Publish or Perish: The Handicapper and the Cult of Personality in Horse Racing

Betting handicappers in horse racing often have more influence in the sport than they are truly aware of.

Updated: Oct. 9, 2018 • 1:55 PM ET

Playing the ponies often brings nervous sentiments.

Before a horse race begins, ever heard from a handicapper:

I’m looking at this horse because of its price…
Now, this trainer has an ROI of…
This is a very interesting race…
This Pick 5 sequence is a great betting opportunity…
I’m willing to forgive that last one, draw a line through it…
This horse is bred for the turf…
That was a career best Beyer speed figure…
He has crazy back class…
This is a great spot for her… 
He learned how to win…

Before the 2006 Kentucky Derby, I remember coming down a hallway at the track and running into a local sports radio personality who was conducting a handicapping seminar for some Wayne Enterprises-type deep-pocketed patrons. I asked him, “Hey, who do you like?” His reply startled me because I just overheard him tell the group a completely different selection.

Playing both sides?

I’m not much of a fan of handicappers as analysts. I’m not talking about the guys that hang out at the track around their familiar table, rather the class of folks who “professionally” give you their latest opinions about which horse, jockey, or trainer will win the next big race.

They’re part meteorologist, part tarot card reader, part cheerleader, part soothsayer, part daytime talk show host and all personality. Julias Caesar didn’t listen to the soothsayer along the parade route, so why should we? In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be analysts, but they do exist and have a major impact on the sport. It’s like trying to find an honest person in Congress; how do you know whom to trust?

As long as there have been horse races, there have been handicappers. I imagine there was some fellow out on the Mongolian steppe at some point during the late 13th century telling a poor soul that the one with the star on his forehead would surely win, especially since it was rumored that the Great Khan himself had once laid one down on him. My point is, people have given their opinions with purposes of trying to impact the odds, expressing their passions for the sport, or somewhere in between both of those poles for centuries.

I’ve seen it happen so many times. A long shot with some hidden statistic, buried in the form is brought to light by an eager handicapper looking for some credibility after a terrible weekend. Before they began talking, as the horses enter the walking ring, the tote board reports odds at 15-1. Quickly, as pari-mutuel bettors ready themselves to enter a given pool, what began as a nice price begins to plummet towards 5-1. This cannot be a coincidence.

Granted, I understand that tracks need handicappers. They serve as official and unofficial inside/outside salespersons. And, I’m also willing to concede that they are working within a system of odds that is continually established by what is called the morning line, which are usually constructed by one individual. What I’m simply pointing out is, the only aspect that should impact the market is just that, the market. Manipulation has no place in a sport already marked by controversies that range from race fixing to drug use.

My advice concerning these pundits is, tune them out. To Andy Serling (NYRA), Caton Bredar (most recently at Kentucky Downs), Jeff Siegel (XpressbetTV), Scott Hazelton (TVG), Candice Hare (TVG), Jeremy Plonk (Horseplayer NOW), Matt Bernier (DRF) and anyone else out there giving opinions at the highest levels, please do one thing for me: publish on a website, Twitter page or somewhere in print, your complete dossier of wins-losses. Think about this, handicappers, when you give a selection, you could be adversely impacting the tote board. How do you feel about that?

If you haven’t thought about this notion, analysts and handicappers, you’re being disingenuous to the spirt of the sport. To put it another way, just like when you handicap a horse, let’s look at your past performances in order to decide whether we should listen to you or not.

Winning always trumps the cult of personality.

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