Steve Davidowitz Podcast - Listen Now!

Steve Davidowitz bio

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Eric:  Welcome to Talkin’ Horses, I’m Eric Mitchell, editorial director.  Our guest this week is Steve Davidowitz.  He is a professional handicapper, reporter, editor, consultant, and columnist for more than three decades.  He is the author of “The Best and the Worst of Thoroughbred Racing” and the best-selling “Betting Thoroughbreds,” which sold more than 150,000 copies.  That book has been expanded into an updated version “Betting Thoroughbreds for the 21st Century,” which provides insights in to synthetic track handicapping, track biases of more than 20 tracks, profiles of nearly three dozen high percentage trainers and a variety of advanced exotic wagering strategies.

Steve has got a varied background.  He was a baseball star at Rutgers University.  He traveled to Cuba as a teenager.  He has scuba dived in the Caribbean, played folk guitar, photographer with magazine covers and exhibitions of his work.  Steve, welcome to Talkin’ Horses.  It’s great to have you.  I can’t think of a better time to have somebody with some handicapping expertise at this time of the year.

Steve:  Glad to be here, Eric.  I’m sure you have a lot of good questions for me.

Eric:  We do.  As many of you who listen to this program know, we solicit questions from our visitors to  Right out of the gate, I have got to ask you about Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta who are on the minds of everybody right now.  What’s your opinion of this potential showdown at Oaklawn Park?

Steve:  Well, I personally wish it happened at the end of last year when they were both really in high gear and top form but of course, Rachel, I think spent her bolt when she won the Woodward in early September and obviously needed some time to recover and Zenyatta had been retired.  I applaud both camps for trying to make the re-match happen.  It seems like good placement for the forum for it to occur at Oaklawn at a mile and an eight in April.

But at the same time, there is no guarantee that either of these female race horses is going to be in top form when they get there.  And they have prep races scheduled on March 13th in different places.  We’ll know a little bit more about what shape they’re in when they run and come out of those races.  I’m hoping they both get to the match, I’m hoping there are some other legitimate horses in the field for $5 million at Oaklawn.

Personally, I think Zenyatta is one of the most unusual race horses that I have ever seen.  She is a mare that doesn’t seem to be at the mercy of pace issues at all, where normally a match-up between two horses of any kind comes down to which horse can get the jump on the other and certainly Rachel Alexandra has that going for her.  But I wouldn’t put it past Zenyatta to go rolling by her in any legitimate race.

Eric:  Interesting insights.  It will be a very interesting race and I really hope everything – the stars align and everything comes together to see that.  But as you say, it’s a question of are they going to be in top form?  Well, I guess we’ll find out.

The same question – I had a two part question – the second one was someone asking your opinion of Barbaro’s brother, Lentenor – any thoughts on this horse as he progresses?

Steve:  Well, I love him personally from what I have seen of him but I think he’s behind schedule if they’re seriously thinking about a Kentucky Derby.  If you remember, Barbaro had won stakes already on the grass in the fall of this 2-year-old season.  I was at Gulfstream Park when he won the Holy Bull, which at that time was a mile and 16th race and he galloped out so impressively after winning that race that it looked to me he could have won the mile and a quarter Kentucky Derby that day.

I think Lentenor, who has only been on the grass so far, needs a dirt test to see exactly where his form lies.  But I predict he’ll be a grade I stakes winner, at least on the turf, and we might see him in major dirt races if he passes any kind of a test for handling the surface during the late spring into the summer.  I doubt seriously we’ll see him in the Kentucky Derby but who knows, if he were to run really big in a dirt test soon, in his next start whatever that might be, I wouldn’t put it past him, he’s got a lot of ability.

Eric:  There is one for us to watch and certainly the family connections draw a lot of attention.  We got a question here from a Bill Daley, who really loved your “Betting Thoroughbreds” book and has really gotten a lot out of that book.  His question is what is the most important advice you could offer to bettors today?

Steve:  Well, it depends on how much experience they already have.  If they’re novices -- if they’re going to the track fairly early in their betting careers -- I would say that they should find out a little bit about who they are first before they try to pick out the way to go as a player.  What I mean by that is I find there are three different types of horse players. One is sort of a visual person, another might be a mathematically-inclined person; another might be a problem-solver.

If you’re a visual person, I would try to build my game up from going to the paddock and getting physical observations of horses and then comparing what you think you see with the way a horse looks and how athletic it is and how controlled it is or how crazy it might be behaving, and see the results of the race as it plays out according to what you observe.  I’d also watch races very carefully and take notes for the next time.

