This article originally appeared in October's Horseplayer Monthly magazine. To read that issue, chalk filled with handicapping articles and stats, please click here. It is 100% free.
A couple of years ago the New England Patriots were on their own 28 yard line with 2:08 to play. They were up 34 to 28 on the Indianapolis Colts and it was 4th down and two. That would make for an easy decision, one may guess; you punt. But Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick didn’t punt, he went for it.
Unfortunately for Coach Belichick and the Patriots, this seemingly brazen move backfired; the Indianapolis defense stuffed them. Two minutes later the Colts converted and the Patriots lost 35 to 34.
The news media and fans, both during and after the game, wanted Belichick’s head on a stick. They asked, "How could a coach who is supposedly so smart be so stupid? I mean really, you punt in that situation. It’s not even debatable."
It turns out Bill Belichick was not stupid, he was just playing the odds. In that situation, with hundreds of thousands of simulations, the play was to go for it because you’d win more often if you did. A supercomputer named “Zeus” at a Boston University confirmed it. Belichick was doing the right thing because he wasn’t playing a gut feel; he had access to and was playing the numbers.
Even with that piece of information, most sports writers, fans and commentators failed to believe it. Going for it in your own end just seems so wrong, so against convention, so against what we’ve always been taught in football, that is has to be wrong.
As horseplayers we fight similar feelings each day. A lot of us learn handicapping at a young age, and the things we learn – the “rules” - stick with us. We’re not sure they’re true, but they sound like they are. We’ve seen it happen, our friends talked about it, we read it in a handicapping book, or saw an analyst talk about it on a simulcast screen and we’ve cashed some tickets, too. It’s our “gut feel” and it has to be right.
Sometimes it isn’t.
I have a friend who will not bet rider Julien Leparoux if he is riding a speed horse on the turf. I think he saw him strangle a speed horse or two and said never again, or maybe because he is from “over there” he rides too patiently and is a toss out. No matter what the reason, he’s an “auto pitch” according to my friend. I don’t think he’s the only one who does that with Mr. Leparoux. On chat boards or on Twitter I see the same quite often.
Bill Belichick might ask, “but is he really that bad?”
Leparoux, on the green in 2013 (that rhymes), wins 17% of the time and his ROI is a solid 0.95. With “e” or “ep” tagged horses – the speed – my friend may expect a bad number, but Mr. Leparoux has clicked with 21% for an ROI of 1.10. With the top last race pace fig with a similar paceline in 2013, he wins at 27.2% and possesses a sparkling ROI of 1.19. With horses on the green with Quirin speed points of over 5, he wins at 27% and is also highly profitable.
So much for that theory, perhaps.
We all want to see some sort of recency in works for a horse who has been off a little while. One friend fades pretty much every horse off three weeks or more without a work. That is not going out on a limb and makes perfect sense. In fact, the numbers bear this out. In 2013, horses off no work and off 25 days or more have a lower impact value than those who are worked.
One day we’re discussing the third race at Belmont where trainer David Jacobson had a horse off 28 days with no works who was 5-2. “I think he is not hitting the board,” said my friend, as he walked to the virtual betting window to toss him out. Unfortunately for him, the horse ended up winning easily.
It turns out that conventional wisdom does not work with some trainers and David Jacobson is one of them. With no works, off 25 or more days, he’s hit with 7 of 22 starters for 31% (for about a flat ROI). His win percentage with all horses is around 24%. In a common sense situation where we should look elsewhere – in Belichick parlance, we should “punt” – we should actually be sitting the race out, or keying the horse in exotics.
Starters off extended layoffs is another fade for many handicappers. In the 1970’s and beyond, these horses, who are at times coming back off huge problems, won at a terrible win rate. They were the quintessential “auto pitch”. In modern horse racing they are still poor and win at a rate that is worse than average, but if they have a bullet work and a properly spaced worktab, horses off 300 or more days in 2013, have a 0.992 ROI and win 17% of the time. For some trainers, as you can see here, betting them can be extremely profitable.
Bill Belichick is a good coach and one of the reasons he is a good coach is because he is unafraid to buck convention, when bucking convention has some type of validity. Handicappers like me and you are playing against other handicappers – this game is “pari-mutuel” – and if other handicappers are all doing the same thing, it does not mean it’s necessarily correct. We need to be skeptical, yet wary; respectful of wisdom, yet curious. By channeling our inner Bill Belichick we can become better and more profitable horseplayers.