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Handicapping First Time Starters

Handicapping First Time Starters
Picture this: you wrap up work early for the weekend, print off a copy of the past performances for your favorite track, and head to the track, or the OTB, or to wherever it is that you go to watch the races. You flip open the form to race 1, and are dismayed to find out that it is a Maiden Special Weight race featuring 8 horses, all of whom are first time starters. Sound familiar? What do you do? Do you skip the race completely and focus on the next race? Do you just use the top 3 choices on the morning line hoping you can survive this race and get on to the next leg of your pick 3 or pick 5? Maybe you just tail the announcers pick on TVG? Without any prior races, this race is a complete guess, right?


One of the most common questions in the horseracing discord (which you should totally join by the way ( is how to handle first time starters. I’m here to provide some fundamental handicapping material that will help turn first time starters from a complete guess into an educated wagering opportunity. While it’s true that handicapping first time starters is a bit different, a significant portion of the betting public struggles with these races, often providing us with some prime overlay opportunities for live horses at generous prices.

This will not be a comprehensive guide to every possible method to handicap a race with first time starters, but rather aims to provide the average handicapper with a foundation to make first time starters more approachable.

There are 3 key subjects to cover when handicapping first time starters: Connections, Pedigree, and Workouts. I will provide information and examples on each of the 3 main topics, and share some of my personal favorite angles that are a bit more nuanced at the end of the article.

Connections are likely the most obvious and easiest place to start when evaluating a first time starter. By connections, I am referring to the owner, trainer, and jockey. The trainer is by far the most important piece of the connections in terms of getting horses ready for racing. Some trainers are renowned for having their first time starters live and ready to fire (Brown, Ward, etc), whereas other trainers are not as focused on winning at first asking (Mott, Chug). Instead, they will race their horses into top condition and are much more likely to win second or third time out. Look up the relevant stats for the trainer of the horse in question to see what his strike rate is with first time starters. DRF Formulator is the best resource available for looking up trainer stats, but most PPs will provide relevant stats in some fashion.

Knowing that a trainer hits at 15% with first time starters is an okay starting point, but it really helps to dive deeper. Some trainers are elite at getting first time starters ready in turf sprints, but are very poor when it comes to dirt routes. Likewise, some trainers are excellent at the maiden claiming level, but do significantly worse with the step up to maiden special weight company. It is important to understand the details of what goes into the overall first time starter win percentage before betting it blindly.

The jockey is the second piece of the connections puzzle. By and large, you will handicap the jockey for a first time starter the same way as you would in a normal race. Jockeys who are known for getting their mounts out of the gate with a clean break and being able to get young horses to relax out front will make me upgrade that horse. Additionally, it can be helpful to know which jockeys typically ride for which trainers, especially if a trainer has multiple mounts entered. If John Velazquez is on a Todd Pletcher first time starter, that horse could be a contender as JV is the typical first call pilot for Pletcher’s barn. What can oftentimes be more telling is when the first call pilots are not riding the first time starter of their trainer. If Velazquez is riding a horse for another barn despite a Pletcher horse being entered, and the jockey on the Pletcher horse is not a typical rider for that outfit, I will significantly downgrade the Pletcher horse under the assumption JV had an opportunity to ride and was not impressed or liked the other mount better. Note that this angle does not apply if the standard first call jockeys are not riding at the track in question on that day.

The owner is the last piece of the puzzle, and arguably the most difficult and least useful tool in handicapping. Similar to how trainers have their favorite jockeys, owners have their favorite trainers. A Klaravich Stables horse trained by Chad Brown with Castellano aboard demands serious consideration regardless of other factors, but small barns can be dangerous too. Smaller stables who are more cautious about spotting their horses than some of the mega-stable powerhouses can often be great value while the big-name stables take the public money. Keep an eye out for owners who target certain meets, such as Saratoga, as sometimes they will run horses at a slightly lower level than they are capable in order to try to win the meet title.