If you are a mathematical person, I would get into speed figures, pace numbers and explore the ways that horses have advantages using those numbers.  And if you’re a problem-solver type of person, I would look at the patterns that trainers employ to win races by comparing the past performances of winners that they’ve trained and see if there are any common denominators amongst them, any keys; like a workout that took place five days before a winning race or a switch in distance that seemed to tip off the winning race, things like that.  And then, when you see what kind of person you are, you can sort of build your game outward.

Now if you have some experience, if you’re a player and you’ve been around, I would try and find the races that you think you’d do better at, and I would keep better records than most players do.  I would say that you should try to keep records to see what areas of racing you do best and concentrate on finding races like that – if you’re a turf specialist or if you like stakes races or you’re very good with 2-year-old maidens.  I would focus my game more on those areas, become more of a specialist myself and try and take advantage of my skills.

Eric:  That’s good advice.  I had a related question from Brandon.  He admits he is a terrible handicapper and he wanted to know what steps he should take to become better.  It sounds like you have already given a lot of advice, but if you’re a brand new horse player and you don’t really kind of know where you fit into that visual or mathematic or problem solving, what do you think is the best way for people to start to get their feet wet?

Steve:  Well, I think you do have to look at yourself is what I was trying to say in the previous answer, and try and see what you’re good at in real life.  If you are visually inclined, you spot things that are unusual in your visual panorama of whatever you’re looking at, that indicates that you have visual skills and you should be watching races like I say, and going to the paddock.  If you manipulate numbers or like puzzles or things like that that have to do with numbers, if you were good at math in school – those are reasons why you should gravitate towards these speed figures and pace numbers like I suggested.  And so you take stock of yourself.

That’s the advice that I would give in both questions.  For the person who asked the question who says he’s a terrible handicapper, what should he do first?  I think he has already done what he should first.  He recognized that he needs help. {laughing}

Eric:  Okay.  I had a question from JP.  He was wondering – is there a single powerful handicapping angle or is it just a myriad of things that you need to look at?

Steve:  Well, it’s obviously not a single thing, but again if you find yourself showing ability in a certain type of race situation; you’ll see the key factor or factors that relate to that specific race situation.  You’ll know that to win a maiden race, if you have  a first time starter, you probably need a trainer who is good at first time starters with workouts that support it, with breeding that suggests that that horse is suited to the race situation, to have any confidence at all.  If you look at those maiden races and you say, well, first time starters don’t have a very high percentage winning, let me look at the horse who has already run – you’ll see that horses that have had far too many starts to be successful are unworthy of your support.  You look for horses that showed maybe one race or two races and trainers that seemed to improve horses very quickly off a race or two.

You’ll get to the meat of what each race is and so I’m saying that if you have an area where you feel good at, you examine that area, you figure out the keys that make that race more likely to be won by certain types of horses; and you’ll do your handicapping accordingly.  So, even though you are in one of the three categories that I outlined, you’re going to find that certain areas of racing specifically, you’re more likely to identify the most logical contenders and pick better winners when you not only take stock of yourself and see what kind of a player you are, but you look at the specific races and see that there are certain type profiles that dominate in those types of races.

Eric:  Very good.  Handicapper, know thyself.  We got a lot of questions about 3-year-olds and Triple Crown horses – this from Christian Miller.  He says that it seems handicapping 3-year-olds is heavily dependent on how the horses are maturing. How do you evaluate a young horse’s development and how important do you think it is in this – as part of the handicapping formula?

Steve:  Well, I think he’s on to something there.  The maturation rate of a 3-year-old racehorse is akin I think to a teenager growing into young manhood of a male athlete -- basketball player, football player, or any male athlete.  You know, there are some exceptions, like a swimmer sometimes will mature much earlier.  But when you’re looking at 3-year-old race horses, you’re looking at horses who are going to go through tremendous change in growth between the fall of their 2-year-old season in the spring of their 3-year-old year.

So if you’re seeing the kind of development from race to race, or a horse who comes back as a 3 year old who shows vast improvement over what he did at 2, you’re looking at a horse that’s headed in the right direction for the major 3-year-old races.  When Eskendereya was a 2-year-old last year, he ran a relatively unimpressive race in the Breeder’s Cup juvenile, but at the same time he was bred to improve tremendously as the distances would lengthen and as he would mature.

When he came out this year and won an allowance race, he sort of said, “Okay, we’re right about that.”  And then when he exploded in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, everybody could see that this is a horse who not only is improving but he seems very well suited to the distances that he was bred for.  And that’s the type of thing that you have to get into when you’re trying to identify a potential Kentucky Derby winner.

Eric:  I have a question from Carl Park.  He says you don’t hear much about the dosage index as connected to Derby eligibles. Do you think this index has become something of the past?

