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The brief off season

This is the season of the year -- between the Breeder's Cup and the start of the Kentucky Derby run -- when the horse player's eye might drift toward the football field.

That's because a football game is like a match race, there are only two choices.

Handicapping is the art of picking winners, or the folly of trying.

What could be easier than handicapping a two-team race? All you have to do is find an even football game and detect the winner, or find a point spread that's way off and prepare to spend the money.

Handicapping a horse race is different than any other picking endeavor. Analyzing a thoroughbred race involves the study of more angles than an old-fashioned murder mystery. The process in and of itself is calming because it can't be hurried. Deduction is thoughtful. Betting on team games is pure action, pull up picture in a picture in a picture and hang on; and the desire for action over substance is a warning sign that you could be more interested in gambling, not winning. Still, after a fall season of studying race fields of a dozen horses, all of which run similarly, the appeal of a two-party race is undeniable.

So here's a guide aimed at getting the horse player through the "off" season.

The most popular misconception of legal team sports wagering is that the bookie, the sports book, wants a 50-50 wagering result on a game, wants half the players on each side, so that it can collect a commission on losing wagers.

Las Vegas is not a ten percent town.

Here's what Vegas sports books would prefer to collecting ten cents on every other dollar: collecting eighty cents on most dollars. Vegas wants you on undefeated Oklahoma State versus just-thrashed Baylor in a virtually pick-em game in Stillwater. Vegas wants you on losers. How do they know who is a likely loser? They're better than you at what they do.

Two intangibles make team sports difficult to handicap: officiating and turnovers. It is often said that one play can determine the outcome of a football game. What about two or three of those nutty 50-yard penalties on the most ridiculous foul in all sports, the pro football pass interference call? On that one, it is assumed that without the flag, the football would have been caught. How many 50-yard passes are caught, 30 percent? Officiating is so noticeable that many Monday mornings have come to include an Unhappy Hour when heads of referee groups or leagues get on conference hook-ups to apologize for blown calls. Bad refs are out of the building quicker than Elvis' driver ever was. There's no press conference for rotten refs.

Handicapping the zebras is an important element in picking a team sports winner. Statistics are available concerning which referees seem partial toward calling specific penalties.

They say that bad calls and turnovers even themselves out over time.

But there's no time limit on that one.

The only way to win consistently at team sports wagering is to put yourself on the side of the sports book, the unobvious side. Here's what you have to think before making a team sports wager: you be the bookie. Oftentimes this will put you on a lousy-looking team, a heavy underdog. Relax. Think of yourself as a casino employee. Losing wagers on the obvious rebuilt Las Vegas.

Another difficult element for horse players with respect to sports team wagering is you're always looking at chalk. It's like you're always playing the even money favorite in a $5,000 claiming race. There's no $3,000 trifecta. There's no big score on a minimal investment. Outside of proposition bets on things like who will lose the most fumbles, you win what you bet.

Where would you rather have a portion of your savings riding, with a lazy runner carrying the football with one hand, with a flag-happy ref, or on the back of a thoroughbred horse?

After a football game or two or three, horse race handicapping will seem much more sensible and easier.