Personally speaking, pedigree is the most challenging tool to add to your toolbox, but an invaluable one when it comes to dealing with first time starters. Quoting pedigree expert Lauren Stitch, the male parts (sire and damsire) of a horse’s pedigree are the keys to the surface and distance, and the female part (dam) of the pedigree influences a horse’s class. Before proceeding, I will strongly recommend that you evaluate a horse’s pedigree on the whole. That is, a horse by Tapit out of a mare who went 0/3 lifetime is not necessarily unable to compete at the maiden special weight ranks just because the dam was not a winner. Treat the surface, distance, and class influence as more of a guideline than strict rule.

That said, the first thing I usually do is to review the sire of the horse in question. Did the sire win his debut? Did the sire win at today’s distance? What about today’s surface? Does the sire’s progeny generally win first time out? I make frequent use of equibase, bloodhorse, and pedigreequery when trying to answer these questions. I will then check the same information on the damsire as well as the second sire (grandsire). I personally rarely go back farther than 2 generations due to time constraints and the fact I find limited value in that exercise, but everyone has their own preferences.

Most people are familiar with strong debut sires, and it’s unlikely that people will overlook a Tapit or Uncle Mo first time starter. However, the dam is often a crucial and overlooked component of a horse’s pedigree. I try to answer the same questions above about the dam to gauge ability. Often, the dam was unraced or only lightly raced – evaluating the granddam can often be useful in situations such as these. Next, I look for siblings. While stallions may cover hundreds of mares in a given breeding season, mares usually only have 1 foal in any given year. I want to see if the dam of my horse has produced any winners. If so, did they win at first asking, on what surface, at what distance, etc. It is not uncommon to have a lightly raced mare be an excellent dam of very successful and precocious runners despite not finding much success as a racehorse herself. An excellent resource for identifying siblings is to use; search for the dam, and go to reports > progeny. That will allow you to find the siblings and look them up on equibase (the race results and career record/earnings is often incorrect on pedigreequery).

In the absence of races, morning workouts are the next best way to measure a horse’s ability. Workout reports (or clocker reports) are hands down the most effective resource available to judge a horse’s workout. There is already a great article written on how to use workout reports, so I won’t delve deep into that topic but encourage everybody to check out the article here (

Even without clocker reports, workouts can still be useful in evaluating a horse. The actual time of the workout is not nearly as important as many imagine it to be. A rough rule of thumb is 12 seconds per furlong is an okay workout fraction, but many trainers intentionally do not work their horses quickly in the mornings so the times may be deceiving. I’ll take note of an exceptionally fast workout (think 46 seconds for 4f), or if there appears to be a pattern emerging where a horse has shown improved/declining workout times over the past few works, but otherwise I don’t really use them.

More important than the times themselves are the frequency and spacing of the workouts. Young horses should be working often and consistently, no more than 2 weeks apart between works and oftentimes less than that. If I see a horse who was working out every 7 days, then abruptly goes 21 days without a workout before starting up again, that is a red flag to me. Something likely went wrong with the horse, whether it was soreness or something else that prevented him from working out on his normal schedule. Frequent gaps in an otherwise consistent workout tab are generally an indicator of a troubled horse. A word of caution: some trainers are sneaky and will work their horses on a private facility that will not be documented in the past performances. Keep an eye out for patterns of trainers who have successful first time starters with odd-looking workout patterns. It is likely they are being worked off-track and the workouts are not published.

A personal angle for me with first time starters is to look for at least 1 workout from the gate, indicated with a “g” in the workout line. At the maiden level, more races are won in front running fashion than at any other level in racing. That makes the break from the gate critically important, as missing the break can often cost a horse a race immediately. While there are certainly no guarantees, seeing a gate workout gives me a little more confidence that this horse can handle the break and have a fair shot at the start. Note: while seeing 1 or 2 gate works is encouraging, seeing a large number of gate works can be cause for concern. Gate works are not that common for experienced horses, so if a horse has worked from the gate 5 or 6 times in his last 10 works there is a strong chance he is breaking poorly, hitting the gate, or otherwise acting up.

Last, check for the surface that the workouts have been taking place on. A horse debuting on turf that has at least one turf workout under his belt is promising that he should be familiar with the surface already. Note that the (d) in turf workouts indicates the “dogs” were out – cones placed in a line out from the rail to try to preserve the inner part of the turf track. When working with the dogs out, horses are traveling wider around the turns and times may be slightly slower.

