Experts debate this fundamental question. You might think, "Well, it is obviously to predict the outcome of horse races." This very reasonable answer is largely correct.
But most track purists would quibble with it. If you suggest that handicappers try to pick "the winner," the experts would say that you are off target.
The objective of handicapping is to examine horses, identifying those (note the plural) that have a chance (maybe large, maybe not) of winning a specific race. Then the objective is to quantify that chance, given the body of the race (the horses in the race), the track, the jockey and all other relevant factors.
What is the difference between these two approaches? The second acknowledges that the betting odds as determined by the public may not reflect any given horse's promise of performance, and thus each horse must be examined separately in the context of the race and the pari-mutuel odds. Handicappers look for overlays amongst horses other than the expected winner. Predicting the likely winner of a given race is part of handicapping to be sure, but the task is by no means defined by that one pick. Much of handicapping relates to understanding how horses have run in the past, in order to predict how they will run in the future. All of this equips the handicapper to construct advantageous bets.
The true objective of handicapping, then, is to find betting propositions in which the public has made a mistaken gamble in the pari-mutuel odds.
It is said that 90% of the race outcome depends on the horse. Perhaps. Each horse is a separate actor in the tangle of information, and 30,000 new horses enter the field each year. Their racing careers are not that long, just a few years at most, so that the handicapper is constantly meeting new friends. Most seasoned handicappers believe three basic things about horses: (1) That the most fundamental variable in predicting the outcome of a race is the horse (as compared to the jockey, the trainer, the owner, the track, etc.); (2) while the horse is a powerful athlete, parts of its physical makeup can be weak or injured, and these conditions, if un-noticed, will cause surprises in the outcomes of races; and (3) the horse's mental and emotional make-up - its personality - greatly contributes to the animal's performance at the track, for good or ill. More on handicapping horses.
Next to the horse itself, the jockey is probably the most influential element of handicapping. Handicappers want to know if this is the same jockey as in previous outings, and if not, whether there is any reason for the change. The jockey's own style needs to be compatible with that of the horse, though this is usually the main concern of the trainer, and is hard to second-guess from a race book.
The jockey's own win record is important, as well as experience generally. Handicapping materials give the jockey's win-loss record.
After horse and jockey, the track is the third strongest influence on the outcome of a race. There is a racing expression, "Horses for Courses," which refers to the fact that some horses simply do better at certain tracks than at any of the others. Even though an effort is made to make the track level, smooth and (except for the turns) straight, sometimes local conditions can affect the horse's concentration, and cause a change in performance. If a horse is racing at the track where he has most of his wins, you can handicap that as a "home field advantage."
It is fair to say that most horses would win their races if they were the only entrant. What creates the problem of predicting outcomes is the competition. Good handicapping requires looking at the whole field, the "body of the race," and visualizing how the race will be run. Will it be fast, slow, or in between? Will there be one lead horse or several disputing the lead? Will some predictable pace horses be able to take the lead as they come down the stretch? Are there closers that might come out of nowhere at the last minute? Will there be a lot of traffic on the rail? Once a race takes on a visualized contour, it may be possible to figure out which horses can be expected not to be in the money. Concentrating on those with a palpable chance to perform, the question then becomes which one or ones might prevail, and which ones will probably come just shy of winning? This requires relating all the information acquired about a specific horse with all the other information on the other horses in contention. After a while, a picture should emerge as to how the race will unfold. It is that picture, combined with what the pari-mutuel odds are looking like, that instructs the handicapper about which bets should be placed, if any.
Part of visualizing the race contour is to take the post position into account for each horse. Do the post positions aid or hinder a given horse in running the sort of race we would expect of him (or her)? The reputation of the jockey may become relevant in deciding whether post position improves or reduces the chances for success of a given horse. Inside positions make for a shorter race, but with the risk of being held up in traffic. Speed horses typically prefer the inside positions, as they jump right out in front on the rail. Pace horses and closers often prefer middle-to-outside positions, as there is less traffic and no one likely to be in the way when the horse makes its move.
This is "senior management" for the horse. Certain trainers attract much more betting money than others, as the public comes to know certain trainers for their success is preparing a horse for a race, or for racing in general. A trainer's race statistics, like those of a jockey, are published as part of the information on a horse in the Daily Racing Form. To a lesser degree, perhaps the owner may enter into the handicapping calculus. Some owners are recognized as having success in identifying promising horses, and thus merit a vote of confidence at the track. Likewise, in claiming races, the presence of a horse in the race may have a little history associated with it, indicating that the owner wants to get rid of the horse. If the owner is trusted, perhaps it's a sign that the horse should not attract a bet.
Rarely can a race be so easy to handicap that there are no close calls. The Race Secretary tries hard to make every race exciting. Thus, after going through the standard procedure of handicapping, it still may not be clear which of two or more horses seems to be more likely to perform well. In these circumstances, handicappers will seek to include special considerations in their thinking. Though any one of these additional factors may not be strong enough to determine an outcome, they can help decide between one or two horses, particularly if several of these factors, taken cumulatively, tend to favor one of the horses in question.
