Good Handicapping Means Following The Horse That Impresses You

Years ago, I led Saturday morning handicapping seminars for beginners. Taught people how to read the program and tote board. Talked about pools and conditions. Explained what a furlong is.

Invariably, during the “question and answer session,” at the end of each seminar, someone would ask: “What is the most important element of handicapping?”

It was always an impossible question to answer.

Pace is important.

Class is important.

Speed is important.

Connections are important.

Pedigree is important.

Workouts are important.

You get the picture.

But there is something else that is important … watching races.

Busy at another business these days, I find little time to watch races and evaluate performances. But I always make a point to do so during the Fall and Spring Keeneland meetings.

First of all, Keeneland is my favorite track. But, more importantly, it is because it is only open three weeks and has such tremendous purses, that top horses ship in from around the country.

In other words, it is good racing. And in more words, good horses get beat there.

Like a lot of handicappers, I look for horses that have trouble, but I also look for horses that impress me. Then I follow those horses; see where they run next.

First, the word “impress” doesn’t mean “win.” Perhaps they won, but maybe they didn’t. You can be impressive in defeat. And you don’t have to win by five lengths to be impressive in victory.

Second, you don’t always wager when they run again. You still have to handicap, still have to evaluate whether or not they fit in their subsequent start (or starts).

Two of “my cases” from this past Keeneland meet (and there are others): Divisidero and Walkabout.

Divisidero was as impressive in his narrow, allowance race loss at Keeneland as he would have been had he gotten up in time to win. He had to wait for room and was beaten only a nose. The race was used, obviously, to set him up for the G1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill on Derby day.

My note on Divisidero that day at Keeneland read like this: “They beat him at Keeneland but they won’t beat him at Churchill.”

He was ultra impressive in defeat, and it doesn’t take a genius to know he loves Churchill Downs.

And at 7-2 in the Woodford Reserve they didn’t beat him.

Walkabout only won by a neck when she ran April 12 at Keeneland. But after having to check in the turn, her run to the wire was most impressive and she galloped out strongly.

My note, in this one, read: “Can step up in class.”

Sure enough, Walkabout showed up next in the G3 Matron Stakes at Churchill five weeks later. Studying the field, there was no doubt she would fit with these contenders. At a juicy 5-to-1 price, the Stroll filly ran the same race as at Keeneland, even winning by the same, agonizing neck margin.

This Saturday, Walkabout steps up again, moving to the Grade II Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill Downs – as part of a spectacular race card that features the G1 Stephen F. Foster. Walkabout will be stretching out from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/8 miles.

Let the handicapping begin.

What is the most important factor when handicapping?

There isn’t one.

But the value of watching races can never be underestimated.

The horse broke well today,” Gaffalione said. “I had the horse inside, Dunph, going to the lead and then (Gun It) showed a little bit of speed. When I saw they were intent on going I just tried to get him back and got him to relax. He came back to me nicely and settled well down the backside. Got a little keen going into the far turn and wanted to move a little early. But I didn’t want to take too much away from him so I tried to sit as long as I could. He was waiting on horses down the lane but I kept him at task and there was plenty of horse there.”

“Mark (Casse, the trainer) and his team have done a great job,” Gaffalione said. “They’ve had a ton of confidence in this horse the whole way. It’s just an honor to be able to ride the horse. He’s just so professional, trains great and he’s a pleasure to be around.”

Tyler Gaffalione, Rode of War of Will to victory in the G2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds
  • Dan Liebman

    Dan Liebman

      Dan Liebman attended his first Kentucky Derby in 1973 when, from the infield, he saw a glimpse of Secretariat, still today the greatest horse he has seen race. He later worked full time in equine journalism for more than 25 years, his last full time position as Editor in Chief ...

      Full Bio >

    More From Dan Liebman