Putting it all together:
I figured it might be useful to provide a quick example of how I would handicap a first time starter, so I opened my PPs to Saratoga tomorrow and went to the first maiden special race I could find, race 2 on tomorrow’s program. We will be discussing the 8 horse, Duress.
Let’s walk through our 3 key building blocks. First, the connections. The first thing I notice is that this trainer is not strong with debut runners despite being a 15% overall trainer on the year, as he has a 3% strike rate with 1st time starters out of 32 starts. However, Manny Franco is one of the top jockeys on the NYRA circuit, and these two have found some success together in the past judging from their 1 for 5 (20% win, 60% in the money) strike rate together with a very strong +$2.04 ROI. I’m not familiar with the owner, and after some quick research he seems to run most of his horses in the NYRA circuit (and a few at finger lakes) with 7 winners from 42 starters (17% win) so far in 2019. I also noticed that the majority of his horses are trained by Robert Ribaudo, today’s trainer for our horse Duress. These same connections (Franco, Ribaudo, Keller) won impressively with 9-1 shot maiden special weight winner Opt on June 9 at Belmont going 8.5 furlongs on the turf.

As for pedigree, I love Violence offspring. Violence was 4-3-1-0 as a racehorse but forced into early retirement due to a leg injury. He won his debut race at 7f on the dirt, and won up to 8.5f. He never tried the turf, but if you look closer you will notice that 14% of his runners win on the turf, and 14% of his runners win the first time they try turf. The average winning distance of his offspring (AWD) is 6.6 furlongs, suggesting that this sprint distance should be favorable for Duress. Violence’s sire, Medaglia d’Oro, was a world class horse on dirt but also is known for producing outstanding turf offspring and has passed that gene down to Violence as well. Duress’ dam, Mattieandmorgan, was 0/7 in her racing career with 2 second place finishes. The connections elected to turn her into a broodmare rather than drop her into maiden claiming ranks where she could be claimed away. Her sire, Smart Strike, was a Grade 1 winner on dirt and never tried on turf. Her dam, Lady Shirl earned nearly $1,000,000 and won 18 of 41 starts, including a Grade 1 stakes, on the turf. Duress’ siblings include Hook Em, who is 2/24 and took a while to break his maiden but does have a turf win to his name. Duress’ other two siblings are a combined 0/9.

Lastly, the workouts for Duress appears solid. I do not have workout reports, so I’m limited to what we see above. The work pattern is fairly consistent, with a workout every 8-10 days or so since May, including a respectable gate workout on June 23. The times are all in the ballpark of what I am looking for, although I’d like to see at least one turf workout on the tab.

From my analysis, this horse has connections that are on the weaker side with debut runners, but a strong jockey takes the mount who has had success with this outfit before. The pedigree is very solid on the male side, as Violence produces a lot of first out winners on turf. The dam has not had much success in racing, and neither has the majority of her offspring. The granddam, however, was an outstanding turf horse. The workouts are well spaced with adequate times, including a gate work, but no turf works. If you’ve read this far (God bless you), you’re now wondering “yeah okay so do I bet this horse or not?”. Unfortunately, that’s a question you have to answer on your own. This horse has both a variety of positive and negative factors going for him, which is often the case in horse racing. It’s up to you to handicap the rest of the field and decide if he fits in or not. At the morning line of 15-1 I think he provides fair value, and if I play the pick 5 tomorrow I will likely include him on a few tickets but not a primary play.

Miscellaneous Angles
The above should provide most handicappers with enough material to develop a foundation for handicapping first time starters. I’ve included this section as a bit of a catch-all for random angles I’ve picked up that have helped me find winners in the past but are not that common.

Purchase Price vs Stud Fee: many handicappers will look towards a $1,000,000 Curlin colt purchased by Coolmore and assume the horse is a lock to win early. Often that is not the case. An angle I’ve found more reliable than simple purchase price is the purchase price of a horse compared to the stud fee (or average purchase price of all offspring) of his sire. A horse who sells at auction for $400,000 out of a sire who only commands a stud fee of $10,000 is worth paying attention to. This horse clearly impressed somebody enough to attract that kind of money and was not sold based on name brand value alone. Inversely, a colt out of a leading sire who stands for $250,000 (War Front, Tapit, etc) but only sells for $20,000 at auction raises questions. Clearly this horse has not developed the way the breeder has hoped to return such a small amount despite the big-name pedigree.

