How to get lucky

Given the wide-ranging and deeply considered discussions that have come to pass about "value handicapping," and the creepy and hard to explain losses that have begun to follow almost every mention of a search for "value" in a horse race pick, maybe it's time to go back over how to handicap.

Hoping for value is one thing. Who couldn't stand some extra money. It's playing the roulette wheel. It's digging through tables at a garage sale, hoping for something rare. But basing horse race selections primarily on prices set by the less than average is pure guessing and gambling. There's nothing much wrong with that outside of the compulsive element.

The only good thing about praying for "value" is usually you get to throw out cheap favorites. Happily for horse race fans everywhere, "value" players have begun to pick exactas, so we get to throw out two horses.

Here's one way to handicap a horse race.

Focus on one track.

First, you go through the field of a race and look for what can't, or shouldn't, win. Hurt horses can't win. Front wraps are often a warning sign. Slow horses can't win. Horses managed by rotten trainers and ridden by unsuccessful jockeys shouldn't win. Horses that don't fit the race shouldn't win. A bad fit is an uncomfortable distance, the wrong surface, a poor post position, the wrong running style for the race, a track bias, the quality of this and recent fields.

Horses picked by pickers running bad hardly ever win.

What about layoffs? You tell me. Some handicapping basics seem ingrained. How can Tennessee lose all those college football games? Didn't Tennessee used to be halfway decent? Was it that long ago? Same with the Dallas Cowboys. They can't be that bad. Can they? I owe how much? I have a hard time betting horses off layoffs, particularly those coming into big races. Somebody I respected must have told me that top-level competition cannot be simulated in practice. Cheap horses off a few months with a good workout take too much of my money. Since big-paying wins are usually first-time something, I have started playing certain layoffs with good works on the tops of fields for a dollar, come what may, it's only peanuts.

After you have marked off what can't or shouldn't win, you look for the best of what's left, which is usually only around a third of a particular field. If somebody cheats, you lose, it's like an extra tax for the opportunity to play some more against people who have no idea how to play pick 4's. What could win big? It's often a horse that is first time in a particular situation, hopefully something other than first time off an extended layoff. Older cheap horses aren't usually laid off for a beauty rest. Here's what often wins big: first time on a particular surface. First time dirt to grass will pay double figures almost every time. First time dirt speed on the grass from a mile on down can be hard to beat. First time only speed in a sprint from a bad post is often worth a bet. Who knows what first time mud can mean. First time on a dry track after several outings in the slop can turn a horse around. First time at a cheap track; first time from a hot track; first time with a good rider; first time with the right equipment; first time at the right distance; first time with bums; first time open runner versus state-breds; a deep closer in for the first time with speedsters; first time back after legitimate trouble; first-timers come with built-in "value."

Improving young horses can be on the verge of being first time good. Improving Beyer numbers are often better than the best Beyer number in the race.

After you have handicapped what should and shouldn't win, have a game of Frisbee with the dog and then come back and look at the race all over again. Handicapping a horse race probably takes about twice the time you spend on it.

It's like this. Value is what you get for handicapping well. Value is a perk. If the most likely winner doesn't pay enough to account for your needs, you're in the wrong game.