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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Don't Be A Lawyer When Handicapping

This article by Barry Meadow appeared in the February edition of Horseplayer Monthly. To read the March 2014 issue with 32 pages of handicapping interviews and insight for free, please click here. 

All of us have a certain way of looking at races.  Maybe we check the trainers first, or circle the high Beyers, or closely examine each horse's last race.  The problem:  Some players use that first look as their main guide, and then don't go much further.  They become what I call "lawyer handicappers."

Rather than looking for the pluses and minuses of all the entrants, and then beginning the real work of handicapping, lawyer handicappers get fixated on one particular factor in the record of one particular horse.  After that, objectivity takes a vacation.  The rest of the handicapping becomes nothing more than a search for additional reasons to support that first glance.  They are looking to pick the winner, rather than to try to analyze the chances of each entrant--exactly the wrong approach to the game.

Lawyer handicapping is on display most clearly on television.  You can hear lawyer handicapping every few minutes when the hosts are required to pick a winner for every race that's aired.  A typical comment, "I'm going with #3, because of the class drop and the hot trainer."  (Exactly where he is going with the #3 is uncertain, since few of the commentators bet any actual money).  They have little interest in a detached look at the entire event.  Instead, they point out all the reasons why Smarty Secretariat should win.

A real professional gambler doesn't do this.  He might say he likes #3 slightly over #4 and #8, and #3 at 4-1 is a decent price.  Or maybe #3 offers no value but the #4 is a juicy 7-1.  Or the superfecta looks playable because he hates the second choice and plans to leave him out altogether.  Or maybe he has no opinion at all. 

But people seem to want opinions.  On the Internet, you can buy picks from so many sources that it sometimes appears as if there are more handicappers in cyberspace than in the grandstand.  A few offer detailed explanations of why they like #9, preparing briefs so extensive that law students may someday study them.  They make a case, marshaling evidence that supports #9 while offering reasons to dismiss the other entrants.  It doesn't matter to the lawyer handicappers that many aspects of handicapping are contradictory.  For instance, the horse might have run a strong last race (good), but his work pattern since is sketchy and he has never run two good races in a row (bad).  Or his trainer is hitting 20% with his sprinters this season (good), but he's 0-for-17 the last two years with this jockey (bad).

However, lawyer handicappers never tell you about the bad.  Listen to handicappers on the radio--who nearly always are there solely to convince you to purchase the rest of their selections --and you'll see some beautiful lawyer handicapping at work.  Hearing them, you can't help thinking of Johnny Cochran of O.J. infamy--these guys sound so persuasive that you forget for a moment that they have no interest in sharing any evidence to the contrary.

One way to help your handicapping is to pretend to be a lawyer handicapper.  Play a game I call The Obvious Selection.  Take any horse in the race, and list all the reasons why this horse appears to be a cinch.  Throw it all in--class movements (a drop shows he's looking for easier company, a raise shows the trainer has confidence in him), speed ratings (he has the best in the field, or the best last out, or he's coming up to his best figure), connections (the trainer is hot, or does well with this angle, or it's first time with this trainer), and the pace scenario (he'll be pressing a soft pace, or tucked in behind the speed).  To top it off, the fans will overlook him because they don't realize his many virtues.     

You can, with practice, come up with positives on just about everybody in every race.  If a horse's best race was six months ago, say he has back class.  If his jockey is going through a slump, say that the rider is due.  If he finished in the money last out, say his form is good--but if he finished out of the money last out, say that will only help the price

Do this even for horses you would ordinarily dismiss on first inspection.  The reason for the game is to give a positive spin to every horse, coming up with some scenario under which the horse could win.  Then, go negative, making each horse The Obvious Throw-Out.  Mention every reason why the horse won't win or is a bad bet.  Do this for the whole field.  Now you're ready for real handicapping.

The problem with the typical lawyer handicapper is that his analysis stops at one horse.  Let me give you an example.  On television recently, an analyst said he was going to make a certain horse, a 5-1 shot, his best bet of the day because the horse had big-time trouble last time.  However, there were two other horses in the race with better figures.  If either of them fired, the trouble horse wouldn't win without major improvement.  But the analyst didn't care about that.  As it turned out the two favorites ran 1-2, with the trouble horse third--as any objective handicapper might have predicted.  But the analyst was fixated on the trouble to the exclusion of real handicapping.

Don't make the same mistake.  Instead of thinking like a lawyer and trying to convince a jury about the rightness of your cause, think like a juror and consider all the evidence before making any handicapping decision. 

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