John Pricci executive editor John Pricci has over three decades of experience as a thoroughbred racing public handicapper and was an award-winning journalist while at New York Newsday for 18 years.

John has covered 14 Kentucky Derbies and Preaknesses, all but three Breeders' Cups since its inception in 1984, and has seen all but two Belmont Stakes live since 1969.

Currently John is a contributing racing writer to, an analyst on the Capital Off-Track Betting television network, and co-hosts numerous handicapping seminars. He resides in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Horse Betting vs. Sports Betting: Thoughts with Marc Lawrence

A check of the HRI archives will reveal that for the past two football seasons resident sports handicapper Marc Lawrence has shown a profitable return with his Upset Spot Plays on both the NFL and college gridirons. Here, then, a look inside sports handicapping, a Q & A session with Marc Lawrence:

Q: Tell us about yourself. How long have you been in the sports handicapping business and how are people like yourself able to make a living at it?

I have been handicapping sports professionally since 1975. My philosophy is to help educate the player and teach him the nuances of winning. In doing so I have cultivated an allegiance of loyal clients that have learned while they have earned.
Q: Less than 5 percent of horseplayers are able to show a profit over a lifetime, and they have larger payoffs available to them via the parimutuel tote. Is sports betting easier to beat and what percentage of professional sports bettors consistently make a profit?

Sports betting is definitely beatable but only by those who exercise patience and discipline. Because most gamblers have opinions of their own and are generally neither patient nor discipline, the 10% vigorish that must be overcome becomes a difficult task to the uninformed. As a result, most professional sports bettors realize a profit whereas most non-professionals do not.

Q: In racing, there are class handicappers, or speed handicappers or trip handicappers, pedigree people, etc. Is it that way for sports handicappers and could you explain the different sports handicapping techniques?

For the most part, sports handicapping is comprised of three methods: Fundamental, Statistical and Technical. Fundamental cappers look for edges in style of play, physical matchups and potential mismatches. Statistical cappers utilize stats to gain edges, such as Rushing, Passing, Yards Per Attempt. Technical cappers rely on systems, angles and trends to support their opinions. The best cappers are those that incorporate all three facets into their arsenal. The important thing to remember is that handicapping is an accumulation of edges. The more edges you can put in your favor, the better your chances of winning.

>Q: I notice in your “Playbook” weekly newsletters that you combine several handicapping techniques, but are much more technically oriented. Is that correct, and why is that your focus?

Technical handicapping is my preferred method. That's because I have a proprietary database that allows me to search for winning systems, angles and trends. Technical handicapping is based on “Cause and Effect.” If you can re-create identical situations and patterns that have proven successful in the past, you can expect similar results in the future. It's just that simple.

Q: Most successful horseplayers I know specialize: Trips, figures, etc. Are most successful sports bettors specialists as well?

For the most part, yes. Most successful cappers develop a method of choice and learn to cultivate it to the maximum.

Q: In horse racing, players take different approaches to wagering, some are spot players, others play many races thinking their superior knowledge will beat the crowd consistently. What is your approach and why would you recommend it to sports fans?

My approach is very selective, primarily because it's what I ask of my clients. A lot of players are afraid to leave a winner on the table. However, by using fewer plays with greater expectancy we expose smaller portions of our bankroll. The important thing to remember is each week is a battle with the goal to win the war by season's end.

Q: In racing there are many approaches to creating speed figures but fundamentally it’s measuring the speed of the horse against the speed of the track. How do sports handicappers create a Power Rating?

Power ratings is one form of handicapping. Personally I do not create power ratings. I leave that to the oddsmakers. My job is to handicap the line the oddsmaker offers; not to create a better line. The oddsmaker is first and foremost a sharp handicapper so we are matching wits. By concentrating on handicapping, rather than odds making, I don't get caught up with the enemy.

Q: Since Power Ratings measure the relative strengths of one team vs. another, how are you able to construct ratings early in the season when teams haven’t any established form?