Steve:  Well, it’s certainly has in many ways but it’s still a valuable tool also in some ways.  Steven Roman was the one who created the dosage index off of work that was done by other people prior to him.  It was an ingenious little tool that sort of suggested what the breeding potential of an individual horse is when distances would lengthen.  The numbers, you can find out what they really mean, but low numbers in the dosage index indicated a potential to do well at distance races.

Yet, over the last 10 years, we’ve had a few horses that broke through barriers that they weren’t suppose to break through from this index.  So now, it isn’t really considered to be the yard stick it once was to help predict future Kentucky Derby horses.  Nevertheless, it has validity as a general indicator of distance capability in the breeding line of the horse.  It’s not a worthless thing.  It’s not something that should be totally ignored, but as far as the rules that pertain to the use of it for predicting Derby winners, don’t think much about it.

Eric:  Well, I’m going to take this opportunity to kind of jump in with a question that came to my mind as you’re discussing the ability to assess a horse’s stamina.  Just within the last month or so, we’ve heard a lot about the genetics research coming out of Ireland and the speed gene that was discovered and has been tested – or it’s called the speed gene – indicates a degree of muscle mass in the individual and seems to show statistically whether that horse is more suited physiologically to be a sprinter or a middle distance or a route horse.  What do you think about that research?

Steve:  Well, I think all of that research is very intriguing scientifically and I also think that it’s worth a follow-up.  I’m giving you a general answer but if for handicapping per se, until they publish the information as part of the past performances, which is a long way down the road, or until every 2 year old that’s on the list of Derby nominees, for instance, is given a line or two that suggests what that research is – it’s very difficult for players with their betting money to have any real application to it.

For breeders, it’s probably going to have some power.  Over the next decade, there’ll be more research and more availability of this information, and it’ll be tested better for its reliability.  I’m sure there’ll be other indicators that’ll come along as well.

Look, if we can measure the heart of a horse – Secretariat supposedly had a very large physical heart.  If we could have the stride length of a horse indicated in the past performances, we might find that has value.

Right now, I don’t think we need that from a handicapping standpoint.  I think our eyes and the breeding pedigree information that indicates stamina or precociousness we can see for ourselves, and the way horses mature during the fall into the spring of their 3 year old season, we can make our judgments accordingly.

I have more to say on this.  I don’t know how long you want to go but like when we watch the Bob Lewis Stakes. in which Bob Baffert had Tiz Chrome in there and there was another horse in the field as well who showed a lot of speed – American Lion.  They dueled with each other in their first attempt to go two turns, and gave way late as the stretch running and undefeated California bred Caracortado, went right on by.

Now, in that instance, we could possibly say well, these two horses – American Lion and
Tiz Chrome, are unsuited to distance racing.  But we shouldn’t be so quick to do that.  We should give them at least one more chance because the Pro Ride that they were running over was not conducive to speed to begin with, and secondly they dueled each other into submission, and there was that first time around two turns factor.  So, let’s give them at least one more try and after that we can draw our firm conclusions on whether we think that they can go on beyond sprint distances.

That’s what we do as handicappers.  But if we had a measurement that came out of this study that said specifically before they ran in the Bob Lewis, “This is a typecast horse for sprints only, and it proved out right there – we would be hard pressed to go against it next time out.  But we don’t have that information available to us as players.

Eric:  Your book includes a section on synthetics.  Since we talked about those, you just mentioned the Pro Ride, what is your take on the synthetics?

Steve:  Well, it’s as complicated as the synthetics are themselves.  I hate to use a negative in giving a positive thing – I’m not against them as most horse players seem to be.  I know it threw the whole handicapping game into disarray and changed a the way people were looking at races, and that form from dirt to turf to synthetics was very difficult to translate, and it’s still difficult.

The problem is with the synthetics is that they were pushed upon us way too soon.  As horse players, as people who run races, as trainers, and all the different nuances that are involved between each race track, have yet to be given enough time to show what they are.  In the meantime, the maintenance issues are catastrophic.

Talk about trying to protect, or prevent, catastrophic breakdowns.  Well, we’re getting catastrophic track problems.  We’ve had cancellations of races after races. There are differences between the Polytrack tracks that are at Keeneland and Turfway and Arlington Park – the same manufacturer.

Yet, I believe in the future of synthetics on this basis.  If we had given them more time; if we had experimented with them on training tracks more; if we’d chosen a select meet –as I say “we” – there is no “we” in here to make such unilateral decision on a nationwide basis, and that’s another issue completely that racing has yet to really deal with. 

If we have had time to experiment properly, we could have come up with a safe synthetic track that was easy to maintain as they promised us.  That hasn’t been true.  Of the synthetics, at this point, I think the Tepeta track that Michael Dickinson has created has proven to be the best of them. 

