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Track Tracts

Many Mechanical Methods Meritorious
by Gordon Pine

I�ve always been a fan of mechanical handicapping methods because they�re fun, edifying and sometimes profitable. You can often learn something (either positive or, more often, negative) from them. Probably 80% of the methods I�ve tested over the years were clear losers. But the silver lining in losing methods is that they teach you what to avoid in the future. And there are some mechanical methods that seem to show a small profit, at least for the periods over which I�ve tested them. I don�t advocate mechanical methods as a serious way to beat the track. But you can find spot plays that seem to work in limited situations.

Good mechanical methods are based on some fundamental handicapping truth which is undervalued by the crowd. Mechanical methods strictly applied have the advantage that you will sometimes bet horses that you normally wouldn�t touch with a 10-foot pole using traditional handicapping. Usually enough of the crowd agrees with you that this horse stinks that it goes off at relatively attractive odds. Yet whatever positive the automatic method saw in the horse, it�s often reflected in the fact that these ponies do win their share and more, even with their checkered past.

For instance, there are mechanical methods based on the handicapping fundamental of early speed. Using Quirin�s speed points, one study looked at horses which had a two or more speed point advantage over every other horse in the race, had raced within 10 days, had at least one win in the last 10 races, and were in post position one through eight if racing in a route today. These bets came up about once per card, won 28% of the time in a 192-race sample, and generated an ROI of 1.39.

Another example: there was an old Mark Cramer system which I believe he called "Rags to Riches." (Forgive me � my wall of handicapping books is packed away in the attic while some work is being done in my house, so I�m working mostly on memory here, and I�ve got the memory of a retarded gnat.) I�ll outline a couple, but not all, of the rules so as not to give the game away. If you click on the above link and look for a book called Fast Track to Thoroughbred Profits, you�ll probably find this or something similar in there.

To qualify for Rags to Riches, a horse needed to be out-of-the-money and a certain number of lengths behind the winner in the last race. Secondly, the horse needed to be dropping in odds by a certain amount today compared to its last race. There were several other qualifying rules, but those two are the crux of the matter I want to discuss. The first rule provided value: horses who were out-of-the-money and so many lengths back last time out tend to have decent and sometimes very high odds. The second rule provides the contrarian meat of the method: if this horse did so poorly last time out, why are its odds so much lower today? In a test I did of this method, there were 76 winners out of 399 bets for a win percentage of 19%. The ROI was 1.18. There were about 12 plays per week, per track.

So, here are two mechanical methods which showed a profit during their test periods. If you reran them now, would they still be profitable? Maybe, maybe not. But they�d definitely still be fun. And they both teach us something. Lesson One: Dominant early speed is dangerous and undervalued. Lesson Two: Unexpected tote action can be meaningful and undervalued.

"So, here are two mechanical methods which showed a profit during their test periods. If you reran them now, would they still be profitable? Maybe, maybe not."

Handicapping boils down to finding a profitable subset of all possible bets. Theoretically, there are a huge number of possible profitable bet subsets, big and small. To say that none of them could be filtered out by mechanical methods seems unlikely. And besides, profitability shouldn�t be the only criteria of a mechanical method. If a mechanical method loses money, say with an ROI of .89, it has effectively cut the track take on random bets in half. That means your job when doing "real" handicapping on those horses is only half as tough.

Now to end by playing devil�s advocate to my own theme: mechanical methods can be fun, but not if you lose big with them. That�s why it�s a good idea to run a test on paper first or use a mini-bankroll to try a method out. And remember � it probably takes judgement to know when to apply a method and when to stop playing it, which means it isn�t completely mechanical in the first place, right? NC

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