Handling Handicapping Off The Layoff

With the added February matinees now completed, the 2018 racing season goes into full swing this week at Saratoga Casino Hotel. As we focus on handicapping the races in this first month or so of the season, there are a few aspects to really focus in on. Opening weekend brought about a host of longshot winners, a much higher percent than will likely prevail over the course of the entire season. Was it coincidence that a bunch of longshots all scored in the first few days of the meet or is this a trend that will continue? Well, that remains to be seen but there are few major contributing factors that go into handicapping that may not be as crucial when looking at the program in say May or June. Spotting these aspects, and combining them with a little luck, could go a long way to getting you to win big when you come to the races (or when wagering at home on SaratogaBets.)

Atop the list of most difficult aspects of handicapping to start the year is gauging who is most ready to roll in their first start back. Roughly half of the horses that competed on opening weekend had not recorded a race yet in 2018. Of these horses, a strong portion (maybe half of them) had at least one qualifier under his or her belt before making their ’18 debut. How do we know if a horse is “ready” when they haven’t shown competing for, in many cases, two or more months? While of course some of it is an unknown, there are trends that can be followed. Note which trainers seem to thrive off the layoff and which ones seem to prefer to get a start or two back as a base for what’s to come in what is a long racing season. Here’s a piece of data that should help indicate what to do with the horse that didn’t race or qualify since 2017. Of opening day’s eleven winners, a grand total of ZERO didn’t have a race or qualifier. This may seem like an obvious tidbit or trend but when you look at the public betting patterns, this trend wasn’t always followed.

The best example of this betting philosophy took place in the season’s first Open Pace of the year. Artful Way, the defending Horse of the Year at Saratoga was making his return in the $12,000 feature for pacers. The superstar hadn’t raced since December and without even having a qualifier on his card heading into the start, conventional wisdom was (or should have been) to not expect this horse to be anywhere near his best. It just wouldn’t make sense would it? Is a starting pitcher in baseball going to have his ‘A’ game, go eight or nine innings and be ready to dominate in his first start or two of the season? No, of course not. It just isn’t realistic, barring something extremely unforeseen. Artful Way was tasked with competing against seven other pacers, each of which had raced out of town in January and/or February or at minimum had a qualifier to their credit. Artful Way, as talented and gifted of a horse that we have at Saratoga, finished eighth on opening day and was the 6-5 betting favorite. The writing was on the wall here for handicappers, especially at a level with as strong of competitors as an Open. In his second start of the year, Artful Way was once again the public’s overwhelming choice but missed the board, having to settle for a fourth place finish. It will likely not take Artful Way long to get back into form but when posed with situations like his, bettors should think about this scenario and try to beat the 6-5 and even money favorite. You might just be amply rewarded if you do.

Another big factor in making handicapping difficult in the early stages of the season is that many horses are new to their connections. There are dozens of horses trained by local conditioners that debuted for their new connections after being acquired either via a claim, a sale or a private purchase. Also, there is a host of horses competing now that are “shippers.” Several out of town trainers have already brought and will bring members of their stable to town in the opening month or two of the season. Much of this is that several tracks in the region such as Vernon Downs, Tioga and Plainridge aren’t racing yet so we always get a lot of invaders in the opening months of the year.

Gauging the significance of qualifiers is another key to handicapping, especially early on in the meet. Just how much stock are you supposed to put into a qualifier when trying to determine whether a horse is ready to win or not? A qualifier is basically a scrimmage game. The “wins and losses” don’t so much matter, it’s more of how the horse is in that morning work. Without having the benefit of watching the actual qualifier, handicappers are tasked with trying to ascertain just what the line in the program means. Some trainers will use the qualifiers simply as a bit of a tightener, a warm-up of sorts. Others will use them as launching pads towards a race the following week. I feel, as a rule, when a horse has two qualifiers, which several do after a long winter of rest, that basically equates to one race. Most often, in the horse’s second qualifier, he/she will be tested a bit harder, asked a lot more from. Usually a trainer that qualifies a horse twice does so either because the first qualifier was just terrible or more often because they want that one more scrimmage before the games count for real. As with most aspects of handicapping, you sometimes can see patterns. Some trainers’ philosophies of use of qualifiers are much different than others. As a rule, use the two qualifier prep as a strong indicator that the horse may be ready to put in a much better effort than one with just the lone official morning work. Handicapping, as we know, isn’t easy. It never is and even more so at the start of a racing meet that follows a several month layoff. One thing a bettor can do though in times like these is get value. There has been a large percentage of longshots winning in the season’s first couple of weeks. On opening day, the early double was comprised of a 20-1 and a 29-1 shot. The 29-1 shot had not only been racing throughout the winter but was coming off of a win at Yonkers in late January. The 20-1 fit the criteria of being the first start out of a new barn for a local trainer and coming off a decent qualifier. Finding the horses who fit the right mold for a live longshot is the key to getting paid in the first few weeks and months as horses who were off for a couple months start to build their foundations back while attempting to find their peak form moving forward into this 2018 campaign.

The ’18 racing season goes into full swing starting this week as our regular schedule takes effect. Thursday and Sunday matinees will start at 12:15pm while Friday and Saturday night racing is back with first posts set for 6:45pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!

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