Betting a Horse (Devon’s Way)

How To Bet a Horse (Devon’s Way)

How do you pick a horse? Talk to ten of the crusty old guys chomping cigars at the track, and you’ll get ten different answers. I’ll tell you what works for me (and I cash about 80% of my tickets).

1. Read the Daily Racing Form or the track program. That will tell you how the horse ran in previous races, the length of the race, track conditions, and owner/trainer/jockey information. Many handicappers factor in the workout times. I don’t. If you’ve ever gone out to a track to watch the works, the atmosphere is so different than on race day that I don’t find that information helpful. It’s an individual preference. What I look for is consistency, track conditions, and if a horse has improved over a few races, or is coming back off a layoff (a rest). I like to see the same jockey on a horse over a series of races – to me, it means the combination works. I’ve learned several jockeys’ styles at this point, and, if I know something about the horse, I can tell if it’s a good combination or not.

A case in point happened at a race a few years ago. There was a filly who never seemed to be running – she glided over the top of the track. It was poetry in motion. For several races, she’d done well with one particular jockey. This time, she had a different jockey, one who used the whip frequently. In my column, I predicted that, the first time he hit her, she would stop. This horse did not like the stick. You could coax her, but if you hit her before the stretch, she wouldn’t go. I got a lot of flack for that prediction, because the new jock had more wins than her previous one. The horses broke, came around the first turn. Her jockey tapped her with the stick. And she stopped. Plenty of handicappers dislike trying to figure out fillies and mares. The colts and geldings will do as they’re trained. The fillies and mares will do what they want. That’s why I love ‘em.

Another thing to watch in the charts is “L1” or the L shaded. That means the horse is on Lasix for the first time. Some horses bleed through the nostrils when they run. Lasix helps control it. When a horse is on Lasix for the first time, most of the time, he runs better than previously. Take a second look at the horses marked “L1”.

What about post position? Horse enthusiasts enthusiastically debate this issue. What if the horse feels squeezed on the inside? What if he’s so far out his turns are too wide and he can’t pull ahead? I don’t pay much attention to post position. A seasoned jockey knows both how the track feels that day and where his horse is most comfortable running. The jockey will guide the horse there at the first opportunity, no matter where they break. Jockeys are a relatively small community, and the ones who regularly ride the big races know every bump and glitch in a given course. Also, remember that there are numerous races on the card that day, and many jockeys will have the chance to ride on the track before the big race. They’ll know the track’s eccentricities.
Weights are another issue of contention. Retired jockey Shane Sellers is fighting to have weights raised for jockeys. A horse weighs approximately 1200 pounds. A jockey weights around 110 pounds. The more a horse wins, the more weight the race secretary assigns for the next race. A horse that runs well might be assigned 126 pounds. That means, if the horse retains its regular jockey who weighs 110 pounds, that horse will carry 16 pounds of metal weights in the saddle. Why shouldn’t that weight be on the jockey’s body, allowing the jockey to eat like a real person and not have to induce vomiting (called “flipping”) or sweat in the sauna for hours every day? I don’t factor weights into my betting at all. I don’t believe a few pounds here or there is going to hurt a sound horse.

2. If you bet, don’t bet what you can’t afford to lose. This is supposed to be fun, not land you in debt. Before you go to the track, set aside X amount of dollars. Once that’s used up, that’s it. Winnings can be used however you want. You can continue betting or fold. I usually donate a percentage to my favorite racing charity and buy a good meal. I’m always hungry after a day at the races. Or don’t bet at the windows with money. Bet with friends as to who will buy dinner.

3. Read the charts as much as you want, then get off your duff, go down to the paddock and look at the horse. Many handicappers will disagree with me on this one. They go strictly by the numbers. They want to do all that math, fine with me. I’d rather go to the paddock and take a look at the animal myself. I don’t care what the numbers say; sometimes the horse has a bad day. He could be feeling poorly, or annoyed at something that happened on the way from the barn, or just in a temper. Look at the horse. Is he on his toes? Does he look like he’s ready to go? Are his ears pricked up (good) or laid back (not so good)? Is he fighting the bit? Are his flanks already sweaty before they’ve put the saddle on? A horse that’s too mellow in the paddock might not be in the mood to run. A horse that’s too rambunctious might wear himself out before he gets to the gate. You can feel it when a horse is ready – his ears are up, he’s on his toes, he’s calm but not complacent. He’s paying attention to what’s going on around him, yet focused. He may stamp a foot a bit, or nip at someone coming too close, but he’s glad when the jockey gets on his back, because he knows it’s time to get to work.

It’s easier to see it in person. But if you’re not at the track, watch the post parade. Then make your bet just before the race goes off. Go with your gut. I’ve often changed my mind in the paddock.

4. Listen to everyone, but make your own decisions. Everyone has a system, everyone has opinions. Part of the fun of attending the races is to stand in the paddock and chat with total strangers about the horses. And the older guys, who come to the track every day for forty years or so have great stories. They love to tell their tales (some of them quite tall) and are worth the time.
One year, at Keeneland, I fell in love with a gray horse named Stormin’ Hannah in the paddock. She was ridden by Shane Sellars in that race. Everyone around me made fun of the horse, saying she was too small, too fat, and too slow. “I don’t care,” I said. “She’s my horse.” I bet. She broke last, and Shane slowly worked her to the front. She won. One of the naysayers found me before the next race, and, in the fashion of a true Kentucky gentleman, apologized.

5. Put a small bet on the longest shot on the board. Especially if the odds are 50-1 or higher. A couple of years ago, at the Belmont Stakes, I bet on a horse called Sarava, at 70-1. Sarava wiped the field.

There are some excellent racing charities. If I have a good day at the track, I contribute a portion of my winnings. Among my favorites are:

The Exceller Fund (

The Don MacBeth Memorial Jockey Fund, for injured riders (

I contributed regularly to FemmeFan, a site for sports fans, for several years, and often the articles were about horse racing.

Copyright 2004 Devon Ellington. For permission to reprint this article or a portion of it, contact here.