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Handicapping 301: The Knowns vs. the Unknowns

Handicapping 301: The Knowns vs. the Unknowns

Handicapping 301 is a new series that will focus on high-level theories and strategies that are often overlooked or not implemented. I’m going to pull specific examples from my wins and losses while playing mainly multi-race wagers, but these tips can be applied to handicapping any race.

At Churchill Downs on Friday, May 5, I was alive to the biggest score of my life. Heading into the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, my Pick 6 ticket was 5-for-5 in a sequence that did not have a single favorite win. I needed one of two horses (Midnight Bisou and Coach Rocks) to win the Kentucky Oaks. Those two horses’ possible payouts? $50,000 and $100,000, from a $432 ticket.

Ultimately, I ended up with a pair of 5-for-6 combinations that each paid $716 (so I cashed $1,432), but my choices sparked a conversation the next day with my uncle. He was interested in my logic to play Toinette in the Grade 3 Edgewood Stakes and why I was only two-deep in that race with Rushing Fall. I explained my reasoning for about 10 minutes, but the conversation stuck with me long after, and I did not realize why until this morning. While I broke down why I liked Toinette, I completely missed explaining why it was the second horse on my ticket and why I did not add any other contenders.

Today’s Lesson: The Knowns vs. The Unknowns

When betting mutli-race wagers (Pick 3s thru Pick 6s), the goal is to select the winner of each race. While that seems obvious, it’s overlooked by the majority of people betting into the pools.

For this type of wager, your handicapping should be different than if you are looking to play a single race. Let’s focus on the two important questions that you should ask yourself, then look at the Edgewood in more detail:

1 – Which is the second-most-likely horse to hit the board?

2 – Which is the second-most-likely horse to win the race?

Now to the Edgewood, where Rushing Fall was made the deserving 4-5 morning line favorite. When handicapping, I always start with the morning line favorite because that is the barometer for the rest of the field and is generally the horse that other entries need to be capable of beating. Once I look through the field, I generally break the race down into two groups: the knowns and the unknowns. Put simply, can I (within reason) know what to expect from a horse based on a handful of efforts at similar distances over this race’s surface? In the Edgewood, here is how I broke them down:

Knowns: #1 Got Stormy, #2 Beyond Blame, #4 Figarella’s Queen, #6 Daddy Is a Legend, #8 Beach Waltz, #9 Kabella, #11 Rushing Fall

Unknowns: #3 Altea, #5 Bo Peep, #7 Toinette, #10 Heavenly Love

Of the known quantities, Rushing Fall is clearly a “must play” because she has dominated all challengers in her division. Daddy Is a Legend is the second-most-accomplished in this grouping, but has lost to Rushing Fall twice at 1 mile on the turf. When looking at a group of known horses that includes a clear standout, I generally use only the standout, unless pace or trip trouble in past races can build a case for a new outcome. This actually led me to Figarella’s Queen as the second-most-likely win candidate because on paper, she was a lone-speed horse in a race completely devoid of pace. If you watch the race replay, then you will see that this group ran exactly as expected. As former NFL head coach Denny Green said in one of my favorite post-game meltdowns, “They are who we thought they were!”

Figarella’s Queen wins the $150,000 Sanibel Island wire-to-wire at Gulfstream Park in her last start before the G3 Edgewood (Credit: Coglianese Photos/Lauren King)

As for the unknowns, I asked myself: can any of them beat Rushing Fall?

I saw Bo Peep and Heavenly Love both as unlikely to win. Heavenly Love is the better of the two and has some turf form, but she lost to Rushing Fall last out and did not vastly improve from her first turf try. Altea was more interesting – she was running for the second time in North America for trainer Chad Brown, both of which could point to an improved effort. However, her career-best Beyer was a 76, so even if Rushing Fall ran flat (by her standards) and earned only an 84-86 Beyer, Altea would still need to step it up considerably to be able to win.

Toinette, the final horse in this grouping, has an improving style that I gravitate toward when looking at unknowns. She has never done anything twice, so we do not know her ceiling for this surface or distance. She showed nice improvement in her first time over turf, then again in her first time routing (meaning going around two turns). If we take the Beyer improvement that she made from her first turf start to her second, then project that she will improve her Beyer again by half as much in her second time routing, then she should run a Beyer in the low 90s. While not the most proven in the field, this projection made Toinette extremely dangerous here.

Let’s look back at those two important questions with the consensus that Rushing Fall is both most likely to win and most likely to hit the board:

1 – Which is the second-most-likely horse to hit the board?
Answer: Daddy Is a Legend. She is proven at the distance and surface and has the best record against this class level.

2 – Which is the second-most-likely horse to win the race?
Answer: Toinette. She has the best chance to improve enough to beat Rushing Fall.

Two different answers for two different bets. If I was given $20 to bet on the exacta, Rushing Fall/Daddy Is a Legend would be the most logical option, playing Rushing Fall heavily on top. If given $20 for multi-race bets, however, Rushing Fall and Toinette would be the two horses that I would (and did) use.

When it comes to multi-race wagers, whether your horses finish first and last or first and second, it has the same result. Remember: your goal is to select the winner of the race and nothing else. Do not waste valuable combinations and money on known quantities that are proven to be unlikely to beat other known quantities.

Feel free to leave comments or any questions that you would like to see addressed in the future!

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