One
of the most useful things that you can do to fine tune your handicapping—regardless
of how you handicap—is to make your own odds line. Whether your off-track
handicapping is focused on speed, pace, class, pedigree, trips, trainers,
or all of the above, if you’ve never done it before, making your own
odds line will be an eye opener. It is also fundamental to modern “value”
betting. The next few articles will cover some of the basics and some
of the things that are interesting to observe when you begin paying
close attention to odds.

Making
odds is one of those things that can be surprisingly simple, or remarkably
complex. “Simple” is really all you need in order to add the huge benefit
to your handicapping that making a line can provide. Later, if you
are going to move into value betting, you will probably want to refine
the odds process considerably.

There
are two useful parts to making a line; one is the exercise itself and
what it tells you about your own handicapping. The other is that it
is absolutely essential to “value betting,” which we’ll get to later.
Even though I’ve written a computer program that automatically makes
an odds line that I have extreme confidence in, whenever I feel that
my handicapping is getting stale I’ve found that the fastest way to
give myself both a tune-up and a reality-check is to handicap a few
races and make a simple odds line by hand.

Nobody’s
done a better job of explaining odds and odds lines in succinct fashion
than Barry Meadow in his now classic “Money Secrets At The Racetrack.”
In order to construct an odds line, you need some kind of a mental template,
and the one he suggests is this: “If this race were run 100 times,
how many would each horse win?” Personally, I’ve always just used the
more straight-to-the point analogy of, “What percent chance of winning
does this horse have?” Both mental pictures arrive at the same result—a
percentage representing each horse’s probability of winning. I do like
Barry’s image though, because it forces you to think about the uncertainty
of racing just a little bit differently: it forces you to get past the
“I-like-the-three-horse-syndrome.”

Say
you do like the 3-horse. In your mental pre-race movie, the 3-horse
stalks to the top of the stretch, where the 1 and 4 fade from their
speed duel and the 3 romps home in a hand ride. Now, rewind the mental
tape and run the race again—a hundred times. Does the 3-horse always
win, or does the 4—which you were always a little worried about—sometimes
hang on and nip it by a nose? Maybe after four or five runnings of
the same race, the 1-horse nips them both. After 15 runnings, the other
stalker, the 6-horse, has its jockey wake up to make a bid and surprises
the whole field.

This
type of analogy is also good for envisioning “high uncertainty races.”
Say you’ve got a field of ten, well-bred, well-trained Kentucky three-year-olds
who have been eating out of sterling silver buckets at places like Lane’s
End all their lives, lined up in the gate at Churchill in June, and
running for a nice purse. If you run this race 100 times, does every
horse in the field stand a chance of winning at least once in a while?
You’re darned tootin’. Highbred three-year-old races are not un-handicapable,
but they are among the most situational. Both your handicapping and
your odds line need to be in tune to today’s race and today’s
factors. The same field next Wednesday may give you a totally different
result.

On
the other hand, picture the more common fields at most tracks. Could
there be some horses entered that will never hit the wire first—even
if you re-run the race from now to eternity? You bet, and this fact—horses
that would never, or very, very rarely win—comes into play if you
are going to devise a more mathematically sophisticated odds line, but
for now let’s just note that such horses and such races do occur.

By
taking the first step and either picturing the race run 100 times, or
by simply postulating that based on your best handicapping you think
the 1-horse has a 25% chance of winning; the 2-horse, a 10% chance;
the 3-horse a 20% chance, and so forth, for the whole field, you come
up with a percentage guess for each horse. What’s the first thing you
notice? Chances are it will be that your percentages add up to a
hell of a lot more than 100%.

First
lesson of odds making: we tend to over-estimate contenders. If
you have four horses that you think have a decent chance to win in a
12-horse field, and you hang a 30% probability on the standout, 20%
on the second standout, and 15% on each of the other two—then that leaves
only 20% for the other eight horses. But maybe you gave one or even
two of them an 8% to 10% chance—and you are way over 100%.

