How to score big at the betting windows

All you need to know about handicapping harness horses and making money betting on them by recognizing when you have stumbled upon the equivalent of sperm whale poop.

by David Mattia

Folks who read what I write or who are personally acquainted with me, know that I very rarely bet on horses – even my own.

As strange as it may seem, throughout the year, forever in search of a good story, I’ll sit and watch hundreds of races and perhaps thousands of horses, yet never once am I tempted to make a wager.

Mind you, I’ll never discourage anyone from betting on harness racing. In fact, there are times throughout my work as a trainer and horse racing writer, when I want to publicly encourage it. I want to take control of the Emergency Broadcast System and tell the entire country which horse to bet, or to bet against, but I don’t, and I envy the nerve of the people who do.

Often, about 10 times per month, I’ll watch a post-parade, and my mind’s eye will spot a 20-1 shot who can’t lose or, better yet, a 1-5 shot who hasn’t got a chance of hitting the board. Still, I say nothing. I just watch and I never look at a program. I rely only on the track announcer, my visual recognition of the drivers, my experience as a trainer, and any mention of equipment changes.

How did a kid who sent his first winner out onto the track in 1985 and who has been parked three-wide in harness racing since childhood, not get bitten by the betting bug? Well, that’s a long story, and no one tells longer long stories longer than I do.

The easy answer to this complicated paradox is that I have trained or worked around so many horses for which the program meant nothing. The charted lines pertinent to a horse this week had nothing to do with the same horse last week or for weeks before that. In my mind, the program has been reduced to a footnote, and I have tossed it aside as an impediment – perhaps even a poison – and I won’t look at it.

Do you remember how Captain James T. Kirk couldn’t look at a Medusan?

What’s a Medusan? Nerd alert if you already know.

In an ancient episode of Star Trek, the Starship Enterprise stumbles upon some physically hideous creatures called Medusans. According to the storyline, if a man looks at a Medusan, even a brief glance, the Medusan ugliness will drive the man to insanity and death. A Medusan must have looked like a racing program.

In the French film, LA REINE MARGOT, based on the historical novel by Alexandre Dumas, the infamous Catherine de ’Medici, the 16th century mother of three French kings, a magnanimous patron of the Florentine arts, but a scheming and murderous monster in her own right, notices that a rival for the French throne has a habit of licking his pious fingers while turning the pages of his bible. As a kindly gesture, Catherine gifts the rival with a beautiful bible that she’s had intentionally printed and bound with arsenic-tainted ink and paper. And you think that politicians are vicious now? They’ve got nothing on old Cathy D.

That’s how I feel about harness racing programs. They’re like a gift from Catherine de ‘Medici or the face of a Medusan. As soon as you tuck one under your arm, you’re a goner. But, like bibles and hideously ugly space aliens, we’ve got to have them. As Miss Jean Brodie would say, “… for people who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.”

Did you ever see those wine aficionados who can take one sip from a wine glass, and with snooty certainty, tell you the type of wine, its country of origin, the vintage year, and even from which section of the vineyard the grapes were harvested? It’s true, there are people who can do that, but after they microprocess all that acquired expertise, they spit out the wine. It goes down the drain – just like my post parade selections that go un-bet or unannounced.

By the way, the official word for a wine expert is Oenophile. Deservedly, there is no official designation for my pointless skill at picking winners out of post parades, but the word LOSER often comes to mind when a 50-1 shot that I easily mind-picked lights up the tote board as I sit at my desk in my slightly irregular underwear judging horses and the humans who handicap them.

For me, it’s impossible to figure out the outcome of a horse race by looking at numbers and circles and various kinds of charted sorcery printed on the page of a program. It’s lunacy.

For the inexperienced bettor, well, the program can teach them about saddle pad colors or perhaps they’ll see a horse with their kid’s name, or maybe even a $10 coupon for a local restaurant. That’s harmless fun, but it all goes to blazes when a seasoned gambler grabs the program and puts a pencil between his teeth.

Listen, the equipment board and the horse’s movement, or physical form in the post parade, is far more informative if you want to pick a winner, but even then, you’re only privy to less than half of what’s going on. Moreover, it takes years and years of experience to be able to look at a horse on the track and to genuinely understand what you’re seeing. It’s a kind of horse-to-human telepathy that can only come from exhausting experience and the discreet knowledge that racehorses, like the people who handle them, have private lives.

To their credit, the on-air analysts – without whom much of the betting public would be more lost than a fart in a fan factory — often make note of equipment changes, but what good does that do when the guy betting doesn’t know what they mean? The learning process of how to train and to perfectly rig a harness racehorse ends when the trainer dies. How’s a plumber from Hoboken supposed to figure it out in 12 minutes?

