The Tao of the Circle Approach

an odds line and the middle way

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Circle ApproachIf you want to get a room full of handicappers up in arms then bring up the subject of odds lines. One extreme will tell you flat out that you will never make a profit if you don’t have an odds line. The other extreme will tell you it’s a colossal waste of precious time. The first group believes it’s possible to out perform the tote board with their “true” odds. Their lines look something like this:

Horse #2 is a bet at 5-2
Horse #6 is a bet at 7-2
Horse # 9 is a bet at 9-2… or any variation thereof.

They will tell you they’ve handicapped so many races they’ve developed a sixth sense about the probabilities of racehorses to win and no matter how much psychological pressure they’re under objectivity rules and they can repeat the “true” odds time and time again. They never fool themselves.

The second group of extremists look at the tote board and decide on the fly which horse to bet. They say things like, “I wouldn’t bet that horse at 2-1 with your money. I’ll take the 6 horse at 12-1″. They’re approach is dependent on emotions. After a series of loses they might talk themselves into a 6-5 shot as an “overlay”.

There’s a middle way. I call it the Circle Approach. As you’re handicapping circle your contenders. If you have 3 contenders then you bet the horse that’s 4-1 or better. If you have 2 contenders then bet the “overlay” at 3-1 or better. If you have 3 contenders, say, and they’re all under 4-1 then go for coffee or a beer, the race is a pass. To get the full bang for your buck it’s a good idea to know what a legitimate favorite is. It’s also a good idea to know what a “prime” bet is and the odds you can take on your good thing. My prime bet must be 9-5 or better because that’s what my records tell me. Yours may be different. When a legit favorite or a prime profile show up you let the middle way go. Doesn’t this sound easy? All we have to do to make a profit is become very good contender selectors. If our contenders win, say, 85% of the time we will do very well in the money department. Where’s the nearest Mercedes dealership?

Here’s the bad news. There’s always bad news. Betting the Circle Approach – or any approach for that matter – will mean that you will have long losing runs. Most of the time you will be wagering on horses that are 4-1 and above. There’s no way around those long losing runs. In a previous post I said,

“If you have a 50% edge on the game and your win percentage is, say, 25% then you must be prepared for 18 losses in a row! The equation is the logarithm of .005 divided by the logarithm of the probability of failure – log(.005)/log(.75) = 18.41, round it to 18. Once again reality hits us square in the face.”

For handicappers that develop mental discipline (we must face the long losing runs with a winning attitude), a sound money management program, and good contender selection skills plugged into the Circle Approach, the Promised Land of a Positive ROI is just over the horizon.

P.S. As always, don’t believe me or anybody else until you’ve tested it for yourself.

February 24, 2010 • Posted in: Articles • No Comments

Easy Pace Spots for 2/24

Today’s Early Pace Advantaged Horses

Race 3 – 6 Joey P. – (Win $7.70)
Race 8 – 6 Monkey Dust – (Out)
Race 2 – 1 Houston Heist – (4th)
Race 4 – 2 Underground – (Win $3.20)
Race 7 – 3 Via Veneto – Scratched
February 24, 2010 • Posted in: Updates • No Comments

The Math of Early Speed

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Lately I’ve been looking at the math of early pace running styles, especially the one-dimensional types. I found something very interesting, I think. Since we play this game with an eye on the odds (or should), it’s important to know the probabilities of a 1 dimensional early pace horse making its running style in the early going. As surely as a new day will dawn, if your one dimensional front runner is not free by the first call you can stroll (stumble?) confidently to the nearest trash bin, shred your ticket into tiny pieces and toss them down the hole.

Anytime I hear someone cheering on a one-dimensional early pace horse that’s sitting 5th, say, at the 5/16th pole I momentarily revisit in my mind’s eye the days when my ignorance of running styles and pace match-ups made a race nothing more than a spinning roulette wheel…..”come on baby, come on”. Of course, they never did “come on”. Now my one-dimensional-come-on-baby-chants don’t make it past the first quarter mile. If a handicapper can eliminate just one loser in ten races it just might be enough to turn a profit. Thinking is good.

Let’s start with an imaginary pace picture along with the odds. We’re only interested in the two 1D horses.

