Handicapping 101: How Much Information Is Too Much?

Alan HorvathCorrespondent IJune 10, 2013

Alan Horvath at Saratoga's Travers Day 2012
Alan Horvath at Saratoga's Travers Day 2012

During my first year of thoroughbred handicapping, I recall being at Belmont Park listening in awe as a fellow player enquired about wind conditions on his cell phone for the upcoming race at an out of town track. He went on to discuss a few other "involved" factors, eyes racing vacantly, before flying off to the windows as if his entire life depended upon it. When he returned, he was saying something to his friends about which hand a jockey was going to with his whip that day, as if it were top secret information.

At the time, I had just become aware of the speed figures in the Daily Racing Form and was feeling like an authority on horse racing after finally winning some races. But, after hearing that guy on the phone, I felt like I knew absolutely nothing about racing.

I was back to somewhere between Step 1 and Step negative 5.

It did not matter to me that minutes later he was tearing up his tickets and throwing them all over the floor. What mattered was he knew a lot more about horse racing than I could ever dream of wanting to digest, while wondering where that left me. Win or lose, he was King of the Track.

Over five years have passed since that day. I still see the guy, without fail, whenever I go to the track (though most of my handicapping and wagering is done from home these days). On my lone trip to Saratoga last summer, he was there.

Thankfully, some things have changed. It does not bother me that I will probably never come close to knowing everything that guy knows about racing intangibles. In fact, I take comfort in it because I am winning without getting buried alive (or distracted) by a ton of time-consuming, tedious information.

The funny thing is, last July I got to talking horses with a new friend before the start of the Saratoga meet. He dazzled me with stories about what trainers do, when they do it, and how certain jockeys go in the tank under certain conditions. He had a seemingly endless knowledge about every entry on the card. Suddenly, I was back in the same mindset as when that guy was talking about wind conditions (even though I was winning consistently).

In my mind, I was a beginner all over again and had trouble holding my own in the conversation without looking things up. Even worse, I began working with some of the knowledge my new friend shared with me and began losing! I picked up on it within a couple of weeks and dropped worrying (yes worrying) about those angles before they sucked the enjoyment out of the game for me entirely.

These days, as far as pure handicapping goes, I find that I can prepare for any event without being a walking and talking encyclopedia of horse racing history.

I don't need to know every detail about the entries of a given race. I still use speed figures as a gauge, along with first quarter times and form cycles. Whatever other information I want, I can research within minutes. My first goal is finding playable races based on that preliminary information. I go in with the idea that none of the races are playable and add to that from my findings.