Or if another horse from the same barn is in a race, the first horse may be entered to run out and set a fast pace so as to tire out the other horses and open a path for the barn’s other entrant. (This tactic, common in cycling, is still frowned upon in racing. The sacrificial horse is called “a rabbit,” like the mechanical rabbit at dog races.) A positive “tell” might be the entrance of a claimer in a non-claiming race, particularly one that has had some wins in the claiming races. A “hard-knocking claimer” can have the right street smarts to do well in an allowance race or optional claiming race. The fact that the trainer has made the move communicates a certain positive appraisal of the horse’s chances from someone who knows the horse well.
Many, many more possible scenarios can be found in this blend of data and analysis that will lead to prognosticating how a race will go. The reason that there are millions of diehard race handicappers in the United States is that each person can sift through it all and develop his or her own style.
Even so, an important limitation remains: that of stochastic disturbance. Even if we could identify and measure all the hundreds of variables that help to determine how a specific race will be run, random influences will still remain – those small, unexplainable variations. The trick for most handicapping experts lies in tracking adjustments in their handicapping methodologies. Then they can decide in retrospect if they are honing in on the deterministic part of the problem, or just chasing the random variations. To be able to evaluate and improve on methodologies, careful record keeping is a must. This includes all the handicapping notes and the records of wagers based on those notes.
Moving Up from Maiden - Probably the biggest shock of a change of class for a horse is going from maiden races to claiming or allowance races. The reason is that every horse after maiden has won at least one race, and presumably knows how to win. For a young horse this move up in rank is potentially very radical, depending, of course, on how long it took to “graduate” out of the maiden ranks.
Moving into Open Company - Another shock is moving from state-restricted races to “open company” races, where horses from anyplace are welcome. The state-restricted races are designed to encourage breeding in the states in question, and the competition is usually not as stiff as in open company. Before relying on a horse’s prior performances, note if they were state-restricted, as that might cause a rethinking of the evaluation.
Moving from Sprint to Route - If a sprinter shows the ability to last in a longer race by keeping up the speed, but saving some energy to see the race through (“stretching out”), then that horse is a strong prospect for running a winning race. Likewise, if a sprinter enters a route race and shows that the running habits appropriate to the shorter distances still prevail, the horse is likely to tire before the wire.
Moving to a Shorter Race - If a sprinter has done reasonably well at, say 7 furlongs, but has been moved by the trainer to a 6 furlong race, the result may be very positive. The likelihood is that the horse will have yet more energy to expend in the shorter distance. This angle does not always apply to a route racer going into sprint, unless it’s an obvious speed horse, as the habit of “pacing” the expenditure of energy may cause the horse not to go “all out” on a shorter distance.
A horse that runs into trouble is sometimes called a “trip horse.” There is no systematic way of keeping track of them. You just have to watch the races and the replays closely. Trouble can come in the starting gate, or in the far side of the race (the back stretch), the far turn, or even coming down the home stretch. It can be traffic, or being bothered by other horses, or resentful of the jockey or equipment. Anyone who keeps good notes on trip horses may be able to find overlays because the public probably is not aware of a horse’s proclivity to trip or that a poor past performance can be explained by some unique event unlikely to recur. Thus, an isolated incident might totally explain a sub-par performance, which has entered into everyone else’s handicapping. Disregarding an unrepresentative start might generate an edge for the handicapper. Other people’s trip notes may be available in the DRF or on the web. Check the race footnotes carefully for details.
There really is no good substitute for one’s own vision, however. The best example of the benefit of personal observation is the “hidden move.” Sometimes a jockey interview might tip this off, but usually, the “jockeying” in the middle of the race is un-documented and perhaps unnoticed. If a horse shows a willingness to try a move in the middle of one race, it may be a good handicapping point for a later race, even if the move was not successful. The idea is to find the promise of developing good form before the general public takes notice. The break and the stretch are closely watched race segments, but the back stretch and far turn just do not make it into the notes as often.
Though typically not considered part of trip handicapping, close observation of the horse after finishing a race can yield good information for the next time out. If the horse keeps running, showing that he was not out of gas and that he was enjoying himself in the race, this is positive for handicapping the next race. If the horse “crashes,” he may not have the moxie to run the whole race next time.
A Non-Finish - If a horse is “eased” in the race, that is, quits before the finish line, it can be a bad sign for later races. Many handicappers regard the inability to complete the race as a sign of physical injury or personality flaw (for example, “spitting the bit” out of temper rather than fatigue). Knowing why the horse failed to finish is important, as it may not be attributable to the horse. An example would be an equipment problem. Just as trip handicapping can help find over-lays because of information not in the public’s hands, having an explanation for a failure to finish might allow handicapping that will find value in betting.
A Low but Winning Beyer - A horse that wins a race with a relatively low Beyer may be discounted by some handicappers because he ran slowly. This would be correct and appropriate for a horse other than the leader, as the assumption would be that the horse (and jockey) were trying for the maximum possible speed. But a winning horse with a low Beyer should not necessarily be punished for running a relatively slow race. After all, crossing the finish line first is all that is required. There was no other horse out in front of him to stimulate him to push hard. Therefore, the handicapper needs to conclude in such a circumstance whether the low Beyer is deserved or just a reflection that speed was not necessary to win the race.