E8 (4/5)
E7 (5/2)

Now that that’s done we need to revisit an old and trustworthy book, Winning at the Races, Computer Discoveries in Thoroughbred Handicapping (1979), by William L. Quirin, Ph.D. As you know, Quirin came up with the speed point idea….and what an idea it has been. They work! Two things I will not do: Handicap a race without speed points. Handicap a race without pace of the race velocity. Here’s a break down on speed point totals (SPT) and gaining a position among the first three by the first call.

SPT %FCP 1-3

But now we must reflect the early speed probabilities of all the other horses in the race. I will quote Quirin, “To calculate these probabilities, simply add the percentages corresponding to the speed point totals for each horse in the race, and divide the sum into the percentage for each horse in question. Multiply by three, since there are three early leaders (FCP 1-3), and you have the probability the given horse will be among the first three at the first call.”

Now we have a little problem. Since we’re talking about one-dimensional early pace horses, we need the LEAD by the first call. A position among the top three is not good enough unless we’re on the lead. We’ll deal with that problem in a minute.

Let’s do the math.

86.1 + 70.4 + 56.7 + 66.4 + 31.6 + 31.6 + 19.8 = 362.6
Our E8 has a 71% chance of a top three position at the first call (2/5)
Our E7 has a 56% chance of a top three position at the first call (4/5)

Let’s not multiply by three and see what we get.

Our E8 (the favorite) has a 23% chance of being on the lead by the first call -that’s (7/2)
Our E7 has a 19% chance of being on the lead by the first call – that’s (4/1)

Now let’s look at the odds on the board:

The E8 is offered at 4/5 or a 55% chance of winning. The odds of this horse grabbing the lead? (7/2), a 22% chance. Now would you want to key or single this horse in any of your exotic tickets? I don’t think so. How about the E7? A 19% chance of grabbing the lead and offered on the board at 5/2. A great win bet, right? Again, I don’t think so. A 4/1 (20%) chance of grabbing the lead is not good enough at the offered price of 5/2 (28% win).

I got a little creative with the numbers by not multiplying by 3 but it’s close enough and you get the idea. Just like a one run closer, a one-dimensional front runner will break your bank and your heart. There are always exceptions, of course, but in most cases the race is over at the first call for the pure 1D early pace types. Make sure the odds of grabbing the lead are better than the odds offered on the board…after all, this game is all about value.

February 22, 2010 • Posted in: Articles • No Comments

A Horseplayer’s Missing Link?

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I’ve made some pretty stupid plays in my day. They drive/drove me crazy. At least crazy enough to investigate the problem and visit a shrink if necessary. I actually did make that visit. I spend three years with a shrink trying to discover the reasons an otherwise sane person – and intelligent one, if you will – would practice the skill and art of self-sabotage that keeps said person away from behavior of the optimal kind. Why do we do stupid things when we know better? What did I learn? Well, it just might all come down to belief. Neuro-semantics informs us that we act on the second thought, not the first. Think about that for a minute…”I’m a winner…no I’m not”.

From time to time I’ve asked handicappers that I know are good enough to crush the races but don’t if they believe, really believe, that it’s possible to make consistent money at handicapping horse races. The answer I hear from most of them would make a professor of linguistics blush. The question is answered for the most part by subtext and inflection. So I thought about sanity again and I came to the conclusion that to really want something yet not believe you can do it, really believe you can do it, is a good reason to seek professional help.

The entire handicapping industry, it seems, is focused on who has the best trainer stats, jockey stats, the best speed figures, pace figures, ad infinitum…or is that ad nauseam. Yeah, there’s been some stuff written about money management thanks to Dick Mitchell and Barry Meadow. Learn it once and you’re done. But not much has been said about, what I believe to be the most important part of our game, psychology, the mental game. The next time you sit down to do some post mortem analysis with the day’s races shift gears and practice the mental game instead. What was that second thought?

Did the three years help? Absolutely. (1) Copious records. (2) Sound money management. (3) Solid tools. (4) Discipline. (5) Knowledge. (6) Neuro-semantic driven belief (the missing link). You gotta believe or 1 through 5 probably won’t save you.