But as far as handicapping is concerned, they do present opportunities to players who are willing to take a closer look at what wins on those tracks, specifically the track in their neighborhood – the Santa Anita track, the Hollywood track, the Arlington track – and to focus on the angles that are turning out to be successful on those individual tracks. When they do that, they’re going to be way ahead of the crowd that’s perplexed by it, that doesn’t seem to have a handle on what is really going on. It’s sort of like a throwback to the old days when there wasn’t as much information in the Daily Racing Form about every little aspect of the game, and you had to do research for yourself.

I find them fascinating from a handicapping standpoint, but I also do think that there are several problems, as I suggested earlier, that we need more time to evaluate and to work with.  It’s all done on the fly right now which is terrible because there’s no reliability amongst them and between them.

Eric:  Right.  Well, clearly we’ve seen a lot of inconsistency and a lot of it depends on where the track is.  Some surfaces seem to do well and in temperate climates and not do well where it’s hot and dry.  It depends on what it is.

You mentioned the Tapeta surface.  It’s getting a new testing ground, if you will, at the Meydan racetrack in Dubai.  So, it’d be interesting to see how that surface performs.

Steve:  You’re 100% right about that and at the same time, I do think that it’s really unfortunate that this was done so quickly and by mandate in California, and they’ve had so much trouble because it’s going to set back the idea of synthetics being developed 10 years.  It may even hurt the potential of real good testing and experimentation. 

The fact that the Dubai people built a billion dollar race track and then decided to put in a synthetic of any kind shows that they do at least have some confidence in that particular brand – the Tapeta track – and I think that’s noteworthy.

Eric:  Let’s steer back towards some of the 3 year olds this year.  We got a lot of questions about 3 year olds.

We have a question from someone who goes by Curlin Lover, who wants to know what do you think of Dublin’s status right now?  He seems to be having some trouble and he or she (Curlin Lover) is having difficult assessing where this horse is right now.

Steve:  Well, I thought his race in the Southwest was a very encouraging effort.  When we consider the man behind the horse, D. Wayne Lukas – he’s only won four Kentucky Derbys – and while he’s been kind of silent over the last several years on that front, he knows what to do when he has an animal that’s worthy of it.  I thought that the throat operation that the horse had during the winter, obviously, had helped this horse because when you come back off a layoff like that and you close ground in the race at a mile around two turns  as a startup . If he stays healthy, I believe the horse is going to be a player in the Triple Crown series.

Eric:  He had a great run coming down the stretch in the Southwest and with a little more distance, may have caught Conveyance.

Steve:  Well, you don’t have to win those races.  That’s the bottom line. People don’t understand that.  It’s one thing that I think is something that Todd Pletcher has to really look at when it comes Eskendereya. 

If you look at Carl Nafzger’s approach to the Kentucky Derby, you’re looking at a textbook approach to how to win the Kentucky Derby.  If you look at what happened to D. Wayne Lukas after he lost a whole bunch of Derby opportunities, and won with Winning Colors and then went on to win three more, you can see that you learn lessons.  These prep races, as rich as they may be, are not the target.  It’s the first Saturday in May that’s the target.

So, you have to leave something in the tank and you have to also help your horse develop.  Now, when you come back out off a layoff or a throat operation, like Dublin did, and you run an encouraging  race finishing second, in your first start back, that is something that you should be able to build upon.  If the horse remains healthy, I think, as I said, he’s going to move forward.

Eric:  We have a question here from Tony: How do you see Baffert’s trio of Conveyance, Lookin At Lucky, and Tiz Chrome?  We talked about a little bit about Tiz Chrome earlier, how do you kind of see these three?

Steve:  Well, Conveyance is on the margins, like on the bubble if you will.  If you’re looking at the March Madness Basketball Tournament there are teams that have to win their next game in order to get off the bubble and into the tournament.  Well, Conveyance is sort of in that category even though he won a race recently, he’s not quite up to the standard of some of the leading horses we’ve seen so far.  So, what he does in his next start, wherever it is, is very important to the assess that.

As far as Tiz Chrome is concerned, I said I do believe that both American Lion and Tiz Chrome deserve another chance going around two turns when they’re not fighting each other.  But, remember this, that in the Kentucky Derby, if they were to get that far, not being able to handle a contested speed duel is curtains.  You can’t win the Kentucky Derby on the front end unless you're much the best on the front end.  You must be able to finish and if your horse is one of the few or many that are prone to be on the lead and you can’t survive a pace duel at a lower level of racing, you're not likely to win the Kentucky Derby.  I would have to see much improvement from Tiz Chrome to believe in him as a Derby horse, and even though as I’ve said American Lion and Tiz Chrome deserve another chance, there are horses who seem not to need that kind of validation who are already in the game.

