The Statistical Edge

Put ‘Em on the Front End

Form handicapping vs trip handicapping

by Bob Gardner

Two handicappers are discussing an upcoming race. The form handicapper says, “I like the 5 – he has the highest speed rating, he’s peaking, and has David Miller driving.”

The trip handicapper says, “The 1 will fly out of the gate, park the 3 until the quarter and the 5 will get parked until at least the half. The 2 will pull first-over, and tow the 4 and 6 into the race. The 6 will pull four-wide off the final turn and track down a tiring front end in the stretch.”

Which approach is best? Over time, I have found that the form approach works best. Some trip handicappers tend to over-analyze a race. In the aforementioned example, what if David Miller saw an ensuing speed duel between the 1 and the 3 and decided to take back with the 5? That would gum up the trip handicapper’s entire blueprint.

Remember, drivers read the program, too.

But before putting down money on the form horse, you must consider how he gets into the race. For example, with rare exceptions, I do not bet the 7 or 8 horse on small tracks, as noted in my column in the January 2017 issue of <I>Hoof Beats<I>. However, a horse’s anticipated trip should not be the primary reason for placing a bet on him.

This analysis applies strictly to half-mile and five-eighths-mile tracks. Betting mile tracks is an entirely different ballgame. I tend to like the horse with the combination of best form, driver and post position, as long as he doesn’t have a disqualifying factor, such as a long layoff. Then the trip must be considered. I take a “Moneyball” stat-driven approach to handicapping, as described in my March 2017 column.

About a year ago, I started tracking the horse’s trip. This is not a predictive variable, since it is known only after the race is about halfway over.

The best trip on a small track – by far – is the front end. Fewer things can go wrong when the driver goes to the front and effectively says “I’ve got the best horse; come catch me.” The statistics show that such bets win so often that low odds can be acceptable.

But what if the best horse is a closer? In such cases, you should avoid heavy favorites. This is a higher-risk, higher-return bet. Closers are a riskier proposition. But I have found that the second-over trip was highly profitable. You can’t always say which horse is second-over, but over time you can get an idea. Horses from post 1 are rarely second-over, and horses from post 2 are usually not second-over if the horse in post 1 has good gate speed.

Consider the following chart – these include bets I made on a half-mile or five-eighths-mile track between December 2016 and May 2017. This includes results for the four most common trips – front end, pocket, first-over and second-over.  Note that in a relatively small number of bets, the horse had a different trip. The columns display the number of bets, the winning percentage, the average win price and the return on investment (ROI) index (1.00 is break-even).

of Races
Win Price
 Front end 288 69.1 $3.60 1.245
 Pocket 72 33.3 $4.49 0.808
 First-over 93 36.6 $4.34 0.793
 Second-over 39 48.7 $7.04 1.715

This chart validates the betting strategy of accepting lower odds if the horse figures to be on the front end. At first glance, an average win price of $3.60 is nothing to write home about, but a 24.5-percent return on your investment over time validates the wisdom of making such bets. Likewise, the second-over trip, albeit much less frequent than the front end, has proven to be profitable.

This data, along with other data over the last nine years, debunks the old saying of the pocket being the “perfect trip.” Perhaps in the days of the wooden sulky it was, but this sport has become much more front-end, early-speed-oriented since the advent of the modified sulky. The front end is the “perfect trip,” at least on half-mile or five-eighths-mile tracks.

It should be noted that you will not always know the final odds when you make your bet. But over time, you can develop good instincts as to what horses tend to be over-bet and under-bet.

To reiterate, remember these three points:

  • Trip handicapping has some value, but only as a secondary factor.
  • The horse with the best form – if he also figures to be on the front end – wins often enough to justify low odds on smaller tracks.
  • If the horse with the best form is a closer, you can justify betting him if he figures to get a second-over trip and has higher odds on smaller tracks.
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