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Track Tracts

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: 
Semi-Mechanical Contender Selection
by Gordon Pine

I know that one of the biggest pleasures I get when handicapping with the Racing Form is to take the colored pens (colored pens are an infallible sign of a good handicapper) and cross out certain horses ' obliterate them from consideration. Handicapping has so many gray areas that a mechanical method of contender elimination has a liberating sense of decisiveness. Yeroutahere!

There are a lot of factors you can use to eliminate horses. Most contender-selection schemes concentrate on eliminating horses which figure to have low win percentages. However, your focus should be on types of horses that have historically generated a low Return On Investment (ROI), not just horses with a small chance of winning.

Random win betting in thoroughbred races will generate an ROI of about .78. In other words, you'll get 78 cents back for each dollar wagered, or a loss of about 22 cents per dollar wagered. (Yep, that's more than the track take, but that's a topic for a later date.) The way I see it, the point of contender selection is to throw out the horses whose ROI is likely to be significantly lower than that. If you can throw out a few horses whose ROI is likely to be .60 or lower, it means you're tilting the odds in your favor. The remaining contenders, as a group, will have an ROI above the random .78 range. Your goal should be to bring your contenders into the .85 to .90 and over range before you even worry about which horse you're going to bet. Then you're at least within spitting distance of making a profit.

Look through the literature of thoroughbred handicapping for studies that point out negative ROI situations which you can use to eliminate horses. Good sources include William Quirin's books, Sports Stat, Michael Nunamaker, or Jim Mazur's track-specific studies.

Contender elimination should be a two-step process. First, you tentatively cross out the bad apples. Next, you "uneliminate" some of those horses by checking for certain positives. The trick is to have a couple of colored pens, one for tentative eliminations (many handicapping sophisticates prefer orange) and one for final eliminations (red).

Again, the first step is to tentatively eliminate horses using various criteria based on low ROI. Below are some of my favorite eliminations. There are plenty more out there, but I recommend you only use those that are tested, either by you or someone you trust, and show an ROI of .60 or less:

' Horse with a morning line of 30/1 or higher. In one study of over 50,000 horses of all odds ranges, the horses with morning lines of 30/1 or higher had an ROI of .24 (loss of 76 cents per dollar wagered).
' Horse with track odds of 20/1 or higher (.44 ROI).
' Horse has track odds of 10/1 or higher at 5 minute mark, odds increase by two or more notches before post-time (about .55 ROI)
' Horse coming off 45+ day layoff (.56 ROI).
' Horse coming off 30+ day layoff, going up in class (.12 ROI).
' Horse coming off 30+ day layoff, no works since last race (.12 ROI).
' No more than one of the last six races were at this general distance (sprint vs. route), (.42 ROI).
' No in-the-money finishes in the last six races (.33 ROI).
' Has not had odds less than 5/1 in the last six races (.54 ROI)
' Turf race, horse has one of the top four last-race Beyer numbers, last race was on firm course, today is an off-track (.44 ROI).
' Favorite today, has a layoff of 45+ days between the last and the second-to-last race (.57 ROI).

(I'd be interested to hear about any other eliminations you handicappers out there have used successfully, especially if you have stats to back them up. Please post them on The Grandstand message board or email me at

Ron Ambrose used to say that positives outweigh negatives, and it's very true. Therefore, the next step is to redeem some of the tentative non-contenders because of some positive sign or signs. For longshots of 9/1 or greater, only require one positive sign to bring the horse back into the fold. Winning longshots almost always look bad on paper -- that's why they're longshots. But when you go back and look at them, there's usually at least one positive sign that the horse had a shot - a sign that you don't see in most longshots. I can't list all the possibilities, but they might include:

' Horse gets back jockey who has won on it before.
' High-percentage trainer.
' Unusually fast work.
' Good early speed in the last race which is atypical for this horse.
' A pattern of some kind reoccurs today which matches the horse's last victory.
' Layoff horse who has won off the layoff before.
' etc.

Be a little more skeptical about uneliminating lower odds horses (8/1 or less). You get your edge by tossing these puppies. You're going to be wrong sometimes, but you're dealing with long-term probabilities, so it should help you in the long run not to consider these horses. If you see reason to redeem one of these low-odds tentative eliminations, then do so. Reasons could include:

' A definite ability edge over the rest of the field.
' Weak competition, so you think the horse is likely to win despite its negatives.
' A track bias that favors the horse.
' A positive trainer specialty
' A good trainer/jockey combination
' etc.

Okay, you've eliminated the money-sucking non-contenders. Now it's time to handicap your contenders. It'll be a much easier job without the money-suckers to confuse the issue. A couple of caveats: 1) Just because you've eliminated a horse from win contention doesn't mean it won't place or show. Remember that when putting together your exactas and trifectas. That doesn't mean they're good bets in the place and show spots, just that they're liable to hurt you sometimes. 2) If you're a pace handicapper, be sure to consider the non-contenders in your pace scenarios. Just because they're bad win bets doesn't mean they won't affect the pace of the race.

Remember, these horses will win from time to time, but, as long as you learn to uneliminate the exceptions to the low ROI elimination rules, they form a group of poor bets which it can only behoove you to avoid. Hopefully, your potential ROI is in the .85 to .90 range or higher as you start handicapping your contenders. It's a lot easier to go from there to profitability  NC

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