February 20, 2010 • Posted in: Articles • No Comments

The ABC of Horse Racing 1948 Style

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In 1948 a little Bantam paperback book called The ABC of Horse Racing by Dan Parker, a columnist for the New York Daily Mirror, hit the stands. The first page displayed a reprint of The Morning Telegraph, presumably the devil’s code. Flip to the next page and you’re awash in sour graphs: “Having studied simple arithmetic”, says Parker, “I’m not a chronic horse player myself, but bet enough to know I’m not an exception to the rule that all horse players must die broke. Most racing fans prefer to be kidded into believing the ponies can be beaten. Fred Allen told them the only way this could be done long ago—with a whip.” And if you’re not depressed enough, “You can’t beat the races.” Damn! Three years after WWII when optimism should have been in full force, Mr. Parker decided it was his pleasure to burst bubbles then and 58 years later – to ruin your day.

My bookshelves are overflowing with horse racing books. They range from historical tomes to handicapping theory of the “modern age”. Those same shelves contain magazines and books and periodicals from the 20s and 30s (my favorite era), and more. I still yearn for the big three sporting events – baseball, boxing, horse racing – that’s enough quality sport for anybody. One of the most powerful moments of my sporting life happened on a beautiful day in Hot Springs, Arkansas (the first Arkansas Derby was run in 1936 for a purse of $5,000, as you may remember). I stood in a spa of natural wood and hot water, against the ropes of the entrance to the gym where Babe Ruth worked out just before he headed over to Oaklawn Park for a day in the sun. Those were the days, my friend. I will be returning and I’m hoping to sense the presence of the Babe again. Even related horse racing stuff feels good.

Back to Mr. Parker and The ABC of Horse Racing. Here’s the reason I brought all of this up: Throw all your books out. Dispense with thoroughbred racing history. Forget about profiting from your studies. Know that at every turn a charlatan is waiting to separate you from your money. Give it up. Dan Parker has spoken. Or, I say, ask yourself a question. THE question. Answer it and you’re on your way. Here it is: Do you believe it is possible to make a profit, a consistent profit at thoroughbred handicapping? The way you answer that question will make all the difference. The Dan Parkers of the world won’t believe you but, hey, who cares.

February 17, 2010 • Posted in: Articles • No Comments

A Simple Pace Shape

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Formula: pv + wsf(pc) Pace velocity (pace of the race) + winner’s speed figure compared to par for class equals a simple pace shape that includes the pace of the race (not a particular horse) and the way the “winner” finished against the pace of the race represented by the “winner’s” speed figure relative to par for the class.

As you know by now, we’ve entered the Race Shape Age. Everybody’s doing it. BRIS has an approach. Daily Racing Form has an approach. They’re all different a lot of the time. Who’s got it right?

For those of you new to my site I’m going to present to you a simple pace shape. I presented this information back in ‘98.It’s part Quirin and part me. Quirin first presented the race shape concept in Thoroughbred Handicapping, State of the Art back in 1984, I believe.

It goes like this:

Pace of race = Fast 5.
Speed figure of winner earned against the pace velocity (Fast 5) = 89
Par speed figure for the class = 95
Pace Shape = Fast-Slow.
Pace Shape favors closers.

Simple. Let’s do another one.

Pace of race = Slow 9
Speed figure of winner earned against the pace velocity (Slow 9) = 98
Par speed figure for the class = 95
Pace Shape = Slow-Fast
Pace Shape favors Early Pace horses.

The definitions of pace shapes and race quality:

AVERAGE-AVERAGE: Favors no particular running style

AVERAGE-FAST: Strong front running performance or anything close to the pace.

AVERAGE-SLOW: An average pace that fell apart. Nothing stands out.

FAST-FAST: The best pace shape. Any horse that finished close to the wire raced exceptionally well. (Ghostzapper’s 123 Beyer was earned against a pace of the race FAST 5!)

FAST-AVERAGE: A very good performance by a early pace type. If won by P/C or C the winner was taking advantage of a fast pace.

FAST-SLOW: Late runner advantage

SLOW-FAST: Early pace advantage. Anything that closed and finished close raced well.

SLOW-AVERAGE: Good performance by early pace type. Very powerful if won by a stretch-runner.

SLOW-SLOW: You’ll see this one a lot. Nothing can run early or late…..even a “fast middle” move doesn’t save this one.

Of course you must have an understanding of the inverse relationship between pace and final time before any of this makes sense. How many times have you seen a career best speed figure when the horse was loose on the lead? That’s the inverse relationship?

Unlike the DRF pace progession notes you will be comparing two benchmarks, pace of the race and speed figure par. Just because a race was run faster from a slow first quarter (internal fraction) to the pace call doesn’t mean anything if the pace of the race was very slow. In my view, it’s misleading to say that a pace was fast middle when in fact the the pace of the race was slow.