Most of our early season analysis is formed with the publishing of the PLAYBOOK Football Handicapper's Yearbook magazine. From the time the final bowl game is played up until mid-May our staff is at work gathering data for the magazine. As a result we learn a great deal of which teams will improve or regress in the season ahead.

Q: You can have the highest quality race horse but if your trainer doesn’t win consistently or your jockey is not as competent as his rivals, the best horse often will lose. Is it that way with teams having the most talent?

The parallel of trainers and jockeys in sports is head coaches. They have personalities and patterns and for the most part, their teams learn to develop similar traits. By identifying which coaches perform well in games off a loss, or when playing with revenge, we can gauge a better feel for the teams.

Q: Which sport is more predictable: football, basketball or baseball, if indeed any of them are?

For the most part college sports are a tad more predictable. It's easier to recognize letdown and look ahead situations with college kids. Professional athletes are more like paid machines. They perform and we analyze their performances, almost like a mechanic monitors an engine.

Q: What percentage would you ascribe to the value of the quarterback, the point guard, the pitcher?

Quarterbacks are the most valuable commodity on a football team. When a starting QB goes down, so too does its team's chances of winning. Thus the line is adjusted to a stronger degree on a QB injury than any other player position. Point guards in basketball are also key as they are, in essence, the quarterbacks of their teams. MLB pitchers are key as well. That's confirmed by the fact that almost every game is 'priced' according to the starting pitcher.

Q: What’s the more desirable team trait for you as a handicapper, offense or defense?

Defense for sure. The adage is offense wins games but defense wins championships. Teams with solid defenses put their offense on the field for greater periods of time. And the more often you have the ball the better your chance of outscoring your opponent. All good coaches adhere to this theory and all good handicappers do, too.

Q: The practice referred to as “touting” is a seedier side of the racing business that no longer is the negative issue it once was. That doesn’t seem to be the case in the sports handicapping business. Is that a fair statement?

The ugly side of the sports handicapping business is the proliferation of the 'boiler-room' operators. Commonly known as “scamdicappers,” they give the industry a black-eye. Because our industry is unregulated these scamdicappers are allowed to crawl out from under a rock during the season and take advantage of uninformed players.

Q: While the reason isn’t always a sinister one, some horses or trainers might not be all out to win a certain race. Is it that way in sports?

For the most part that thinking doesn’t hold water in the sports arena. Professional coaches and athletes are paid to perform while coaches on the college level are paid to do the same, thus insuring the best effort attainable in each game they play.

Q: Racing sometimes gets a bad rap because some horsemen would take an edge, or because the officiating isn’t all it could be. Are you concerned that officials can have too much influence on the outcome of a sporting event?

Officiating is a part of the game that can not be handicapped (although MLB umpires can be evaluated when capping Over/Under totals). For the most part, games are won or lost on the field by the teams, not the officials.

Q: Has the use of illegal drugs adversely affected sports in the overview, and on a day-to-day basis?

Yes, to some degree. We see it in the runs scored in MLB games and the amount of injuries on the basketball court and the football field.

Q: You have your own skybox at Gulfstream Park and attend mostly on weekends, so obviously you wager on sports and horses. If bettors had only one choice, which one should they choose and why?

I go to the races primarily as a fan. I really enjoy the sport and it is actually a diversion away from what I do for a living - handicapping sports. Because I devote a minimum of 12 hours a day to my profession, horse racing is a sport I enjoy because I do not 'tout' the ponies. Instead I play them for the fun of the sport.

Q: What’s the best advise you could give a sports bettor, a horseplayer, gamblers in general?

I have two thoughts on the subject. One is that three things can happen when you bet on an underdog and two of them are good. The other is the closing line from our “Against The Spread” radio show now in its 18th season. "Remember to always bet with your head, not over it..."

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Delaware Park Sports Parlays Paying Some Dividends

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 15, 2009--For the remainder of the pro football season, sports fans in the Mid-Atlantic Region can travel to the state of Delaware and on any given Sunday place legal parlay wagers on NFL games.