Eric:  And Lookin At Lucky, we’re still looking to see his first start of the year.  He’s aiming for either the San Felipe or the Rebel Stakes.  I have to wonder at the way things have been going in Santa Anita if we might not see him in the Rebel?

Steve:  Well, I think he’s probably going there.  I think they have two choices.  First of all, I thought this horse when I saw him last summer was the Derby type horse, and wrote about it and said so because of the way his body is put together.  He has a leaner look than most horses do who are winning races as a precocious type early in their careers, and then his Breeders’ Cup juvenile was a very good race and then he won his next start also very impressively.  I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet.  I don’t think the speed figures, the Beyers numbers, the sheet numbers and whatever numbers you use really reflect the potential that this horse has.  But he had some minor setbacks and Baffert – who’s an expert, who’s won three Derby’s himself – certainly knows how to get a horse to the Kentucky Derby.

I think personally if I were him, I would run him at Santa Anita in the San Felipe and go to the Arkansas Derby or the Wood Memorial – but he’s likely to go to the Rebel from what I understand and that’s a very important thing.  He wants a dirt race for this horse and that’s a very positive idea and hopefully he will have smooth sailing between now and the preparations and then beyond, because you can’t have setbacks and make any impression in the Kentucky Derby and people have to remember that.  From this point forward, you have setbacks and you’re training or what have you, they’re no longer minor.  They’re too important to discount.

Eric:  It’s a fairly tight schedule and everyone has to stay on it.  We have a question here from a Greg Wasaki who asks about Nick Zito’s Fly Down.  He’s a Mineshaft.  He won an allowance race at Gulfstream Park.  He feels like he’s one of the most under-reported yet dangerous horses to ignore on the Derby trail.  Do you know anything about this horse?

Steve:  Well I think the questioner should go to Vegas or get somebody in Vegas to bet him in the future books because it’s only going to get a hell of a price on him.  The truth is that these are the types of horses who can win the Derby in these days from what we’ve seen over recent years.  You do not have to have the 2-year old bottom that we always talked about in previous years.  You do not have to have three prep races or win a set pattern to get to the Derby.  You don’t have to come from any particular race track – Mine That Bird came from Sunland Park and wasn’t even a winner of the Sunland Park Derby, although if you looked at his race after the fact that he ran there, it was the kind of race that you would be betting him if he was going anywhere but the Kentucky Derby.  He ran a very wide, very difficult fourth in that race in which he showed a lot of grit and a lot of ability and it was the kind of race that would move a horse forward, but to win the Kentucky Derby was a big surprise to everybody.

So when you have a horse, like this gentleman mentions, you should take a little future book action on him and watch him carefully. 

I think Zito has another horse who has some potential who is sort of under the radar as well; and it’s a horse named Ice Box.  Ice Box won twice going route distances and made a move in Eskendereya’s winning race that didn’t produce anything but it showed a sign of life and in a way that Nick Zito, who has won two Kentucky Derbys, and used in his next outings.  You know this game is far from over.  It’s just starting.

Eric:  Right.  We got several questions having to do with strategy.  Donald Williams wants to know do you think horses cutting back in distance fare better than those that stretch out?

Steve:  In certain race situations the cutback is a fantastic weapon for a trainer to use and for a horse player to observe.  It’s more widely known now than it was only a few years ago but the very best angle, one of the very best angles for a player to keep an eye out for was the horse turning back in distance from a mile or a mile and a sixteenth, to a six and a half to a seven furlong race.  Typically, the horse who was in the mile or a mile and sixteenth race, whether it was a one turn or a two turn race – would show speed near the pace and then fade.  And then when turned back in distance to the seven furlong or the six and a half furlong one turn sprint, the horse would show improved stamina from those longer races and finish better.  You could catch prices up the kazoo with horses that were doing that. It’s still a very powerful angle, but it’s well advertised in most handicapper’s tools – amongst his tools – and you don’t get quite the same price value that you used to get.

Cutbacks in distance in general do improve a horse’s stamina when he is cut back,. But it isn’t applicable like if you took a horse who went from a mile and half to a mile and a quarter, you’re probably dulling his speed for a race that would be better off having a mile and an eighth prep going into a mile and a quarter.  Likewise on the grass, if you have a horse who’s a mile and three-eighths and a mile and a half type, if you run him a mile and an eighth race on the grass – very few of those horses will convert their top form to that short a distance.

Eric:  Steve from St. Louis asks with nationwide pools on nearly every race and every jurisdiction without the concentration of local knowledge and familiarity with racing circuits – he said he would assume that the number of winning favorites would drop below the long-time average of 33%.  With so many more betting opportunities with nationwide simulcasting, he asks – aren’t there are many more false favorites?

