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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

HORSEPLAYERS NEED TO USE DOWN TIME PRODUCTIVELY: BE “SKEPTICAL HANDICAPPERS”

Shame on me for not getting to this sooner. Guess I’ve been too busy catching up with all the news to think more creatively. At least that’s how I rationalize it. So now, let’s take time trying to become better horseplayers, myself included.

First, an apology as I promised the author I would have something to say– wherever those chips fell–after finishing a review copy of The Skeptical Handicapper: Using Data and Brains to Win at the Racetrack, which I received in January, 2019. How’s that for procrastination?

Well, that’s on me and it’s embarrassing. Certainly, Barry Meadow, known to many of you as one of the few successful professional gambling authors in one of the world’s most difficult endeavors, deserved better. I finally have made the time.

His book is still out there, of course, and will never be outdated. While some of the stories may be anecdotal, not so the research. Unless you task yourself to go a step further, you’ll need a computer to analyze the results of more than 168,227 Thoroughbred races to do so.

Trends go day to day, week to week, year over year. But in terms of handicapping research, Meadow’s findings are not trends. Rather, they are the facts compiled over thousands of races broken out by category seeking the answer for a particular angle.

Does margin of victory last time out, e.g., mean anything? Does the class dropper who gets a change of riders win consistently enough to show a profit? What if every debuting juvenile was preceded by a five-furlong bullet work?

Angles like these are addressed based on the evidence of thousands of races per given scenario and it can produce a winning angle or, for lack of a more original term, a winning system, if you will (my construct, not Meadow’s).

Barry Meadow has been retired nine years after a successful career as gambler and author, betting on everything from blackjack to harness racing to Thoroughbred racing. And when it comes to the latter, this work shows he’s monkish about the research. To wit:

[Page 33] “Before coming to accurate conclusions about results, you need to know the expected win rates of the group you are studying. This includes number of starters for the entire group, the number of starters for the particular sub-group… and the odds of the sub-group you are analyzing.”

As above, with respect to the bullet five-furlong final work pre-debut, I found it interesting [page 146] to learn that first-time starters at the special-weight level won 16% of the time after 4,393 starts [with no other factors considered], for an ROI of 0.94.

But did you realize, based on 1,264 starters that five-furlong, last-work, pre-debut bullets won at a lower rate of 14%, but showed a positive ROI of 1.08 at the maiden-claiming level? Well, I didn’t either, now we do.

Here’s a related stat in the same scenario I found fascinating: That in synthetic-track sprints, the pre-debut five-furlong bullet won at 18% over 589 races with an ROI of 1.27, but in synthetic route debuts (only 39 races), the win rate fell to 15% but ROI increased to a worthy 1.67.

Meadow himself advises to be skeptical of low sample sizes. But here’s one in this scenario that’s not so low: Of 4,945 runners getting first-Lasix, the win rate was 16% with an ROI of 0.95. But 766 runners debuting with no Lasix? The win rate falls to 13% but the ROI climbs to 1.16.

Seems like bettor’s bias based in false assumption. I know it opened my eyes about pre-conceived “givens,” and how much of the handicapping theory we rely on should be more open to being counter-intuitive. The old never assume.

The review copy was 432 pages full of eye-opening information and insight, the product of Meadow’s partnership with Ken Massa who digitally crunched all those numbers.

The price tag of The Skeptical Handicapper is a hefty $37.99, cheap for providing a foundation based on fact, not opinion. If interested, you can contact the author at [email protected]

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21 Responses

  1. Have always been fascinated by anyone who writes a book on handicapping Thoroughbred races. The authors, obviously, do not have a method/system that picks winners that will deliver a profit for them; if they did, they certainly wouldn’t be telling us about it; they would be down at the rail with a duffel bag to stuff the ‘bills’ in. So, they write a book filled with stats that are simply useless hoping that the book will deliver a profit to them.

    Just about all Thoroughbred horserace entrants finish each and every race within two seconds of each other (the time between the winner and the last place plater crossing the finish line, Alice). Two seconds! How one can dissect anything that from one end to another is a couple blinks of the eye leaves me nonplussed. Stumbled, carried wide, blocked, checked, et cetera represents one or two seconds. Guess this is why only a third of favorites in a race in any year win.

    So, how do you pick a winner? Beats me! I only win at a 30% rate. Seems to me that the only criterion that makes sense is to consider class, current condition, surface, distance, trainer, jockey, and to look skyward and promise to quit drinking as the thoroughbreds head down the stretch.

