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 #2: Never bet on a favorite to do something it’s never done before.
I usually don’t advise using words like “never” and “always.” Each race is its own unique handicapping puzzle, with different variables to consider and different insights that can be gleaned from going through past performances. However, this is one of my favorite bits of handicapping advice. I’ve stolen it repeatedly for use in columns I write and handicapping seminars I sit in on, and there’s a reason for that.
There are times when favorites aren’t bad bets. Sometimes, a horse is simply the class of the field and must be bet accordingly. However, that’s not always the case, and as any serious horseplayer can tell you, there are times where picking your spot and “zigging” when the public “zags” can be very, very rewarding.
Say, for instance, a flashy 2-year-old is stretching out from one turn to two in its first start against winners. That horse may have enough talent to win, but is it a sound bet? In addition to going against far better horses than it may have faced in its maiden-breaking score, it’s trying a new route. If this horse is favored at, say, 7/5 or so, chances are its price does not align with its true chances of winning. These are horses you want at 4-1 or higher, not at prices which do not offer any conceivable value.
You’re going to get beaten by favorites like these sometimes. Just because you lost a bet doesn’t mean it was a bad one. If a 1/5 shot is all-out to win by a neck, for example, that doesn’t mean your process was wrong. In fact, you were correct in deducing that the horse’s chance to win didn’t line up with its price. Being process-oriented is hugely important in any long-term endeavor. Handicapping is no exception, and it only takes one beaten favorite like this to line up a day-making score.
2021 Saratoga Meet Example
I’ll use an example from this past Saratoga meet. The Grade 1 A.G. Vanderbilt featured a 7/5 favorite named Mischevious Alex. He’d reeled off three straight wins earlier in the season, but his lone prior try at Saratoga was a poor effort. His best races had come elsewhere, and now, the betting public had hammered him down to what I thought was an absurdly low price.
If he beats me, I thought, he beats me. I assembled a $12 late Pick Four ticket that went three-deep without using the chalk in that leg. Instead, I used Lexitonian, Whitmore, and Special Reserve. I also singled heavy favorite Essential Quality in the Jim Dandy, went two-deep in the Bowling Green, and used four horses in the finale (a wide-open $25,000 claimer).
Mischevious Alex never fired. Lexitonian, however, channeled form he’d flashed earlier in the season, outran Special Reserve to the wire, and paid $70 to win. That set into motion a Pick Four ticket that finished with Essential Quality (2/5), Cross Border (6-1), and The Last Zip (7-1). After punching the ticket for just $12, I cashed out for $1,181.25.
Considering the ticket price, going against a vulnerable favorite in the first leg helped maximize the value I extracted from a universal single. To be fair, this was an absolute best-case scenario for me, but it illustrates the main point: You may get beaten by poor favorites sometimes, but taking stands against them and being correct is how you can best boost your ROI.
— Andrew Champagne has worked for several industry organizations including HRTV, TVG and The Daily Racing Form. You can follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewChampagne