Joe Takach

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We’ve all heard the handicapping terminology “unplayable race”, but what makes a race unplayable and how can you identify them?

An unplayable race is one where there are so many unknown or unmeasureable variables, that predicting the outcome becomes nothing more than guesswork.  This is obviously in stark contrast to playable races where arriving at a concrete conclusion is a result of properly mixing known handicapping variables.

Some examples of unplayable races follow in no particular order, but by no means is this brief writing intended to include every single unplayable scenario known to man in the handicapping world---just some of the more obvious. 


We see these maiden races every day!  You’re presented up to 12 horses in any given race, half of which have never started before.  Granted there are indicators such as morning drills, trainer ability, named jockey, running surface preferences, distance preferences etc.  But face facts, we really know VERY LITTLE until we see any horse in the “heat of battle”.  Putting even 1 of these unraced horses in any race can change everything!  Maybe a trainer just wants to see if his first-timer can get out of the gate and “rocket” for 2 furlongs as a “prep” for an all-out effort next time.  If there are other speed horses in the field and this 2 furlong horse does in fact either set or press the pace, the whole race shape changes and the outcome becomes more clouded.   Put 2,3, 4 or more “firsters” in this field and you add even more confusion with outcomes expanded exponentially----an unplayable race if there ever was one!


Much like 1st time starters, we see shippers from other circuits invade our tracks nearly every day.  While they might be literal “monsters” over their home court, when they go out of town, they are often nothing more than also-rans.  The problem for a handicapper is that the shipper has never raced over today’s specific course (dirt or turf) against those he’s facing this afternoon, so how could you possibly predict the outcome unless the horse had a unique twist to him such as he’s the “lone frontrunner”.  Will the shipper win or alter the outcome?  Who really knows?  The race could easily be viewed as unplayable and most likely is, unless you can toss out the shipper with utmost confidence. 


We’re faced with this on a daily basis.  Horses switch distances with regularity.  Minimal changes from 6 to 6 ½ furlongs or from a mile to 1 1/16 miles may or may not be meaningful and are usually “handicappable”.  Most unplayable races occur when the horse in question is asked to run past his pedigree.  If he’s only a miler, he’ll most likely “get” and possibly win a 1 1/16 mile event if he’s a strong frontrunner and today’s surface strongly favors speed.  But to expect him to “get” 1 1/4 miles (regardless of running bias) is stretching your imagination. 


This should be our problem the rest of our lives, because sooner or later we’d be able to separate talented runners once they had competed against each other a few times.  But when first confronted with this situation, the race suddenly becomes unplayable even though we “feel” we should be playing the race because how many times do we get the chance to actually wager on good horses.  As an example, there might be a Grade 1 race at your track today containing 8 runners, all of whom had won a Grade 1 race within the past 90 days-----way too tough for me no matter what the past performances look like.  I’ll wait for softer spots.

It almost seems hypocritical to complain about too many good or very evenly-matched horses in any race given today’s skimpy fields. But when you gamble and your long term goal is to turn a healthy profit, you should only wager when YOU CAN SEE a distinct, positive, and profitable edge with your selection!


Sadly, this is the reason that we pass most races!  The bottom-feeding 8, 10, 12.5 and sometimes even 16K claiming fields in Southern California are often indecipherable and unseparable in the past performances.  It’s hard enough trying to find the fastest horse in any field, sifting thru the walking-wounded seeking the “least slow” is yet again another matter! 

If you find yourself spending too much time trying to unravel something that most likely is unravelable, move that effort to a race where you have an edge of some kind.  This is not to say that once in a while you can’t find a “nugget” when panning in the bottom-feeding claiming ranks, but don’t hold your breath!


This situation can prove frustrating to the most seasoned professional as well as to the serious weekend warrior!   Most of the time when races are taken off the turf, the main oval is in some stage of wetness and thus labeled as an off-track of some kind such as sloppy, muddy etc.

Unless you handicapped a turf race for both the turf and for a wet dirt track (usually coming up with 2 distinct choices and scenarios), playing your turf selection if the race is transferred to the wet dirt is one of the quickest routes to financial ruination.

In most cases, off-track breeding has very little to do with turf breeding, though some people think they are different sides of the same coin.  Stay out of these races unless some strong handicapping angle or a specific horse overwhelms you in the paddock and pre-race warm-up.  You’ll save MANY a bad bet!


I recall as a young player that I usually lost the most money on an off-track.  The problem with living on the East coast or anywhere else that gets rain every 3 or 4th day, is that you always seem to be playing a dirt surface in some stage of either getting wet or drying out.

After doing so for over 30 years, I moved to sunny Southern California in 1993 to escape wetness and play a normal dry track for more than a day or 2 a week.   With the exception of the month of January and half of February, rain is very scarce in the “Southland” for the remaining 10 and ½ months of the year.  I can’t begin to tell you what that can do for your overall handicapping and profitability when you’re playing the same exact surface every single day!

Which brings us back to off-tracks. 

It is tough enough to pick winners on a dry and fast surface where traction is at its maximum.   The instant you add water and a new factor to the handicapping equation, everything changes---sometimes drastically and sometimes imperceptibly.  But the bottom line here is that change will occur that would not have occurred had the surface been fast and dry.  And there’s the problem.  While you might be an expert in off-track breeding, NOBODY is an expert on slipping, sliding, bumping, taking mud in the face and tentative rides.

If you must bet an off-track, at least cut your wagers in half!


We’ve all been here and most likely will be here again in the very near future.  We love a horse, but he’s 3-5 or lower!   What do we do?

The first cry of most is to use the horse in the exotics.  One can only guess that they feel more comfortable with a 3-5 shot in the exactas, trifectas etc., rationalizing that they’ll get more back for their money.

A 3-5 is a 3-5 is a 3-5 whether you use him as a single in a pick 3, or your lead off horse in a daily double, or your “key” horse in a trifecta.  These odds-on horses severely hamper healthy exotic payoffs!

Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for everything in horse racing to include 3-5 shots.  But if you’re taking 3-5, 4-5 and even money as a steady diet, you better be picking 50% or more winners if planning on coming out ahead in the long run.

I’ve hardly exhausted the reasons why some races become or are unplayable----I wasn’t trying to!  The purpose of this writing was to get you thinking about that race in front of you at this very moment.

Are there too many unknowns?   Do you have too many questions still unanswered?  What was your initial “gut” feeling about this race when you first looked at it?  Does anything change with a paddock and pre-race warm-up inspection? 

Is it time to PASS this race and save a bad bet?

Is this an UNPLAYABLE race?


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