In other words, a fast middle (internal fraction) in a SLOW-SLOW pace shape is a big whoop di do. Two bads don’t make a good! And it’s probably dangerous to your bankroll. Huh, and where’s the benchmark?

The pace of the race relative to par for that particular final time and the final time (speed figure) of the winner! We simply want to know what a horse confronted in its last race(s) and how it handled it relative to its running style. I hope you see that simple is better.

By the way, we should remember that if we’re talking about pure pace of the race shapes then there are only three possible shapes:


This is my preferred way of doing a quick pace shape. I know right away if a horse’s running style was advantaged or not by the pace and how the horse handled the situation. However, adding the winner’s speed figure in the Quirin style gives me the overall quality of the race as well.

But remember, all this is yesterday’s news. Moss, BRIS, Giles all have to be projected. What is “today’s” pace match-up? How will each horse’s last race Pace Shape help me “today”? If you’re not good at that one then no vendor’s pace figs, progressions or ratings will help.

I believe in the power of simple. This pace shape approach works. Wikipedia has this to say about keeping it simple – KISS principle is a colloquial name for the empirical principle that simplicity is an essential asset and goal in systems and processes. It is popular in software, animation and engineering in general. The term KISS is an acronym of the phrase “Keep It Sweet & Simple”. It also corresponds to the phrase “Keep It Simple, Stupid” though many other expansions have also been used. Most of the expansions maintain the same idea of the principle, roughly corresponding to the Occam’s razor(1) and to Albert Einstein’s maxim that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”.

P.S. A rule in science and philosophy stating that entities should not be multiplied needlessly. This rule is interpreted to mean that the simplest of two or more competing theories is preferable and that an explanation for unknown phenomena should first be attempted in terms of what is already known. –

February 16, 2010 • Posted in: Articles • No Comments

The Speed Spot System

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In the Dec. 1948 issue of American Turf Monthly Ray Taulbot unveiled his Speed Spot System. It’s the granddaddy of pace handicapping. He focused on what happened early – at the pre-stretch call or pace call as we know it now – in the race instead of late. He had been writing about pace for much longer but this a good illustration of the evolution of pace handicapping. Since the past performances in ‘48 only showed final time it was impossible to get an exact figure on the velocity of the pace of the race. He had to go about it a bit differently. Don’t laugh now, it’s a beginning and he didn’t have much to work with. He had this to say:

“For instance, suppose that you were considering a sprint race in which one horse recently ran in a six furlong event where the winner’s time was, say, 1:10. Further, suppose that the horse you are considering was defeated some seven lengths. The big question is not so much beaten lengths at the finish as it is lengths off the leader during the early portion of the race. If the above horse, beaten seven lengths, was within three or four lengths of the leader as far as the pre-stretch call, then it is very likely to defeat a recent winner that ran the distance in something like 1:11. This true because the first horse coped well with a very fast pace as far as it went, while the latter animal had only to deal with an average pace throughout the entire race.”

Notice that there was no mention of variants or track adjustments, just raw times. And notice, too, that if the horse was close to the pace (4 lengths) against the fastest unadjusted final time that horse was the best horse in terms of handling the swiftest pace. It’s an extrapolation – the pace could have been slow – but considering the information available it was best anyone could do.

In today’s world we could go about it this way: The best final time expressed as a speed figure (I would make an amendment -instead of the horse with the top speed figure use a horse with one of the top – last race -two speed figures that qualifies on pace velocity. I’ll find better value that way) against the fastest pace time as expressed by pace of the race velocity figures and within 4 lengths of the leader at the pace call. If there are two qualifiers then go with the horse that ran against the highest class.

That’s the modern version of the Speed Spot System.

Can you make money with the Speed Spot System? I don’t know but I’m going to research it. I’ll let you know. You might want to give it a try as well. But there’s something more here than making money; we get an opportunity to appreciate where we came from as pace handicappers. There’s no better person than Ray Taulbot to do that. By the way, in 1948 the American Turf Monthly magazine sold for 35 cents per issue. You could save some money and subscribe for $4.00 for one year or $6.00 for two years. And you didn’t have to worry about the neighbors finding out about your sinful habits; it was sent in a plain envelop.

February 15, 2010 • Posted in: Articles • No Comments