The
Morning Line is a 125% line, and it is not (or should not be—I have
a story about when it once was) a handicapping line. In other words,
the Morning Line should not be a track handicapper’s prediction of the
outcome of the race, but rather his prediction of what the public odds
should be, given the factors that the public is known to use.
The 125% is intended to cover the take-out, but for handicapping purposes,
we stick to 100% for our total.

The
second step of making a simple odds line is where you really learn to
fine-tune your handicapping: Make your percentage predictions for all
the entries total 100%. Again, no matter what kind of handicapper you
are—and whether or not you roll this into your everyday routine—this
is one of the most useful exercises you can do to build your handicapping
muscles. By adjusting your percentage predictions for each horse until
the total for the field is 100%, you will have to think about your handicapping
(and eventually your betting) in ways you never have before.

Once
you are satisfied with your percentage predictions and they add up to
100%, you may have something like: 1-horse, 12%; 2-horse 6%; 3-horse
25%; 4-horse 3%; etc. for the whole field.

There
is a fairly simple way to mathematically convert probabilities (the
“percentages” above) to odds—but it is a heck of a lot simpler to use
a table. For convenience, there is an odds table posted on this site
(check the "Article Library" links). You can save the odds
table page onto the desk top of your handicapping computer so it is
just a click away when you need it, or you can find these tables in
many books, notably Barry Meadow’s and Dick Mitchell’s betting books.
These will give you direct conversions of percentages to odds. For
example 50% = 1 to 1 (“even money”); 22.22% = 7 to 2; 4.76% = 20
to 1; etc. When you look at the tables and begin to use them with your
own predicted percentages, you will begin to see some really interesting—and
from a profit standpoint, really important—things.

One
of my favorites is one of the most basic. “Random odds” or “Natural
Odds,” is simply the probability of any given entry winning, if all
other factors are equal. Examples are used like dropping ten marbles
simultaneously from a ten-story building. Unless it’s done in a vacuum,
the marbles will fall differently, but totally unpredictably. Each
marble has a 1 in 10 chance or a 10% probability of hitting the ground
first; so random odds are 9 to 1—one chance of a “positive” outcome,
nine chances for a different one. Say you handicap a race with a 10-horse
field and have a good, solid feeling about your work. If ability and
all the other factors that we handicap had no meaning, each horse would
have a 10% chance of winning and its “natural odds” would be 9 to 1.
However, all those factors do matter, so you give the 4-horse a 25%
chance of winning (3 to 1), another contender a 16% chance (about 5
to 1) and the rest lesser percentage probabilities. In this 10-horse
field, as soon as you give any horse a greater than 10% chance of winning,
then some other horse or horses must have less than 10%. The more
horses you put above 10% and the higher you put them, the lower other
horses must drop in order to maintain a 100% total.

So you get to the track and guess what? You were right! The 4-horse
is the favorite and is absolutely destined to win, but the crowd didn’t
miss that fact and it is “odds-on” at 4 to 5. All of your three contenders
are standing at odds less than what you predicted—commonly called
“underlays.” And, all exotics using them are pathetic. The only thing
you notice is that a horse that you made 12 to 1 is standing at a whopping
30 to 1 on the boards! Wow! What an overlay! At this point you need
to put down your Budweiser.

You
just did a fabulous job of handicapping. The only problem is that the
crowd did too. You gave this 12 to 1 horse a less-than-random chance
of winning. First law of odds making:if you believe in
your work, then a horse you give less than random odds of winning is
not an overlay at any price. Betting on a less-than-random horse
is betting directly against your own handicapping skill.

Were
you wrong because you made the favorite 3 to 1? The public made it
“odds-on” at 4 to 5. Did you underestimate the ability of this horse
by almost 30 percent? (Your 25% vs public’s 55.6%.) Not likely. You
were probably more right than they were. That’s next week.