By Denis Blake
(The following article is reprinted from the September/October 1999 issue of The HorsePlayer magazine.)
I used to think about American Quarter Horse racing in the same way many of you probably do. I just didn’t think about it. Yes, I was aware of it and even had to handicap a few sprint races when I worked for Daily Racing Form.
But betting on it? OK, maybe once in a while. But as a fairly successful horseplayer I had learned to stick to what I knew, and I didn’t know much about American Quarter Horse racing. Then a few years ago at Canterbury Park, American Quarter Horses demanded that I stand up and take notice of them. The normal routine for me in the press box was to pay close attention to the Thoroughbred races (generally the first eight races of the day) and then start to handicap the next day’s races when the American Quarter Horse races started (usually the last two or three races).
The first day of the meet that year was no different. I played the Thoroughbred races and then turned my attention to next day’s handicapping puzzle. I didn’t pay much attention to the two American Quarter Horse races that first day, but did notice that jockey Rodney Carter (not to be confused with G.R. Carter, the nation’s leading rider last year) had swept both races. Not a big deal, but I tend to watch out for hot jockeys so that caught my attention.
I had all but forgotten about Carter’s two wins by the time the next day’s races came around. But then he won the first American Quarter Horse race of the day on a 6-1 shot. Still, I had only minimal interest in checking out the last two races, but I figured they at least merited a closer look. In the next race Carter was on a bit of a longshot, but I figured it was worth a few bucks to see if he could extend his streak.
Despite track announcer Paul Allen’s mentions of Carter’s three-race streak, he was sent to post at 10-1 and promptly ran his streak to four. I made a nice profit on the race and was alive with a Carter-Carter late daily double I had bet. In the final race of the day, Carter was on a contender but not a standout. Still, I figured 4-1 was a generous price for a jockey that had won four races in a row, so I played him again. Once more, despite many reminders of his hot streak by Paul Allen, the public did not seem to care. Carter won again and the daily double, with a jockey who had won three races in a row prior to the start, paid nearly $75.
I started to realize that I may have uncovered something - no one was paying much attention to the American Quarter Horses. I started out slowly, but after a little practice and research, I improved my American Quarter Horse handicapping skills and started to turn a profit on the sprinters. It seemed that the public did not really know how to handicap American Quarter Horses. I also found that it was easier to make money betting on American Quarter Horses, and not because the favorites win at a higher rate. I usually avoid favorites at all costs, and although they do win more often in American Quarter Horse racing, juicy overlays are easier to spot. Besides being oblivious to the previously mentioned jockey streak, the betting public did not seem to be adapting their Thoroughbred handicapping skills to American Quarter Horse racing. While this may not be as pronounced at some of the nation’s premier American Quarter Horse tracks, much of the money in those pools comes from simulcast outlets where players are accustomed to Thoroughbred racing.
What are the differences between handicapping American Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds? The skills used in Thoroughbred handicapping will give you a good start in the American Quarter Horse world, but they will not get you to the promised land. First, let’s look at the things that are similar. Variables such as distance, track condition, layoffs, and jockey and trainer records can be examined the same for both breeds. However, when it comes to distance, keep in mind that because of the shorter races for American Quarter Horses, an ideal distance may not be much different than a not-so-ideal distance. Obviously the difference between an 870-yard race (about four furlongs) and a 350-yard sprint (a little more than 1 ½ furlongs) is easy to understand, but even the difference between 400 and 440 can be significant. Some American Quarter Horses excel in the final 40 yards of a 440-yard race, but others tire and fade. Just because a horse can win going 400, does not necessarily mean he can go 440. A fact often ignored by the betting public.
To make your American Quarter Horse handicapping easier, ignore weight and pace. A few pounds aren’t going to make a difference at a short distance. As for pace, there really is not anything to study (except for longer races at 870 yards and beyond). The gates open and everyone goes all out to the wire. There is just no time to hang back and make a late run.
What do Thoroughbred handicappers need to adjust before playing American Quarter Horses? One pitfall to look out for is the "finish position trap." When you are glancing through a American Quarter Horse’s past performances, don’t give too much credence to his position in the order of finish. Instead, keep your eyes on how far back he was with respect to the winner. It is not completely uncommon for a American Quarter Horse to finish fifth by a length or less. Was such a horse a contender for the winning position? Quite possibly. Maybe he was just the victim of a closely matched field with a blanket finish. Or perhaps a slight bump out of the gate hurt his chances.
If a Thoroughbred finishes fifth, was he in contention at the end? Not likely. My point is this – if you see a Thoroughbred that has finished in the middle of the pack in his last few races, he’s probably been overmatched and outrun. But for a American Quarter Horse, that may not always be the case. On the flip side, be sure to keep the beaten lengths in perspective for the two breeds. A Thoroughbred who finished four lengths behind the winner probably ran a respectable race, but a American Quarter Horse beaten by four lengths was badly beaten.
Handicapping trouble is an area that can be vastly different. A slow break or some bumping out of the gate in a one-mile race is no big deal, but for a American Quarter Horse it can be devastating. I am much more forgiving when it comes to completely throwing out a American Quarter Horse’s poor performance. Even if he broke just a half-length back or got bumped out of the gate, either could have cost him a chance to win. An ugly fifth-place finish after a little trouble will always help the odds next time out. If that horse does not have chronic, self-inflicted problems at the gate, he could be a solid value in his next start.
Another thing to keep in mind for those looking to "crossover" is that the almost universal usage of Beyer figures for Thoroughbreds has eliminated many overlays that used to exist. And the emergence of handicapping tools like The Sheets, Thoro-graph, and The Racing Digest, plus the proliferation of Thoroughbred handicapping information on the Internet has also hurt those who do not have access to such information. Today’s professional handicapper has been well documented in this magazine, he is well funded, has connections with trainers and jockeys, and has access to information that few others have. And for the most part, he does not bet on American Quarter Horses.
Just like Thoroughbred racing was to the early pioneers of sophisticated speed figures years ago, American Quarter Horse racing is prime territory to be conquered by those who take the time and effort to properly analyze it. We all know that one of the keys to winning at pari-mutuel wagering is being smarter and better informed than everyone else. That’s a tall order against the pros that make their living on Thoroughbred racing, but not quite so daunting with American Quarter Horse racing.