From Rutgers to the horse racing scene

Jan 9, 2018 3:00 AM

Several readers recently asked me to spell out how I got started in horse racing, if I win and how I became an author of handicapping books and columns. So, here goes:

When I was 20 years old, horse racing was the farthest thing in my mind until I lost a potential pitching career when injured in a boating accident after my freshman year at Rutgers University.

To console me, a friend took me to Garden State Park for some fun. To my complete surprise, I was fascinated instantly by the way the horses moved; how they competed at different distances, and how the relatively small men who rode them were so strong to smoothly guide them in and out of traffic to a whirlwind finish.

As some readers of my books on racing probably know, I then decided to downgrade my academic studies, shifting instead to identify reasons why some horses in specific races seemed to hold pre-race advantages, while others seemed destined to lose.

Specifically, at Garden State’s common 6-furlong distance, I first noticed horses with the speed to be involved in the pace were much better win candidates than horses likely to fire a solid stretch bid. Beyond that observation however, I was surprised to see these two trends intensified when the pace setter(s) were fortunate to race along the inside rail path. Then, on a trip to Aqueduct Racetrack in New York, I noticed the opposite trends at the same 6 furlong distance:

At the Big A, horses who raced on, or close to the pace – especially those racing on or near the rail – frequently were caught by stretch runners who raced wide and/or broke from outside post-positions.

Given these two disparate trends at two tracks in the same climactic region, I began to develop my first handicapping notion that led to a handful of winning years at both tracks. In fact, to represent the way each track seemed to influence the results of 6-furlong sprints, I coined the term “track bias.” Several years later, I would explain the full meaning of this term in my first handicapping book, “Betting Thoroughbreds.”

Through the next decade, I kept similar notes on the strongest tendencies that were influencing results at other tracks. At beautiful Saratoga for instance, I saw track biases that influenced 1-1/8 mile races around two turns on the grass course. Yet, while I was trying to identify similar biases at Laurel Park and Pimlico in Maryland, I came across a trend that was even more powerful than track bias.

First, I spotted trainer Grover (Buddy) Delp winning with a high percentage of the horses he had claimed; but, only after he raised it in class and then dropped it below the price he paid for that horse! Next, I noticed trainer John Tammaro winning at a high percentage with maidens in their second and/or third starts. King Leatherbury also had a couple of specific winning trends that led me to more winning plays than I had a right to expect.

I called this handicapping notion “trainer patterns,” and while the trainers’ names have changed through the years, the concept still is a powerful way to analyze the winning chances of many horses on any single racing card or through an entire season.

For instance, is there a seasoned horseplayer who does not expect Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert to unleash a well-bred, very fit first-time starter ready for a good race in a high-class maiden sprint? Should that horse lose, shouldn’t you expect Baffert to produce a better result in a few weeks, perhaps with a slight change of equipment, or distance?

That is what a trainer pattern is!

So, if you – as a current horseplayer and reader of these columns – want to learn what you can do to improve your game, I strongly urge you to take note of any repeating formula a good trainer seems to use most effectively.

During one of my 1970’s trips to Saratoga, I had the good fortune to meet the great racing writer Andy Beyer, who voluntarily confessed he was losing badly. But, I could see his sincerity and his intelligence; so, as Andy reported in his first book, “Picking Winners,” he shared how I helped him enjoy a winning season at the next Saratoga race meet.

While I had already written a few guest columns for a small newspaper in Northern California, Andy helped me acquire my first full time job as a racing writer – with the (defunct) Philadelphia Journal. Soon afterward, I was writing columns for Turf and Sport Digest Magazine and authoring my first book.

While I have consistently won money through the years – especially on the exotic wagering menus that dominate today’s game, I did suffer a slight loss last year. So, in the spirit of doing what is needed to win again, you can bet I’m studying all the trends I can get my hands on.

A long time ago I learned that is the only way to achieve success.