Here’s an analogy that helps to explain my unusual opinions:

Famous perfumes contain what the experts call overtones and undertones. Ordinary people don’t know this about perfumes in much the same way that horse bettors don’t know about horses. Perfumes are like a horse’s past performances. People pick them because they smell nice.

Overtones in horses, although spotting them takes a bit of experience, are easy to sniff out. One needs only to listen to the track announcer, look at the horses in the post parade, and pay careful attention to equipment changes. Remember that equipment changes are noted on the day or night of the race. They are not noted in the program.

Undertones, on the other hand, are almost impossible to sniff out. They require ages of experience, and the most elusive fragrance in all of harness racing – the smell of inside information.

Before I get to that, I’ll throw out a few examples of the overtones you should look for, but I’m certain a thousand people will be enraged.

OVERTONE #1 — Never bet a horse who looks lame. I know that sounds easy, but most people might confuse awkwardness or bad behavior for lameness, so this is basically a useless rule. The knowledgeable state veterinarians who watch these horses will scratch them anyway, and it’s very unusual for a lame horse to make its way to the starting gate and burn your money.

OVERTONE #2 – Look for equipment changes – namely this one: If a trainer adds a burr headpole on the right side, especially after a claim, toss the horse out of your selections. An outside burr headpole, not including the floating variety, is the most useless piece of equipment in all of harness racing. Adding one after a not-so-good last start means that the trainer is unwittingly trying to rig around something they can’t figure out. I will explain all about this later, but the equipment board and the post parade are a horse gambler’s best friends.

OVERTONE #3 — The more equipment they add, not including horses who were claimed in their last start, the less you should bet unless you agree with what they have added. Still, adding an outside burr headpole is a deal breaker. Murphy blinds are okay. Their effect is subtle, and many trainers like to use them. The same for blinkers as opposed to blind bridles. A lot of trainers make this change because it’s to their taste.


Now, how can a racing analyst know these rules when he deciphers and decodes a horse’s past performances be they on paper or on video? They can’t, but thankfully, the good ones do.

Regrettably, some on-air or in-print racing personalities will sometimes make selections that violate these rules. It makes me crazy. It’s like the Long Island Medium standing in a room filled with old people and saying, “Somebody in this room has a mother and father who have passed on.” It’s like nails on a chalkboard. And did you ever see the size of the Long Island Medium’s fingernails?

This is not to suggest that horse racing handicappers are charlatans or that handicapping itself is quackery. On the contrary, harness racing, especially in North America, has some of the greatest handicappers and on-air pundits in all of sports. I would wager, so to speak, that the highly competent handicapping personalities in our game, don’t pay much attention to the program either. Apart from noting the basic information printed thereupon, they rely instead on what they remember seeing last week or the week before that. They make mental notes.

Big M personalities like Robert “Hollywood” Heyden and Dave Brower, to name just a few, are brilliant at what I have just described. Trouble is that they’ve been anointed with the wrong title.

First, they are not handicappers. They are racing analysts and racetrack personalities. They’re not experts at picking winners. Nobody is. They’re experts at analyzing what MIGHT happen in a race. Still, as much as I respect their expertise and their dedication to racing, the on-air personalities who promote and prognosticate the racing game sometimes remind me of the great and scholarly surgeon who once said, “The operation was a great success but unfortunately the patient died.”

Secondly, Racing Analysts – and let’s give them capital letters this time — almost always fail to mention the overwhelming favorites who have no chance to win in a race that seems like a mortal lock for them. Owing to racing diplomacy and decorum, but more often because they do not know an insider something, harness racing’s best racing analysts will almost always refuse to publicly dismiss famous horses or irresistible favorites.

On the flip side, those 50-1 shots – the giant killers who hide behind their dark form on paper — get the bum’s rush simply because the racing analysts aren’t usually privy to the private lives of the equine athletes they’re analyzing.

Yes, like I said before, horses have private lives, and from week to week, far from the prying eyes of the public and the pundits, stuff happens, and things change. Harness racehorses are like temperamental celebrities. One day they’ll gladly sign an autograph book on a busy street, but on another day, they’ll push the same autograph seeker into oncoming traffic. They’ll be racing poorly or superbly for various reasons. Then, in the span of a week or two, it all gets flip-flopped. Something changes in their private lives. No one can write that down in a program. That’s where those perfume undertones kick in. I promise that I will get to that.

Kindly note that I’m setting this up to give my readers specific examples from my own experience which will help them to understand why I don’t believe in handicapping horses, but I am a firm believer that the sport needs both on-air and in-print racing analysts.

Be patient with me because I want my readers to appreciate how and why heavy favorites are sometimes off the board despite charted lines that would suggest otherwise, and that a lot of longshots are destined to victory despite these same charted lines inscribed on that cursed program. It’s like that old TV show, The Naked City. There are a million stories in the naked city – and in next issue I will begin to give you just a few and explain that sperm whale poop reference.