  2. Sorry, Wendell, I did not read beyond your first paragraph because you did not read beyond my second, re “known to many as a successful professional gambler…”

    While I apologized for my procrastination in getting around to writing a review, when I spoke with the author last year he said he retired because he could live comfortably and didn’t want to do the research required to win consistently enough to support a family.

    “Skeptical Handicapper” was written after he retired.

    Knowing that I couldn’t do the handicapping job, I taught, spending two years as an adjunct professor at St. Johns. Guess it’s the same for successful professional horseplayers.

    I was taught many lessons a long time ago, one never stops learning in this game.

  3. On a totally separate note, Creed broke his maiden easily at Belmont. There was a speed duel that helped him, but I think he was best anyway, and he has real talent. He’s a darker version of his sire…spitting image.

  4. Mr. Pricci: I am confident that Mr. Meadow, known as a ‘professional gambler’, did not make his money betting on the the plodders. You should have read beyond the first paragraph as you would have added to your knowledge of this ‘game’ provided by a horseplayer (me, Alice) who has been there, seen it, done it, and has heard it all.

    As to your last paragraph, what seems to be ignored is that thoroughbreds are not the brightest animals in the food chain and that until one can get into a horses head to know if the horse feels like running, et cetera, attempting to find consistency in performance is futile – the horse may run, the horse may not run, the horse may incur instances in a race that eliminate contention. What’s there to continue to learn?

  5. WMC, I’m sure that Mr. Meadow, a few professionals that I know, and myself, are lying. That’s fine, everyone’s entitled.

    Bets, damn, I missed Creed’s debut but I’ll watch the video. So many horses, so little time…

  6. Professor William Quirinn from Alelphi published an exceptional study on racing stats back in the late 70’s, and then a second update in the mid-eighties. He illustrated successful racing computer stats and angles before many knew they were even in play. Think John Pricci had read and studied his computer research early on as well. I remember seeing many of the lines and comments of Pricci’s analysis in Newsday, often the same mindset and angles as Quirin cited in his books. “Two shorts and going long” for one, was always an angle to highlight in the Morning Telegraph lines.

    I recall my brother Peter flipping open Querin’s textbook commentary on bloodlines, and ROI percentages based on new grass sire predicted pay out lines once at Belmont. Here we are sitting in the bleacher seats on the 3rd floor and he’s referring to a text by Quirin. After reading Quirin’s comments on sires, Peter says “You gotta wager on this horse, he’s never been on grass, but Quirin’s book indicates a twenty dollar win coming up. He ended winning and paid $18 and change. Wire to wire and never a doubt. I found a new religion that day.

    After that year, I would send a $10 payment to Dr. Quirin for his yearly updated new sire projection lists. My brother Pete claimed Dr. Querin had paid for much of his St. John’s Law School tuition. He attended Regis High School by the way when Dr. Tony Fauci was Captain of the basketball team. Who knows? Maybe Tony Fauci’s passion for stats led him to Bill Quirin’s passion for numbers as well.

    Now forty years passed, I could read the book again if I could find it. Winning At The Races: Computer Discoveries in Thoroughbred Handicapping. Quirin was at the front of the class during his era. Talented man. He very well knew what oats had already been through the horse. Lol. 😀

    1. Don’t know if you recall McD but Bill Quirin and I did seminars together when I was at Newsday and he at Hofstra. Last time I saw him was in Nove in Saratoga several years ago with his family. He didn’t go too far. Those BRIS speed points is based on his work…

      1. Not aware of your seminars with Bill Quirin John, but always felt your fingerprints could very well be a match. Must have been in my long servitude years on the Steel Snake (LIRR), in and out of the city constantly hustling the overtime. Deal was I promised to bring home the money so that my wife could stay local, and always be around the boys growing up. She started working as a pre-K teacher in the neighborhood. I figured that you could always buy another car, or another vacation, but you could never buy back a kids development years. Probably many HRI Faithful just like me. It all worked out, and now its’ the kid turn to hustle for their kids, lol.

        Now I can relax and enjoy the twelve years I must have forgotten. Seems like in a flash, I switched tracks from Johnnie Ruane and Johnnie Rotz, to landing on the A, C, or E at Chambers Street. All good mind you. The real benefit was on Saturdays, I could still wager on the Frank Wright and Charlsey Cantey WOR late double. By reading your take in Newsday, I always felt I had Querin in the background as well. Not bad for five cents is all.