Tote Watching: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. This is a game riddled with insider knowledge, backside rumors, and hot tipsters. However, if a first time starter from a smaller barn is listed at 15-1 on the ML but opens up at 7/2 and hangs out in that range, there’s a strong chance people “in the know” think this horse is live. I’ll upgrade a horse who takes significant action at the window for no apparent reason, but not enough to change my overall opinion if I feel strongly about him one way or another.

Dam Productivity Index/Sire Productivity Index (Brisnet PPS only*)*: The Dams Production Index (dpi) which compares the earnings of this dam’s produce with the average earnings of the produce of all North American broodmares. The average is established as 1.00 so, if a dam’s dpi is 2.00 this means that her produce average earnings are twice the national average (Two-year old, maiden, and turf races only). The Sire Production Index (spi) which compares the earnings of this sire’s and broodmare sire’s offspring with the average earnings of the offspring of all North American sires. The average is established as 1.00 so, if a sire’s spi is 2.00 this means that his offspring average earnings are twice the national average. Basically, this is a rough at-a-glance way to determine the class of a sire/damsire/dam’s offspring.

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**7 Rules to WIN at Betting**

I get asked a lot for ‘tips’ from people. What do you like TODAY, what do you think about X’s chances? My answer is pretty much always the same but ultimately is “You need to think LONG term and develop a strategy“.
Most shrug and move on (hint: that’s usually the 95% of bettors that lose money over time) when I give the initial answer about developing a strategy but those are the ones who will consistently struggle with their betting as it involves effort that few are willing to put in, and there are few shortcuts. Other people work hard at it and those are the ones who give themselves the best chance of being successful with their betting, winning and showing good profits in the long run.
Personally, I have made £150,000 clear profit since the 2010 flat season so ‘on average’ around £26,000 per year which I am both happy with and proud of because making long-term profits through horse racing is a very hard thing to achieve. There can be losing spells which can be tough to deal with psychologically but is very much about adapting a winning mindset and a belief in your methods.
Now don’t get me wrong, I lost for many years but I learned a tremendous amount from those days which have made me the profitable value investor I am today. I’ve listed some of the key tips to profitable betting below, there are plenty more but if you don’t have a grasp on these 7 I suspect you will always struggle to get any kind of decent return from betting.
1) DON’T BE A LAZY GAMBLER "Laziness travels so slowly that poverty soon overtakes him – Benjamin Franklin"
So many punters I know bet ‘on gut’, follow favourites or tipsters blindly or just try to make decisions based on summaries in the Racing Press or online but there is a reason why some ‘professional gamblers’ resort to punditry on TV and a reason why these ‘experts’ are working for media companies. It’s mainly because they talk a good talk or have had success in the past before the market wised up to them. A lot of punters also just don’t learn or adapt with the times, which you have to do on a regular basis. Many gamblers looked up to the big-betting exploits of Harry Findlay but has anyone heard from him lately? Last I heard he had filed for bankruptcy back in 2012. You need to stop being so lazy and start using your time more effectively to understand your own betting and formulate your own choices.
2) SPECIALISE AND FOCUS "If you chase two rabbits…you will not catch either one – Russian Proverb"
There is a LOT of racing out there, more than there has ever been. My general advice to punters is to specialise and focus. I personally look at Class1/2 handicaps at the big meetings for my main bets but also look at Group races. Occasionally I will look at good Class 3 contests if I believe there is value. I will avoid maidens, novices, sellers, claimers, hunter chases, 2yo contests, fillies’ only contests and a few more that I consider to be ‘volatile’. This means I can focus on just a few races each weekend or at the main festivals and be more selective. So don’t overload yourself, find a race type you are good at or enjoy and learn everything you can about it.
3) DON’T BE AN ACTION JUNKIE "Any kind of novelty or excitement drives up dopamine in the brain, and dopamine is associated with romantic love – Helen Fisher"
