Harvey Pack was one of the greatest ambassadors in the history of horse racing handicapping. As one of the most visible personalities on the New York circuit, Pack spent his career educating the public by spouting words of wisdom easily digested by fans and handicappers of all ages and skill levels.
In this series, called “Pack-xioms,” we’ll apply Harvey’s teachings to modern-day handicapping and wagering strategies. We’ll use the titles of each chapter of his book, “Pack at the Track,” which was co-written by Peter Thomas Fornatale.
RULE #3: Don’t get too excited about 2-year-old firsters from big trainers whose horses always take money; look for action on the horses sent out by smaller barns whose horses don’t usually take money.
As handicappers, we’ve all seen this scenario unfold plenty of times. A trainer like Wesley Ward or Todd Pletcher sends a regally-bred first-time starter to the gate, and the money pours in. Sometimes, these horses are as exceptional as their pedigree, connections, and/or work tabs would indicate (every Saratoga summer seems to provide a new “fastest horse in the world”). However, there are multiple reasons to dive far deeper in races like that.
For starters, it’s prudent to remember that even the best first-out trainers in the game fail two-thirds of the time. In addition, even if a horse has otherworldly talent, any number of things can go wrong first time out for reasons that are grounded in logic. A horse may get spooked in the post parade, or get lathered-up in the paddock, or miss the break and spot the field several lengths at the start.
Furthermore, there are some that would argue betting a first-time starter that’s taking money violates rule #2 of this series, which preaches to not bet favorites doing something they’ve never done before. For 2-year-old races early in the season, that’s impossible (since they’ll ALL be first-time starters), but later in the season, horses with valuable experience often possess an advantage (especially going two turns or longer distances, which can prove tough trips for first-time starters to negotiate).
I’ll finish this installment with an add-on and a word of caution. The add-on is that, in addition to not getting excited about these types of horses, keep an eye out for prominent barns that send out uncoupled entries. In some cases, these entries are made to ensure a race goes, but other times, it can be a clue that the horse likely to take the most money may not be well-meant. Put another way, if Horse A at 8/5 is supposed to be an imposing favorite, why is an astute trainer also running Horse B, who’s 5-1? Combining bits of handicapping logic to complete a bigger puzzle often bears fruit, so keep that in mind when this situation presents itself.
The word of caution we’ll end on is a predictable one: There are times where these first-time starters will beat you, and that’s okay. One thing we’re trying to hammer home in this series is the notion that handicapping is a long-term process, and that processes should be trusted over extended periods of time. Remember, if a 2/5 favorite you didn’t use is all-out to win by a neck, you were almost certainly right to demand more value, because that runner shouldn’t have been 2/5. Trust your process and the principles you use, and the results will eventually come.