Steve:  Well the contrary turns out to be true by statistics, which is kind of interesting, and there are several reasons for it.  Steven Crist on a recent blog on the Daily Racing Form published a very interesting listing of the percentage of winning favorites of every racetrack in the country today and what it was a few years ago, and in every case except a few it has gone up above the standard that we used to think was standard above the 31% to 33% ratio for winning favorites, to some approaching the 40% ratio at many tracks; and 35% and 36% being more normal. 

The reasons for that have to do more with the size of fields that we have which are smaller in most cases around the country and the fact that people do have more information, more understanding of what constitutes good forms than they used to through the various tools that are out there on the Internet.  It’s misunderstood throughout racing that there’s less interest in handicap and less interest in the game.  That’s way off-base.  It’s more diverse, it’s more spread-out.  You don’t have the concentration of people that go to the race track everyday, but you have all of these different outlets in which people bet and you have handles that from off-track are pretty significant.  If you look in different parts of the world like the Orient, they get hundred million dollar handles on a daily basis. 

There’s a tremendous amount of awareness of what goes into winning races now and the strategies that are involved to handicap and I think people are more inclined to zero-in on the more logical contenders more often.

Eric:  Well, I could only hope that the handle in America grows to the handle of what we see in Hong Kong.

Steve:  Well, likewise, you know but at the same time I think this is part of the reason for that – and I don’t mean to come down on the racing industry – but it’s our own fault, if I can say our.  We haven’t promoted the sport from the standpoint of handicapping. I’ll give you an example of something that has always irked me.  You go to a track when they have a giveaway day and they giveaway a t-shirt or a hat and you get all the spinners that go in and out and in and out of the turn style to get 10 or 12 t-shirts and hats that they can sell on EBay.  What does that do for horse racing’s interest?  Nothing.  Why don’t they give away a good handicapping book?  [laughing]

Eric:  Hint, hint.  Okay.

Steve:   Right.  I mean seriously.  Why don’t they provide information to the players that are coming into their grounds that will help them understand the game better?  Why don’t they give away something that they can use when they go home?  Why don’t they give away vouchers that they could use for betting the next time they come to the track?  Why isn’t there cross-pollination between the off-track betting centers and the racetrack where if you go to the off-track betting center and you wager an X number of dollars, you get a pass to the racetrack and if you’re at the racetrack and you bet a certain amount of dollars, you get a free trip back? 

And then to ignore handicapping – the best thing racing has it going for is that it’s the best game, the best gambling game man has ever invented.  It’s not a slot machine.  It’s not a mindless anything.  You have to use your noodle a little bit and the rewards potentially are great with the pay-offs that we have.

Eric:  Would love to see a lot more enthusiasm and marketing of the sport for sure.  I have a question here from Phil McSween.  He says, “Do you have a theory on why also eligible horses are often such a great play since they seem to run in the money so frequently?”

Steve:  Well anecdotal information that you’re providing is only partially supported by actual evidence, but there still is a valid point you’re making, and that is that also eligibles are rarely considered as serious contenders by the people who are doing the public handicapper’s work in newspapers, on the Internet and so on.  They escape the same attention that those professional handicappers usually provide.  They’re not only also eligibles but they’re also sort of like not in the race, until they’re in the race, and so therefore if you examine them from a perspective that, “Well, okay.  This horse was entered in this race but it didn’t get in because of the luck of the draw but now a spot is open for him and the trainer wants it in the race, and he’s going to draw an outside post.” Now, in some cases an outside post can be an advantage depending on what you’re doing, what distance it is; and sometimes a terrible disadvantage.  But examine that horse more carefully for sure because you do have the possibility of potential value there.

Now one other point, there are certain types of horses who are automatically put on the also eligible lists at some tracks where their main track only category is not included in the body of the race at all – they’re on the also eligible list.  Now those horses, when the track is wet, when they take a race off the grass, they love the fact that the races come off the grass - the trainers.  That’s what they were entered for.  Please let it rain and take this race off the grass so I can enter this live horse in this race, and they usually control the outcome of the race in many more cases than just mere statistics.

Eric:  I have a question here from an M. Waxman.  He says – Steve, did you ever get over not betting a 40-1 shot to place against La Prevoyante at Saratoga? 

Is there a story there? 

Steve:  [Laughs] I wrote about it in the early editions of “Betting Thoroughbreds.”  It was a chapter called “La Prevoyante to Win, My Wife to Place.”  I was sitting with Andy Beyer and my wife at that time — I’ve only been married once and we’re still good friends — but my ex-wife Laurie was hearing Andy and I talk about La Prevoyante being somewhat unbeatable but we liked a horse that we thought could upset her and it was coming in from Chicago.  We went to the windows betting this horse at a big price (to win only) and my wife went up to the window and bought place tickets on her and she cashed for a $10 place ticket when  La Prevoyante romped in the race and our horse finished second.