Whether this is the start of a new era in sports betting or a regional passing fad remains to be seen. What’s important is that, on balance, tracks in the state enjoyed a successful launch last Sunday.

Handle figures on the parlay, teaser, and super-teaser wagering cards will be released later this week.

NFL parlay betting created some buzz at Delaware Park where heretofore none existed for non-racing fans. Logic dictates that it also introduced sports bettors to a racetrack for the first time and eliminated the stigma that comes with making illegal wagers.

Hundreds of sports bettors visited each of three locations; Delaware Park, Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway, to bet on games that were seen on sports monitors at all three facilities according to reports on the News-Journal website.

Many fans came to place their wagers then returned home to watch the games. Others stayed to enjoy the sportsbook atmosphere. The legal sports wagers attracted cars bearing license plates from New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York.

In addition to Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana are the only states enjoying a “grandfather exemption” to a 1992 federal law prohibiting gambling on sporting events. Law enforcement estimates that $300-billion a year is bet illegally on sports.

In terms of wagering, taking the Giants minus-3 to cover against the Cowboys this Sunday is still illegal. A legal bet would be something like the Giants will cover and score over the total of 43.5 points.

Parlay bets are purchased much as any lottery ticket would be, qualifying the wager for the grandfather exemption. Four major sports, including the hypocritical NFL, have sued Delaware, prohibiting tracks in the state from offering straight sports bets.

The state hoped to offer traditional betting on NFL games. The Delaware Supreme Court upheld the legality of parlays but refused to render an opinion on single game wagers. Delaware invited the NFL to the table to compromise but the league made a counter offer. There was no accord and a lawsuit was filed instead.

One of the issues the sports leagues always argue is concern for the integrity of games. What no one has bothered to explain is how illegal wagering makes players and officials immune to cheating. They can’t because continued illegal betting provides no safety net.

What the leagues forget, too, is that every major sports betting scandal in this country was discovered by the gaming industry whose bet-takers contacted league authorities to inform them certain wagering patterns indicated that something might be amiss.

Some form of legal sports wagering could be a great promotional tool for increasing attendance at racetracks in states allowed to offer lottery wagering, the technicality that got VLT machines approved for use at racetracks in a dozen states.

As everyone knows, there’s virtually no cross-over from a casino to the racino section of a racetrack even though it works the other way around. At Prairie Meadows last year, casino receipts increased on live racing days.

But there is synergy between sports and horse betting because games and races are handicap-able. In states with racinos or other forms of lottery wagering, there is a means for offering bets on sports that can bring people into a racetrack.

As stated, the Giants are -3 on Sunday night with the over/under set at 43.5. Now what if tracks in states with legal parimutuel wagering offered parlay-style tickets with four permutations as if a game were a four-horse race? The choices would be Cowboys-Under, Cowboys-Over, Giants-Under, Giants-Over.

With a 10 percent takeout, if equal action were taken on all sides the payoff, after takeout, would be $7-plus on a $2 bet. If one combination attracted most of the play, the payoff would be lower, of course, but prices on the other three would go up. That’s the way a parimutuel pool works.

Whatever the odds, potential winning prices could be posted soon after the pools closed at kickoff. Bettors would know how much they could win.

To optimize handle, a half-time line could be made available for bettors looking for more action, or to save their original investment, or perhaps catch a “middle,” a narrow-parameters hedge scenario that allows a bettor to win both sides.

These “sports bets” neither violate the principles of legal parimutuel wagering nor existing parameters for parlay betting. Wouldn’t cash-strapped state governments be interested in a potential revenue stream that costs them nothing for which there already are legal precedents in place?

It’s highly unlikely this would be a handle bonanza. But it will put extra people in the building, just like it did Sunday in Delaware; people that pay admission taxes, parimutuel takeout, taxes on concessions, etc., etc.

We’re talking about people who very likely might never visit a racetrack. Once inside, they might like it. Sometimes all that’s required is a little outside the exacta-box thinking.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Extra Races, Speedy Jockeys and Dead Horses

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 11, 2009--While we don’t usually look forward to a change of venue away from Saratoga, this year we’re happy to make an exception.