        P.S. When waiting on my bride to start down the aisle, I simply said to my Best Man, “Riders Up, Post Time.” Only asked my wife that each week that I have enough cash to cover a six pack, and six bucks to cover the 8th and 9th, and two bucks for the late double. I wonder how many from that time knew that C. Cantey’s ex, Joe Cantey, was the trainer of Temperance Hill. Saw him finish second to Col. Moran in the Gotham on WOR, and wrote a note to myself to bet him in the Belmont. “All he needs is more ground.” Any hoot, I ended up camping upstate at North Lake and watched the Stakes in a bar. No AWD back then, and I could only add the story to an endless collection. Love this game is all. Think the other Denny had ’em though. Not sure about Wendell. Maybe he made an exception that day.

  7. wmc,
    I think almost every well-known handicapping book author (HBA) generally provided their readers with some insight into the game to which the latter hadn’t yet been exposed. And even when they didn’t, they delivered enough entertaining anecdotes to leave behind favorable reactions to their work.

    I’ve read all Beyers’ books, but only the original “Picking Winners” that proselytized the figures he eventually marketed — and re-enforced appetites for jockey bashing — left a lasting impression on me. Besides rekindling my interest in racing numbed by two years at Golden Gate, Bay Meadows, and NoCal Racing Fairs, Its greatest value to me was its introduction of Steve Davidowitz whose book, “Betting Thoroughbreds,” was a classic primer on how to think about racing data and devise new ways of using it. It certainly helped my game. I was lucky enough to be able to tell him that during one of his book signings at Hollywood Park.

    During the Santa Anita boycott, Barry Meadows was one of the horseplayer representatives, and Davidowitz was the only other HBA to initially support it — not Beyer or Crist even though they did write that the new CA takeout rates were excessive. Unfortunately Mr. D. reversed his position without explanation, and the boycott was unsuccessful in forcing a rate change without any highly-visible leadership. Mr. Meadow and HRI contributor Andy Asaro were among the player representatives who negotiated the addition of a 12% takeout Pick 5.

    1. I,
      Realize that Barry did have a voice in the Players Pick 5 and California horseplayers have him to thank in part for that.

      Do believe that the three authors you mentioned–I know and liked them all, and was close with the late SD–were rebated for their play, hence their editorial positions…

      1. JP,
        Not surprised that you and SD were close. Like you, he projected personal likeability in his writing in addition to commanding respect for his ideas and approaches to the game that Crist, Beyer, and you have also–all in entertaining fashion. Five minutes was too short an exposure to establish a relationship, but I think he genuinely appreciated my belief that what set his work apart was its positive impact on the long term survival of his readers by “teaching them to fish.”

        I was angry and personally disappointed when he withdrew his support for the boycott, but I doubt I’ll ever learn the full story. I was saddened to hear rumors he had suffered subsequent setbacks prior to his passing. RIP

        1. I,
          The world knows that Steve coined the phrase ‘key race’ back in the day and, like myself, was one of the OG “trip handicappers.” Most of us cut our teeth at the harness tracks.

          Most know, too, that he co-wrote Richie Havens’ biography “They Can’t Hide Up Anymore,” which of course was a Woodstock Festival reference and we attended several shows together with our ladies. Good times.

          Racing-wise, pre-everything and with a dearth of video, Steve would secure tapes of all the Derby preps and the night of the draw a few of us–I believe including Randy Moss, at the time an ink-stained wretch like the rest of us–gathered in Steve’s hotel room for pizza, a few cold ones, and videotape study.

          We didn’t win them all but did have some good days because we were better prepared, thanks to Steve.

  8. Since I was on a 5 race losing streak which covered two separate racing days I can happily state that I caught up with a 1 at race cold exactas,$ 128 x7,a 3 Rd race cheapie,$5.60 x 6,a 6 tu race $ 22 win , a 6 th race exacta and the Last x best,or viceversa, a Good exacta bet,12-10-11 of some $ 240 x5,while the win paid $ 13 plus x 4.No mede of adjunct profs,book writers nor any of Tom Ainsley s Systems.Basically i hit4 outta 5 races.Good hye.