It taught us a lesson about – I turned to Andy while we were having ice cream cones and I actually dropped the ice cream cone on the ground when I realized what has happened.  I said, “Andy, you know what we just did?”  I said, “What if I told you that this horse was going to run against the rest of this field and then we’re getting it 4-1 on it to beat the rest of the field, would you have taken 4-1 to beat the rest of the field?  We lost that bet and Laurie was back in her grandstand counting the money.

Eric:  I’ll bet she was.

Steve:  She was gloating. {laughs}

Eric:  Yeah, I’m sure.  John O’Brien – he has a question about Beyer pars. He said I would rather have a system without pars.  He says, for example, three races, seven furlongs at Gulfstream Park on Saturday produced Beyers of 99 for D' Funnybone and 80 for a maiden special weight, a 76 for maiden special weight.  On a relative basis, he says, it seems like Streaker, who was the maiden special weight filly that got the 80, should be getting an 87.  Do you have any opinion about pars?

Steve:  I haven’t computed the Beyer figures myself for that day, I would trust Andy’s ability to read the racing surface, how it was playing and the relative speed that was shown in each individual race was clearly how fast they ran based on his estimation of how the track played.  I don’t see where pars enter into that because I know what Andy does and what people who make figures for a living do and that is after a little while the pars are discarded and you use the projections of what the horses had previously run as a foundation to build your track variance of the day.

If I have a day, let’s say, there’s that seven furlong maiden race and I have three horses that have run before and they’ve run 69, 70 and 71 twice each; and now they run together third, fourth, and fifth in a race and then beaten the length amongst all three.  I could probably say they ran a 70, all three of them, and then project the winner based upon how many lengths ahead of that cluster they were.  That’s typically the way speed figures are truly created.

So the pars are just a baseline in which you build up information, but once you have sufficient information to make your own speed figures, you use the projection method.  There is no doubt in my mind that if this fellow thinks that the horse should have gotten an 87 and she only got an 80, he ought to be betting that horse next time out when it comes into a race with other 80s – because he thinks he has a horse who actually ran an 87, and then we’ll see what happens in that result.

Eric:  Well, there’s actually a little bit more information in this question.  I read through it, he offers the times D' Funnybone ran in 1:22, and one for the filly who got the 80 ran in 1:23.12.  The horse who got the 76 – the colt ran in 1:24.02.

Steve:  Well all those times seem in line with a consistent variant in that D' Funnybone earned a much faster figure because he ran a much faster race on the same race track.  There are days when tracks change during the course of the day and you have to be a little leery about sometimes when you see a number in front of you and say “Well, gee, this number’s way out line with everything else on the day.  Speed figure handicapping is an art, it’s not a science, and it takes considerable experience to really hone in on good figures and to have confidence in them and that’s the bottom line.

If you make your own figures, which I strongly recommend players do just for the exercise of it, if nothing else, that’s a tremendous learning experience.  But if you make figures for yourself and you have confidence in them, bet them.  That’s the bottom line.

Eric:  A question here from Lindsay – she was wondering how many of the best handicapping authors make their living strictly from handicapping the races, and if they are few and far between is because it is just not a reliable source of income. What do you think about that?

Steve:  I get that a lot of different ways in different times.  I can honestly say that no, I don’t make my living strictly off my race track play.  I could tell you though that there were a few years where I did nothing and did make a living and I can also tell you that over the course of many years I’m ahead, and somewhat significantly.  I would liken it to this, also: When you have a Tiger Woods, let’s say, who is the greatest golfer -- maybe he’s a bad example to use if anything right now – the greatest golfer alive, if not of all time.  He makes $25 million a year through endorsements.  So you give that up?  Is he not a professional golfer?  He wins enough tournaments to indicate that he is a professional for sure.  If you have any area of success or any area where you’re good at and you’re making money with it and then you write about it, is there anything contradictory in writing about it and trying to share your ideas with the public?  Tiger Woods gives golf lessons to large audiences.  There’s no conflict there and there’s none whatsoever, but to be really a professional player you have to have professional skills, you have to work at it; you have to be able to go to bat often enough in a successful way to prove it to yourself.

Truthfully, it’s a symbiotic relationship with me.  I write because I want to share and I learn when I share.  You can’t keep it unless you give it away.  It’s an old concept that I learned a long time ago that is totally applicable here.  I get stronger when I share my ideas and go through examples with the public and columns or in books and, if I wasn’t playing and I wasn’t playing well, I would not be able to write about the things that I’m doing with any way or look in the mirror and say I’m writing about this because it’s true.

