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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Tote Board

- I never got to Brad Free's column in the Form entitled When tote board talks, pay attention before I went away, and wanted to get back to it for a moment.

Of all the things I learned in my formative handicapping years, few were more important than the night I finally came to understand the importance of watching the board. Prior to that, I would stubbornly insist that the horses can't read the board, so what difference did it make. My young mind just didn't grasp the concept that there could be a connection between the two. Then one night at Roosevelt Raceway, I was with one of the two friends that taught me virtually everything I know about this stuff, who I'll refer to as Jake (one of the people who are not as fortunate as those of us that are able to limit our gambling to our disposable income [a phrase that takes on its own special meaning when applied to betting on horses], and is sadly no longer able to participate).

We were doping (perhaps another one of those phrases) out a race and there were only a few minutes to go, when he suddenly and matter-of-factly goes, "The 7 is a lock, he's gonna win by 10 lengths," and heads to the windows. We hadn't discussed this horse at all, and I looked at his middling form in the program and was completely baffled. "What are you talking about?" I remember thinking he was nuts. Jake proceeded to point out that given that lousy form, plus the fact he was moving out to the 7 hole, the horse should be 50-1; I looked at the board, and in fact, he was more like 5-1.

I didn't bet him, and the horse went wire to wire and won by open lengths, and in about 2 minutes and 2 seconds or so, I saw the light, and have always recalled that lesson. As Free wrote,

It is downright stubborn to ignore unusual betting action without considering the possibility the action is meaningful. When a horse's odds are out of whack, bettors should ask why. Backing a high-odds horse is acceptable, even recommended, as long as one understands the reasons the horse is being ignored by others.

Similarly, when a horse's attributes are not clear, a bettor should recognize lopsided action. [Daily Racing Form]
But Free ridicules the idea of staring at the board every race looking to "smart money" to tell you who to bet, and as Jessica over at Railbird queried in her post on this column last week: "..what I'm wondering about, and what Free doesn't really address, is how do bettors determine if the action is meaningful"

I've been wondering about that a lot lately given the fact that such a small percentage of monies wagered on races now are bet at the track. For example, at Aqueduct on Sunday, 3,730 fans (ouch!!) wagered $758,000 on track, but nearly $7 million was bet from OTBs, other tracks, rebate shops, etc., So when I'm watching the board now, I'm thinking, well, where is this money coming from? Do people betting from Prairie Meadows or from the OTB in Schenectady know anything I don't? Is it just money coming from some rebate shop where a guy is tapped into the pools and doing some kind of computerized program bet? If there was some "smart" money being bet on track, isn't it dwarfed by all the money swarming in from other locales?

One method I've always used to identify horses that are "live" on the board and seems to still be effective, is something I read in a Tom Ainslie book decades ago: Watching the show pools in relation to the win odds. Ainslie wrote that the public bets horses in the win/place/show pools consistently, so that if a horse has, say, 10% of the win money, he should have roughly that much of the show pool. But sometimes you will see a horse getting bet "on the nose," that is, he may be 4-1 to win, but in the show pool he has the same amount of money wagered as other horses in the field that are, say, 10- or 12-1. I watch this with more than just a few minutes until post, because sometimes you'll see the discrepancies corrected in the final minutes by people looking for value.

Over the years, I don't think I've known a more consistent way of picking out live horses. It's something I see only once in a while, less than in the past, often not once during a particular day, but I think it's always worth noting, especially in maiden races. Of course you have to consider other factors - it helps to know the trainer and his betting habits; or if I see a horse that always seems to get bet, then I disregard the tote action and actually those can sometimes be nice underlays to leave out. When I look at results for a day I didn't play and see a payoff like $10.20 $5.40 $5.00, without a big favorite running out, I figure I probably missed one I very well could have had.