  9. Mr. Ed, er Indulto: It is comforting that neither of us are tossing darts at each other. I assume a truce has been put in place. Being a bit bored at the moment I decided to write the following:

    Way back in the sixties, I think, I came across a Beyer book. I thought that the title was something like ‘How I used $50,000 to ……’. I have, no doubt, wrote about the two happenings that I watched and did, before here at HRI; but having nothing to do at the moment I shall once again present them:

    a) I’m not sure of the time, but it must have been in the late sixties, I caught Andy Beyer being featured on a broadcast on TV. The track was either Laurel or Pimlico. He was going to ‘cap the days races. My ears perked, as here was the eponymous ‘expert’ handicapper.
    He was wagering $200 exacta boxes on each race, and he whiffed! What stuck in my mind was that the TV program followed him to his car, a Mercedes, and it was dark and snowing.

    b) One year, have no idea what year, but it was the day of the Kentucky Derby, I purchased the Daily Racing Form and across two pages were the selections of the DRF ‘cappers and others. The number was well over twenty or twenty-five. None had the winner.

    c) I was in a mall a few miles from my home one evening while my wife was shopping. I wandered into a book store and as I was leaving I notice a barrel full of books for $1. I looked down into it and near the top was a book, rather large, indicating that it was about Thoroughbred racing written by Tom Ainsley. I spent a buck and over a few days read parts of it. In the following couple of months I couldn’t separate any of the platers, as they all figured! It took several months to wash Ainsley’s ‘expertise’ from my ‘capping methods.

    My message: There are no ‘experts’ with exceptional handicapping skills. Sure, newbies need an introduction to Thoroughbred racing, but puleese don’t try to give them a winner, when the expert has no idea himself.

    1. wmc,
      I value our interactions even when you’re not happy with me. LOL

      I haven’t been to a book store in a decade, and usually and also usually perused the bargain books also while while waiting for my better half. Interestingly, Beyer’s books were the only one’s I ever encountered there; probably because more were actually printed.

      It was always fun looking at the expanded DRF Derby and BC selections and comparing the results. I had to laugh at Beyer’s distancing himself from “the figures that bear my name” after dismissing War Emblem despite its towering BSF.

      “My message: There are no ‘experts’ with exceptional handicapping skills. Sure, newbies need an introduction to Thoroughbred racing, but puleese don’t try to give them a winner, when the expert has no idea himself.”

      Of course there are no guaranteed winners, but a selection by someone with proven success is more likely to pay off than one by either of us daily deli sandwich/pickle consumers. LOL

      I’ve never read a more convincing public selection than Davidowitz’s picking Afleet Alex in the Belmont Stakes. Maybe its still available on the Trackmaster website.

  10. Wendell, Years back on a job interview, I once brought attention to the undeniable truth that I recognized that I was competing with a much younger and formal education wise more talented candidates fresh out of various grad school. I offered a competitive race in any endeavour could be broken down to speed and closers. “Rabbits and Turtles” I explained. I said “I was much more a closer style, but I could tell you about all the cracks in the road unnoticed by most.” The same could be said of John Pricci. Always a tradesmen of excellence who forever gives a yeoman’s effort, and back in the day when I learned of racing, you could never get a better analysis than Pricci for a nickel. If I had an extra five cents, I would back him up with Russ Harris. Well spent dimes. Lol.

    Remember Beyer once writing the biggest mistake his parents ever made was sending him off to Harvard. Took him only a few weeks to learn that there was a place two subway stops away from school giving away free cash almost every day. “Suffolk Downs.”

    Good to hear from I and Wendell on the same visit.

    Good Night Gents!

  11. I love this book – about to start my 3rd reading. The research is just fantastic. I still flip through Money Secrets at the Racetrack from time to time as a refresher, and it’s amazing how often I’ll discover a little math or procedural error that I’ve allowed to creep in when putting together P3/P4 tix or something. I am of the firm belief that you get the most out of Barry Meadow books when you read them a number of times. Perhaps it’s a reading comprehension issue on my end, but there is too much info for me to absorb in one or two readings.

    Speaking of great handicapping books, I still rummage through old boxes looking for my lost copy of Kinky Handicapping by Mark Cramer.

    1. Happy that Mr. Meadow has at least one glowing review from a satisfied customer. Truly, the research is Grade 1. No promises, no nonsense, just what the facts lay bear. Good for you, Doc.

      Cramer’s a great writer and some of his angles are priceless. Hope you find it. I have a copy somewhere as well…

    2. “I love this book – about to start my 3rd reading. ”

      Same here, Doc. I have it on my tablet. It’s great reading on the throne.

  12. I want to show my admiration for your kind-heartedness for men and women that really need guidance on this particular idea. Your special dedication to passing the message throughout appeared to be amazingly valuable and have surely empowered professionals much like me to get to their desired goals. This invaluable help entails much a person like me and further more to my office workers. With thanks; from everyone of us.

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