. because, in order to win the bigger money, you have to bet against the crowd, bet against the 2-1 horses . . . bet on those long shots. You have to do homework, just like our mean old parents made us do.

It also takes genuine sportsmanship—meaning a love of the sport and full embrace of its risks. No matter how I improve my odds with study, no matter how sharp my eye for that long-shot pony, they’re still against me. That bigger payoff a serious bettor is looking for entails bigger risk. When I lose, no getting mad and no getting desperate!—once I reach my bank limit, I must go right home.

Handicapping and betting on horse races is, without drawing a direct comparison, as complicated a game as chess, if you choose to play it that way.

The more I handicapped races, the more complications I encountered. The factors considered by professional handicappers are almost numerous beyond counting, and each factor is considered against other factors.

Further, these factors are always shifting in relation to each other: horse versus jockey, versus trainer versus track, versus condition of track, versus condition of the track the last time the horse ran on it versus others tracks the horse raced on versus the field of other horses the horse ran against . . . I’d better stop before you all surf over to “Roseanne for President.”


I was ill with anemia when I started handicapping. Unable and unwilling to deal with anything both complicated and profound, I craved something complicated and dumb; something that mattered not a jot in the scheme of Creation, but at the same time would keep my brain gears greased. I didn’t want to think about God, Death or, most of all, Mitt Romney.

After my recent experience at the Alameda County Fair racing, thinking about thoroughbred horses running in a circle seemed to be a perfect workout for the brain. I could screw it up, stop when I got tired, and no one would give a shit, least of all me.

For a few weeks, I handicapped the Saturday race card at Golden Gate Fields (I didn’t bet. I didn’t have the spare change and have no desire to bet off-track). My first reference was Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies by professional handicapper Richard Eng.

Using i-Pad and computer, it took me over three hours of online study for each Saturday race card. I used several online information sources—the morning line on the program and house betting line report, both provided by Golden Gate Fields; the free handicapping calls by Chuck Dybdal from The Daily Racing Form via the GGF site; and links to Equibase, the enormous statistical database for North American thoroughbred horseracing. There’s also a helpful website for beginners, Hello Race Fans! By the end, my anemic brain was bloodless from trying to collate all the information sweeping under my eyes.

I seem to be fairly decent handicapper, though. Each weekend, at least three or four of my horses won; most all of them wound up in the money (placing at least second or third). More than once, a longshot—the hardest horses of all to research and pick--came in. I’d win theoretical, speculative exotic bets, made post-race—not many, but enough to spur my desire to go to the track and see what I could do with $100.


The day came. Before we went, I added The Daily Racing Form Past Performance which detailed the record of every single horse on the card that day ($4.50), to my calibrations.

One part of my plan that didn’t pan out was visiting the horses in the paddock before each race. From our table in the Turf Club to the paddock was a five-plus minute maze walk, not including visiting the betting window before post time. The half-hour between races ticks by fast and after the second race, I had enough of the dash. This likely affected my results.

Outside of the stakes race, I didn’t do too well. Only one race, the sixth, had a longshot that seemed worth my money, but by post time, the rest of the pari-mutuel world was agreeing with me, raising its odds from 20 to 1 to 8 to 1. At that point I lost interest (and, as it turned out, the horse finished out of the money). The next race I got careless, abandoning my game plan for some longshots . . . well, lesson learned. Do my homework and, unless factors arise, stick with the plan.

To sum up, I got skunked in three races. We didn’t stay for the eighth and ninth, but when I checked my handicapping, I would have made back what I bet over both races. I only lost four dollars and had a good time in this year of hard times.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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