ABCs of Racing Series - Part 3: Handicapping [Kentucky Derby]

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In horse racing, handicapping is the art of predicting which horses have the greatest chance of winning the race. Wagering is how you bet the race. Often, people confuse the two terms or use them interchangeably. They ultimately go hand-in-hand, but you may find (as I often do) you can handicap a race well and still not cash a ticket. Today we'll look at handicapping. Tomorrow we'll cover wagering.

To begin, you'll need to obtain a racing program or other publication detailing the past performances of the horses set to race that day. The track program will have the pertinent information you'll need to handicap the races. The Daily Racing Form, which can be purchased at the track or off-track at most convenient stores or gas stations, includes the past performances as well as expert picks and news articles about the races and horses. The Daily Racing Form is an excellent read during the long Kentucky Derby day. Handicapping websites, like Brisnet and DRF, sell past performances (PPs) you can download to your computer that are similar to the information in the track program, but more detailed.

Once you've obtained your PPs, you'll need to know how to read them. Keeneland's website offers a very helpful interactive guide that explains every piece of the information. Brisnet also offers guidance on reading their PPs. If you're new to the game, take the time to check out these sites before you get to the track.

Now that you know how to read the information, what do you do with it? You're not going to be able to use every bit of information unless you're going to spend all day doing nothing but handicapping! Each person will decide for themselves which information is most important. Personally, I like to look at how many races the horse has run recently and how it’s done in those races. I also look at which track surfaces the horse has won over and compare that against the surface it will be running over in that race. For a horse that has not raced recently or is new to the track or surface, I look at its recent works. Typically, a horse that is working well will complete a furlong in 12 seconds. So, when you see that a horse worked five furlongs in 59 seconds, you know that the horse is sharp and quick. You also want to see that the horse has regular works which ensures that it has not missed a workout and should be fit and healthy. I also like to look at the speed figures and determine who I think will have the speed needed to win the race. 

In all, it’s a puzzle. You take the information in front of you and analyze it to make your best judgment as to how the race will play out and which horse will hit the wire first. I enjoy the challenge in it and trying to decipher how the race will unfold. It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding (whether financially or not) when you use your skills and pick a winner. Or, you can just pick your favorite number, jockey, name, or color of silks!

Photo: Courtesy Kentucky Derby

About Jessie Oswald
I'm a lifetime Louisville resident with a passion for horse racing. When I'm not working as an immigration paralegal or taking care of my family, I follow Thoroughbred racing and love to share the excitement and beauty of the sport with anyone willing to learn!
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