Because of the opening day sloppy track and the expected wet conditions for Saturday, our private little experiment might have to wait.

What I’m waiting to see is whether the race-riding tactics that were so prevalent at Saratoga will continue at Belmont Park. To wit:

When’s all this quarter-horsing going to end?

Due to the narrower circumference of Saratoga oval compared to the wide expanse of Belmont Park, one would expect that riders would jockey more aggressively for early position.

But exactly when did Saratoga race riding become Southern California BS style--Before Synthetics?

Seemingly, there were an inordinate number of excruciating pace battles every day. Just like Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in the old days; no easy leads.

Since Saratoga isn’t the speed-biased surface it used to be--back in the days when horses like Gusty O’Shea won the Hopeful--it was impossible for me to back speed horses with confidence at the recent Spa meet.

And since the Saratoga track is virtually bias free, except for those times when a drying-out surface deadens the inside path, it was curious why so often there was such a logjam for early position.

These tactics virtually eliminated the chances of handicap-able speed horses that were assumed to dictate the early fractions of a race.

It made many sprint races at Saratoga unbeatable for handicappers trying to pick winners using conventional pace handicapping techniques.

If there were three readily identifiable speed horses in a race, a hot pace battle among the three could be predicted with some certitude. Nothing unusual about that.

But when so many speed duels developed seemingly from out of the blue, riding tactics often appeared highly questionable to some respected observers we spoke with.

When horses with ability to press the pace were used hard in a battle for the early lead instead, handicappers are allowed to ask: What’s going on here?

At the same time, Saratoga tote board activity was often spooky. “Smart money” manifests itself at one of three different times: early, late, or somewhere in between.

Of those varieties, I personally prefer the smart early money that often “blows out” to a fair price just as late tote action is finding the form horse, or “steam” horses among first-time starters and the like. Late money attracts a crowd, often destroying value.

But the spooky part of the Saratoga tote action had little to do with the money bet: Rather, it was the money that didn’t show that so many times proved scary.

Handicappers must often make difficult decisions, whether the price on a horse represents value or whether it’s “running on three legs,” or “dead on the board.”

Dead money is an interesting phenomenon. I describe it, somewhat whimsically, as “smart money that didn’t bet already.”

Since leaving my public handicapping days behind aside from HRI feature race analysis or the occasional television appearance, my betting emphasis is to seek value, which is not to say betting on longshots. Under the proper circumstances $4 can be huge value.

Generally, I’m looking for two types of mid-priced horses to play, preferring to optimize in the 6-1 to 8-1 range or the longer 10-1 to 15-1 longshot category.

Using this approach I won’t cash a lot of tickets. Psychologically, I need to be OK with that. It’s why value betting isn’t, and shouldn’t be, for everyone.

Parenthetically, too many public handicappers throw the term value around without thinking confusing “value” with “non-favorite.” By definition, these terms aren’t close.

Whether betting favorites, mid-priced horses, or longshots, dead on the board often translates to dead on the track. And I can’t remember another race meet anywhere when the tote determined how well horses would perform. Or not perform.

A theory about the tote board phenomenon at the recent Saratoga meet:

On too many days, race cards were dominated by “extra races,” events not in the condition book but races created to take advantage of the immediate horse population.

The new emphasis in the racing office is to create larger and larger fields. That, or races put on the daily schedule to accommodate a particular horse or horseman.

There’s nothing sinister about this. But when races are made to go for certain outfits, rival horsemen know it because they’re “hustled” into spots they weren‘t pointing for. Often, the whole racetrack knows what’s going on.

Hustling horses into races is common practice everywhere. That’s why it’s important for bettors to read race conditions very closely. And that’s why one horse is so live and several so dead on the board. Trainers are written into and out of races. An inside game is very tough to beat.

So I’m very anxious to see what the race shapes and tote board activity looks like at Belmont Park. But I’ll wait for fast footing before drawing any conclusions.

Written by John Pricci

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