There should be no such thing as a ‘fun’ bet – the only fun bet is one that wins you a heap of cash. Don’t bet for an ‘interest’ in a race or a football match just because your team is playing. It’s one of the biggest problems punters get into trying to win every race or over-betting for the dopamine release into your brain. Like being a junkie, it’s a short-term rush and the longer-term results are an emptier betting bank and a feeling of deflation so ignore these Twitter Tipsters that are so prevalent nowadays asking you to ‘post your slip’ or bet for Yankees, Lucky-15’s every day. Ask whether they bet all these ‘tips’ they give out, there is a reason why they don’t record their results and plug affiliate links constantly, they basically want you to lose so they earn 33% commission off your cumulative losses. It’s difficult enough to find one winner let alone 4 and the bookies will always welcome your custom. One way to really tell if you are a losing action junkie is whether you still actually have a betting account that accepts your bets.
4) RECORD YOUR BETS – ALL OF THEM! "We all make mistakes, have struggles, and even regret things in our past. But you are not your mistakes, you are not your struggles, and you are here NOW with the power to shape your day and your future – Steve Maraboli"
It’s vital to your long-term success to record ALL your bets, all of them and every possible detail you can about them, whether the horse was a favourite, the odds, the race type, the trainer, the jockey etc. etc. The reason why is that patterns in your betting reveal themselves over time. You will see the type of bets you are not so good at, whether you bet the same trainer or jockey regardless of the horses chances, whether you are rubbish at 2yo maiden races (like me!) and just really where your focus should be. This allows you to plug the leaks in your betting and develop a much better strategy as mentioned in Step 2 and also falls in with Step 1 of not being lazy. The effort you put into recording your bets is well worth it and one of the main reasons I managed to turn my betting around to maximize my yield. Record your results and analyse them closely.
5) THINK AND PLAN LONG TERM "Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago – Warren Buffett"
Most punters are looking for a quick-fix, have a closed mind, are lazy and want ‘tips’ spoon-fed to them but the main issue is that they have a very short-term mindset. I can pretty much tell which type of bettor someone will be within my first few interactions with them. If they have a run of bad results over a week or even a month then they will look to blame anyone but themselves instead of adapting the long-term mindset and the ability to examine their results which comes back to the previous step. What is long-term? Well some might consider it a few weeks, some a few months, some a season, very few consider a year or 3+ years but that is how it should be viewed. When you go for a job interview, unless you are a contractor, you don’t ask how much the weekly or monthly salary is…you are interested in the annual wage and that is how you should view your betting AT LEAST over a year.
6) SEEK THE VALUE "All intelligent investing is value investing – to acquire more than you are paying for. Investing is where you find a few great companies and then sit on your ass – Charlie Munger"
This should probably go to number 1 to be honest but value means different things to different people. I make my own oddsline so I can see value in EVERY single race thanks to the automatically generated odds-lines for each race. Does that mean you should bet every single one? Well, no…that is where the ‘Specialise and Focus’ step comes in but if you are not backing horses at bigger odds than the market estimates their chances then you will really struggle to make a long-term profit. You could back a horse at 6/4 that should be 5/4, that is value but I would rather back a horse at 20/1 that should be 10/1. There may be longer losing runs but the payoff for me is far better. Of course this depends on how good you are at selecting long-odds shots but on Betfair you can get some crazily overpriced top-rated horses who pay 50/1 instead of the 33/1 SP for example. So don’t look for winners of races, look for overlays within the race.
7) PRACTICE DETACHMENT "Manifest plainness, Embrace simplicity, Reduce selfishness, Have few desires – Lao Tzu"
This one is trickier and I find most struggle with. I find that yoga and meditation help tremendously with this but if that is a bit new-age for you then just lift some weights or go for a run to take your mind of things as you will make poor decisions if you base your betting on emotions. If you reaction to a losing bet is to blame the jockey, the trainer, the tipster first rather than just shake off a losing bet and moving on, then you need to practice detachment. If you are value betting you also need to accept you will back a lot more losers than winners but it’s important to get out of the winning/losing mindset, detach yourself from recent results and accept that losses are part of being a profitable long-term value punter.
Ultimately you need to believe in yourself, work hard and use data that the majority of the market does not have access to.
"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results – Albert Einstein"
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