“Handicapping Magic”

Some Unabashedly Biased Notes On A Great New Book

Charles Carroll

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I’d like to be the first to tell you about the most important new handicapping book of the century. [Originally published Fall 2000.]  With the century so young, that could be either exaggeration or faint praise, but this book is going to set the standard for the next decade.  It also happens to be written by of one of the most successful bettors I know.

I have been with Michael Pizzolla when he has scored very large in the high-end casinos of the Las Vegas Strip, where he lives and works, day-in, day-out, year-round.  If you read the earlier article on “variance,” hopefully you know I’m clued to the subject, and that on those occasions when I’m there with him, I am happy for him, excited for him—but I am not inclined to be awe-struck, because…well, because of variance. 

But, you know what?  It’s like this every time I’m with the guy.  I know he has had far bigger days, but I think two $1,500 exactas at different tracks on the same day are rather nice, don’t you?  I also know that he has down days, and we have commiserated many times over those miserable streaks of twenty or more losses when—if we had picked Cigar against a field of maidens at Lubbock Downs—his rider would have been dismounted signing autographs when the gates opened.  He once had a seagull fly in the face of his otherwise-winning pick in the stretch at Aquaduct!  Now that’s bum racing luck.  And that got me thinking.

In spite of my other inclinations, I’m actually quite superstitious.  Michael has very good days when I’m with him; he says he also has bad days, but I’ve never seen them—so, maybe there’s an opportunity here—as a professional good luck charm.  Jimmy Stuart had a six-foot rabbit, how about a six-foot rabbit’s foot?  Unfortunately for my new career aspirations, it’s not luck.  And, his book will show you exactly why.

When we are together in one of the race books on the Strip, I’m very conscious of the fact that I’m on vacation—Michael is working.  I ‘m usually bleary-eyed from doing what you do in Las Vegas—I might have handicapped for an hour—and I usually have enough sense to bet lightly when I’m in that state (of mind; not Nevada).  Michael, on the other hand, is making his living.  He is placing aggressive bets and is in full concentration.  This is not a time when I want to distract him with small talk or casual conversations about methodology.

I have, however, talked to the race book managers where he plays.  I won’t tell you exactly what these race book managers have told me on matters of scale, but I will say that these professionals who have seen it all hold him in very high esteem.  He is invariably described as an exceptional case—a standout—even among top players.  Knowing this, and the fact that he is a master of pace handicapping, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Michael make a decisive move and wanted to say out of pure curiosity, “Hey!  Michael!  Exactly what are you doing?  What are you thinking?  How are you framing that bet?”  Well, patience finally paid off.  I didn’t know it, but the last couple of times I was with him, he must have been writing The Book.

The book is Handicapping Magic.

Michael Pizzolla is a magician—literally—as well as an attorney, so the title covers two of his enthusiasms.  He has many others, including Eastern Philosophy, so I won’t cop any easy jokes about lawyers.

This book is the culmination of the pace handicapping movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but far more than that.  There have already been some great Pace books but, like the developing stages of most evolving theoretical paradigms, they have all been works-in-progress.

Michael was, in fact, co-author of one of the most important, Pace Makes The Race:  An Introduction To The Sartin Methodology, and he was a working and teaching member of the Sartin cartel.  I have now met many of the key players who were either in or around this legendary group, and aside from a certain weirdness that surrounds the legend, what an extraordinary occurrence it was!  Here were some of the best minds ever applied to horse racing, studying every aspect of the game—working together in striking contrast to the loners of the past, and what resulted was an explosion of ideas.

Tom Brohamer introduced Pace to the masses in 1991 with Modern Pace Handicapping and a new generation of handicappers of the post-Picking Winners era, began calculating “energy distributions.”  All of this, of course, had an earlier foundation in the work of Ray Taulbot and Huey Mahl.  Huey Mahl was a man of few words and many great ideas and, although he wrote columns for magazines as well, my image of him is always based on what I consider his master work:  Pace Makes The Race, a little paperback book published by Gambler’s Book Club in 1983.  Huey was a guy who could represent an idea in a graph or table that could put other researchers to work for a year—and you always felt he knew what the implications were from the start.  He was one of the godfathers of modern pace theory and the complex new betting strategies that have developed in parallel with it.

While previous pace works have been evolutionary, Michael Pizzolla’s Handicapping Magic is a culmination—a fusion of pace theory and betting theory, so that they are no longer separate—and no longer theoretical.  Theory-building is an exciting phase of any science.  I was in on one such epoch in an unrelated science and know that the downer comes when you get past “building” into testing.  Back in horse racing, I can’t tell you how long I fumed over the fact that 6-furlong final times don’t fit a theoretical model that is a dead-nuts lock on every other distance that horses run, from 220 Quarter Horse dashes to a mile-and-a-half at Belmont.

Here’s a little aside about the honesty of Science: in every academic science (including some major cases in medicine), some researcher somewhere has been known to fudge results to fit a theoretical model, in order to get or maintain funding.  Handicapping may be the most honest science on earth because, if you fudge on yourself, you lose funding.  So, unlike academic sciences, there is a much greater incentive to say, “Screw the model!  Go with reality!”

There is a mountain of reality-based knowledge in Handicapping Magic, but one of my favorite examples is perhaps a minor one:  the de-bunking of what, on the surface, appears to be a very elegant theoretical method of crediting horses for lengths gained under certain circumstances.  Through pure experience, Pizzolla found that this tended to over-represent horses’ abilities, so he simply canned the theory and created a simple reality-based alternative.

I had the privilege of seeing this book in “galleys,” with the text in one volume and the massive examples from real races in another, so I knew it was going to be good.  Even though I was excited about it in that form, it wasn’t until I saw the finished book with the text and examples integrated that I knew it was everything I expected.

One of the great things about this book is that Michael Pizzolla is a natural-born teacher.  He has taught some of these methods and techniques in live seminars and through that school-of-hard-knocks has learned what works and what doesn’t work in getting messages across.  He builds new ideas and reinforces them as you read through the book and work through the examples.

For the past six months, I’ve been telling every one who asks the most frequent question of figure handicapping (“How do you select a pace/speed line?”), that the answer was coming soon in a new book.  This is it.  It’s here:  “Form Cycle Windows.”  If you are a figure handicapper of any persuasion and have struggled with the selection of a representative past performance for a horse, that concept alone is well worth the read.  If you are not a figure handicapper, then the discussions of betting strategies—the most overlooked topic in horseracing—will fill that bill for you. 

Just so you don’t think I’m totally biased, I’ve got to say:  What is it with these Pace Guys and their three-letter acronyms?  Pace already had ESP…EPR…FFR…TPR—and now, thanks to Pizzolla, we have:  PBS, PPF, and (taking them one better) LASST.  Maybe if you string them all together and say them fast something magical will happen.  Or, maybe you should just read the book.


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