Preparing For A Major
by Michael Beychok
I’ve written before about the “majors” in the handicapping contest world naming the NHC, the BCBC and the Horseplayer World Series as the horse contest equivalent to the golf or tennis majors.
For me there is an added major to the list – my personal major – and that is the Battle of Saratoga handicapping contest which will be held this year on August 10-11th. Before you start composing that negative tweet let me explain and read on.
My father spent some time in Saratoga Springs as a kid after growing up in Brooklyn before eventually moving to Louisiana. His father moved the family from Williamsburg to Saratoga to find some work but my dad never made it to the track during the summer. Fast-forward 40 years and my father and I attended the Travers Stakes one summer and while it was 35 years ago the memory is still fresh and warm. In the clubhouse box next to us was Cab Calloway coming off a career resurrection following the Blues Brother movie. He was quite a character and a good handicapper who loved the ponies.
30 more years elapsed before I got back to Saratoga – this time to film an episode of Horseplayers and to play in the Battle of Saratoga, which had grown into a 2-day, 100k to the winner mega contest. A contest certainly worthy of “mini-major” status.
I finished in the top 15 that year and got paid but more importantly I truly fell in love, like many have, with the vibe of Saratoga. The mornings at the track watching workouts, the breakfast talking about the workouts and champions just seen going through a daily jog, handicapping the day’s races on the front porch of a 200-year old home, the races themselves, the post-race eulogy or celebration in the paddock bar, the night’s revelry and the rewind to do it all again over and over.
I missed the following year contest for some reason – oh, yeah work – but made it back last year and again finished in the money after being top 5 on Day 1.
The reason why it is a major is because most of the top handicappers from the East Coast play the tournament and it is a loaded field of talented, successful and accomplished contest players so competing against the best is compelling for me.
Some may consider the Del Mar tournaments majors and that’s a fine opinion – but in my mind nothing compares to the level of competition at Saratoga.
So, how do I prepare? One way that I’ve mentioned in the past is to prepare my own version of a track profile or model. This is not to be confused with the Brohamer model that many expert players use. When not making my own model – as I do for the NHC – I rely on the Brisnet track profile they publish with their Ultimate PPs as that is a really good indicator of how the surfaces and distances are playing – meaning do they favor speed or closers or neither.
At tracks like Saratoga and premier meets like the winter/spring Gulfstream meet the horses can be very closely matched and the simple factor of being a closer running on a speed favoring track can separate the contenders and point out some usable long shots.
The other positive aspect of doing the work to make my own model is it forces me to look at charts and read the charts and watch replays in order to make the best model possible. In going through that mental exercise little nuggets of information are deposited into my brain for future extraction.
To get started I follow the sage advice of Andy Beyer from his book Picking Winners:
“I closet myself in my handicapping room with a minicalculator, a set of charts, ..a bottle of Jack Daniels and a belief the ensuing hours of drudgery will eventually pay off.”
I usually open a bottle of Spanish Rioja and fire up the laptop and settle in for a long session of making the numbers.
First I go back at least 45 days for a track accessing the charts from those 45 days.
I list the distance, surface, postposition of winner, and lengths behind at 1st call/2nd call of the winner. At Gulfstream I also include the rails and the run-up.
I enter all this into a simple excel spreadsheet and then sort by distance and surface separating the different categories for instance at Gulf the 5f Turf and the Mile Turf versus the Mile Dirt.
I may not have dozens of races to rely upon for a clear picture of the bias but you take what you have and see if there is a pattern lurking in there. I average the lengths behind at each call and then rank the various distance/surfaces to see what combination has the biggest bias.
For example, the 5 furlong turf races may average a .25 at the first call for all winners while the 8.5 dirt may average a 3.75 meaning – obviously – speed is needed more at 5fT than 8.5D. Now, these are hypothetical so don’t take this to the bank.
Only chart fast track races for the initial model but list all races on sloppy tracks and make a separate list of those to see if a bias exists when the track gets wet and sloppy.
In all honesty, most distances/surfaces you examine will NOT have a distinct bias but some do emerge and it is those that I concentrate on in contests because I feel like I have an edge over other competitors knowing that a particular distance has a particular bias.
For example, if a bias of closers emerges then I will give that the benefit of the doubt when being a few speed points behind on Thorograph and I downgrade horses moving from a winning performance on a biased speed track to a biased closing track.
I put special emphasis on the past few weeks as tracks may change and do change week to week but I tend to trust the longer-term statistics.
That in a nutshell is how I prepare my track model and I’ll have a good one for Saratoga in a few weeks to be ready to win a major at the Spaaaaaa!