Eric:  I got a question here from Jersey Boy.  He says some commentators keep saying that weight is not that important.  How can they maintain this opinion in the light of the successes of apprentice jockeys riding with an allowance?  Many of these same apprentices are less successful after they lose their allowance.  For him, he says weight is the key handicapping factor.

Steve:  Well, I wish him well with that.  I am the one of the people who believes that weight is overrated as a handicapping factor for a lot reasons, but first, let me address the apprentice issue.

When apprentice shows ability, he gets to be in demand by trainers who still believe and do believe that weight is a crucial factor to the point where sometimes a horse might be assigned 117 pounds in a stakes race and the trainer will say, “I’m not going to run a pound over 116,” and yet there have been many studies that have indicated that the relative variance of weight is not as crucial as it once was or that most people think it is.  Then you take that same apprentice jockey and he no longer is getting 5-pound allowance and he no longer is getting a premium rides against the established veterans on the track that the trainer has a choice now to use like John Velazquez or Edgar Prado or Garrett Gomez – and he’s in the pool against those jockeys and he isn’t getting the same kind of quality mounts than he got before.  That is the biggest issue.

Also if you take a look at an apprentice who can survive the period of time after he loses his 5 pounds who does become a winning jockey – Julien Leparoux for example, Rafael Bejarano for another – when these people show that they are capable of riding in the pool with the other big names, they keep on going as if they didn’t have any issue with weight at all.  You have to be more selective in your analysis there to really take a look at that.

As far as weight in general, it used to be where a horse in a stakes race like Forego or somebody like that would carry – Kelso – 136 pounds top weight, Forego, 135, 136.  Now if that same horse were running today, no racing secretary in their right mind would give him more than 127, 128 or he wouldn’t get the horse to run at the track.  So the spread of weights is narrowed quite a bit and it doesn’t seem to have as much impact.

Now, when a horse is in motion and he’s carrying 116, 117, 118, 119, it doesn’t seem to affect his ability really.  If you drop him to 105 and I doubt you can make that weight – it might – you take these horses that are running now as Triple Crown candidates.  They’re all going to carry 126 in the Kentucky Derby and in many cases, they’ll be picking up anywhere between 4 and 15 pounds from their last start.  They still run very fast.  They still set their best time records in many cases in the Derby than they have ever run before.

Weight is a very, very mysterious factor, yet it’s also not something that I think you can pin one pound equals one length or five pounds equals one length.  There are individual horses that do have thresholds that if you give them more than 123, 125 or whatever it is, they won’t show their form; and you have to be sensitive to that.  So it’s not a factor you can completely toss, but it is not a scientific relationship and over recent years – although recent years – it’s become much more muted and less valuable as a handicapping factor to me.  Now, if that person is going to cashier line by using it, by all means, keep on doing it, keep on doing it.

Eric:  Yeah, if it’s working for you, don’t change it up.

Steve:  I agree.

Eric:  This will be our final question.  We’re going to kind of throw the door open. Scott Sigman – he just wants to know if you could make one single change in horse racing – and we’ve talked a little bit about marketing and promotion – but if you could make one single change, what would that be?

Steve:  I’d have much less racing around the country.  I would schedule race meets that work together rather than in opposition to each other.  I would not have, for instance, winter racing in New York from December to March.  I would not have summer racing all summer long in the heat of Florida.  I would not have year round racing anywhere.  I would try to create more premiere meets with the racetracks that have already shown that that works tremendously – the Del Mar, the Saratoga, the Oaklawn, the Keeneland meets, even Churchill Downs in the spring, the Fair Grounds for a good portion of its meet.

We have far too much racing and it dilutes the product.  It also lessens the importance of everyday racing, and it bleeds the money out of the pockets of horse players who may be playing the game longer than they should every year too.  I tried to set my schedule so that I’m off three months a year and I don’t play the horses during the winter except for rare occasion and it refreshes me.  I know that there are jobs at stake in some quarters…but I think there’d be more betting, I think there’d be more interest with less racing and I think that the whole national racing schedule would be better off if we could do that.

Eric:  Interesting perspective.  Steve, I want to thank you again.  Steve Davidowitz – the author of “Betting Thoroughbreds for the 21st Century.”  You’ve been a terrific guest with us today on’s Talkin’ Horses.  Best of luck through the spring and we’ll be looking to hear more from you, as you write more about these horses moving along the Derby trail.

Steve:  Thank you very much for the opportunity to be here.  I enjoyed it immensely and best of luck and good handicapping to everybody out there.

Editor's Note: Steve Davidowitz can be reached via the Internet at He invites direct communication about racing issues and his handicapping ideas and will provide readers of this transcript with his latest Kentucky Derby rankings.

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