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Horse sense? Good luck


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It was back at Bay Meadows in the San Francisco Bay Area when a friend of mine taught me a little about horse race handicapping.

My friend, Donnie, and I had decided to spend a fun night at the track, even though at the time I was paid to handicap race horses.

I looked over the past performances while Donnie spent his time people-watching and drinking beer. We then went down to the paddock area for an up-close look at the runners before an early race.

Donnie told me he had a sure-fire formula to pick a winner. “When they lead the horses to the track, I always bet the horse that winks at me,” he said.

Har-de-har-har. Sure, Donnie. Just take my wallet and burn it.

Down a chute came the horses to the track, and Donnie, beer in hand, locked eyes with each. The No. 6 horse seized the opportunity. He turned his head toward us, and there it was. Wink.

Donnie ran to the window with his $10, and I was busy rolling my eyes back in my head.

Of course, the No. 6 won, Donnie collected about $100 and I’ve heard about it for ... the rest of my life.

The thing was this, Donnie was doing just what I taught at handicapping seminars. OK, I didn’t teach the whole “wink” thing, but I always tried to tell casual horsing racing fans to just have fun and pick some silly method when it came to choosing a possible winner.

Choose your favorite color, or an interesting name or the one with the fancy tail. You see, horse racing has no easy formula.

Parimutuel betting means you are wagering against other horse players.

If you are a twice-a-year patron at the track, you don’t have much chance against people who spent most of their waking hours trying to figure out winners.

In those seminars I taught, people used to ask me about my system. The answer always was the same.

There is no system.

If you could take a bunch of numbers, add them together, and arrive at the winner of the eighth race at Santa Anita, I guarantee you that the Ivy League would be graduating horse players. I don’t think Harvard has added the horse player class just yet.

Horse racing handicapping is about analyzing data, usually over long periods of time. It means taping races and playing them back over and over. It means looking for areas of the track, such as the rail, that might have favored those that took that path. You look at horses that change equipment, or jockeys or trainers. When it is all finished, you hope to be right 20 percent of the time.

People have asked me if you can make a living at the track. Sure. It’s just not a very good living. It involves a lot of work, a lot of heartache and no benefits.

This brings me to the Kentucky Derby, as the first Saturday in May approaches. I was looking over the list of Kentucky Derby favorites this year, and among them was “Overanalyze.”

It was a great reminder that fans who become horse players once a year might often put too much work into trying to figure out the Derby picture.

Every year we hear about Dosage figures, speed ratings, and stats about horses that supposedly have been prepared correctly. Does it really have to be this much work?

Maybe it’s time for an unbeaten 3-year-old, such as Wood Memorial winner Verrazano, to drill the field. Thinking about it, though, a Wood Memorial winner hasn’t won the Derby since Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000.

Then there is Santa Anita Derby victor Goldencents, and we know that last year’s winner, I’ll Have Another, followed that same path. There is a problem, though. Goldencents fights the pace and seems to have sprinter’s blood. Might not be the right choice for 1¼ miles.

How about Florida Derby champ Orb. He is bred for the distance, roars from off the pace and has a tremendous trainer in Shug McGaughey? Did you know that no horse with three letters in his name has won the Kentucky Derby since Zev in 1923?

Revolutionary won the Louisiana Derby and has a top connection of trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Calvin Borel. He comes off the pace and is bred for the distance. Plus he has won three in a row.

But only two horses that won the Louisiana Derby have won the Kentucky Derby, the last being Grindstone in 1996.

Yikes. All this is giving me a headache.

But, wait. There’s Overanalyze.

Is that him winking?

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