• Smart Money

    POSTED Feb 10, 2011
    At some point before I die (I’d prefer to be alive so that I don’t have to interact with those goofs from “Ghost Adventures”), I want to meet “they.” You know, that band of malevolent elitists that is controlling the fate of the world and, worse, the results of horse races. Self-help guru and convicted scam artist (who’d have guessed?) Kevin Trudeau has obviously met them. He believes that “they” are keeping valuable health information from us, presumably so that we will all get sick and die… and have to deal with those clowns from “Ghost Adventures.”

    At the racetrack, “they” have been known to victimize novice and seasoned bettors alike. Laments ranging from “they did something to the surface to make it favor frontrunners/closers/the race winner” to “they knew something about that horse” are about as commonplace as Lindsay Lohan pledging to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

    “They” are jerks.

    Still, as much as I might poke fun at the notion of omnipotent, unseen forces dictating race outcomes, I do understand that, under certain circumstances, it pays to know what particular connections and/or key players are thinking. After all, who is better able to judge the merits of a horse coming off a two-year layoff or one that is making its very first start: me or the animal’s connections? This is where watching the tote board and searching for other clues — those not found in the past performances — can be helpful. Take, for example, the eighth race at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, Feb. 5.

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    In addition to conditioning 6-Californian, a $1 million yearling purchase, Todd Pletcher, the 2010 Eclipse Award winner for best trainer, was also in charge of tightening the girth on 12-Cal Nation.

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    On paper, there was little to separate the two. Californian was, perhaps, more regally bred — his dam was a Grade I winner whose only other foal was also a Grade I champ — but Cal Notion’s works looked slightly superior and his bloodlines weren’t too shabby either (he’s a half-brother to 2006 Haskell winner Bluegrass Cat). Yet, a couple of things transpired that led me to believe the latter was as close to a lock as a first-time starter can be.

    First, Californian was scratched. Yes, this was by design (he was entered in a similar spot the next day), but it suggested to me that Pletcher was probably pretty high on both steeds and preferred not to “waste” a meeting between the two. After all, barring a dead heat, only one horse can win a race.

    Second, take a look at the wagering, specifically the various pools:

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    Notice that although he was bet down to 6-5 (from a morning line of 7-2), the bulk of the money on Cal Nation was “on the nose,” or in the win pool. This is significant because, in my experience, most veteran players and/or “insiders” shun place and especially show betting like the cast of “Skins” shuns dignity. Cal Nation controlled 35.1 percent of the win pool, yet only 27.2 percent of the place pool and 25.2 percent of the show pool.

    Needles to say, the WinStar Farm homebred romped, scoring by 7 ¾ lengths and returning $4.60 to win, $3.60 to place and $2.60 to show.

    Sometimes, “they” are right.

    NOTE: Californian ran third (at 7-2) on Sunday.

    Becoming a Better Bettor

    I hate excuses.

    In fact, one of the things that makes playing the races so appealing to me is that bad luck is irrelevant. Sure, one can whine and complain that their horse missed the break, that they got a bad ride or — my personal favorite — that the track was playing to speed (note: most tracks do) but, in the end, showing a profit is all that matters.

    In the words of Vince Lombardi: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

    Sadly, not many horseplayers share Lombardi’s view, it would seem. Instead, many seek solace in excuses. After Giacomo won the 2005 Kentucky Derby, all I heard from losing bettors was that his victory was a “fluke,” the product of a blistering pace. The refrain following the last two editions of the Derby was eerily similar. “Mine That Bird and Super Saver were terrible,” the cynics howled. “The former triumphed because he got a great trip, while the latter simply loved Churchill Downs and the mud.”

    OK, let’s assume that all these post-race opinions were correct — Giacomo, Mine That Bird and Super Saver were simply lucky. How much money does such an acknowledgement put in one’s pocket? How much does one learn by adopting such a stance?

    Look, I understand that misery loves company (how else does one explain Seattle sports fans like myself?), but commiserating with others over a seemingly inexplicable result is just a waste of time and, sadly, a great weakness of far too many bettors.

    Albert Einstein once noted that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” Well, I don’t think he’s rolling bones to determine the results of horse races either. Only by assuming that there is an order to the Sport of Kings, can one hope to become a better, rather than a bitter, bettor. Remember, horses aren’t machines. Poor horses, mediocre horses, great horses — at some point, they all lose races they are expected to win.

    Despite capturing the Triple Crown and setting four track and three world records in 1973, Secretariat lost three times that year — to Angle Light at odds of 1-5, Onion at 1-9 and Prove Out at 1-5. The combined lifetime record of those steeds? 28 wins from 114 starts — hardly the stuff of legends.

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    It’s a tired axiom, but beating the races isn’t about betting the best horse, it’s about betting the best horse at the best price… and always striving to be a better bettor.
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