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A $39,000 Pick Four Handicapping Score

Pick 4 score

Editor's note:  Brent is a big fan of horse racing contests. He's been helping us do educational videos with DerbyWars.com, where he plays under the name, Bsumone.  When he told me of his $39K score, asked him to write a little bit about how he came up with the win and I think you'll find this is a great read.  - Mark Midland, HorseRacingNation 


by Brent Sumja -  

I just returned home from three crazy days at The Orleans Fall Classic contest. We all have stories of bad beats – in this case, my tournament was filled with a ludicrous amount of seconds. These were not 6-1 and 8-1 second place finishes, but 30-1, 55-1 and 21-1, and multiple tickets with those.

As a win-only contest, that really added insult to injury. I was drained. Not having the energy to play tournaments when I returned home, I decided I would spend the day doing what I love most each fall: relax in my war room and watch all nine NFL early games. This particular Sunday, there happened to be only eight, leaving one screen uncommitted. 

“Okay, fine, I will put the Belmont races on. But no sound, and no tourneys.” I made myself promise.

I think I made it a couple races before I powered up the computer and landed on my ‘capping sites. I got a mobile alert that Distant Thoughts was running in fifteen minutes. Now I knew all hope for honoring the promise is lost. I had been eager for this one to run back, and he was 5-1. I bet Distant Thoughts win/place and in the exacta and trifecta, and made a nice score as he won easily. Just the salve I needed after losing $1,500 on three entries in the Fall Classic. 
brent sumja
“Ok, I will look at one more...hmm, this next race looks like a gimme, a cold 6/5 exacta.” I played, and it comes in. 

You know the rare feeling we get as horse players - it’s one of those ephemeral moments in which you seem to be a puppeteer standing above the track moving the horses around on a string, and everything unfolds exactly as you envisioned. I had that feeling, and I knew to take advantage of it. And when horseplayers are really feeling it, we see things in minutes we would not find in hours on off days. 

A maiden turf race came up. A first time gelding had speed numbers on par with the other runners, but was 23-1. I played him across the board and he romps for fun. What was my next thought ? As fellow horseplayers I know what you are thinking - “man, I should have played the Pick 4.” The only leg in the sequence I did not play saw a 4-1 shot win I certainly would have used. (I like to spread in Pick 4s as you will see later.) Don't quote me but I think the Pick 4 paid about $2,100 for fifty cents.

By this time the morning games are nearing fourth quarters, and I was three for three ‘capping. Not wanting to exhaust my good fortune in the handicapping universe, I decided it was time to finally relax and enjoy football. With only four afternoon games, I figured I might as well put Santa Anita on one screen. You know, the lucky screen I was three for three on, of course.
Call me a creature of habit, call me superstitious, or just call me a wacko - most of us who play this game are, in our own unique ways. 

For the first three or four races at The Great Race Place, I never looked. I decided to take a quick glance at the late Pick 4. At this point I was suffering from a well-known disease, unnamed as far as I know in the lexicon of investors. ( I prefer the term investor to bettor for the following reason: if a stockbroker is an investor, then so are we. Handicappers devote as much, if not more, work analyzing races than any stockbrokers do trading on Wall Street.) 
Back to my disease: there was a newly acquired 4k in my account that was idling despondently.  

I had dedicated so much time to tournaments the past few months, that I had neglected my bread and butter. I am as passionate about Pick 4s as I am anything in the handicapping realm. 

When I glanced over these last four at Santa Anita, the same earlier-described prescience struck that something special was looming. This group included large fields of 11, 11, 9 and 10 horses, a collection of field sizes well known to be a rarity here. 

I have a strategy in approaching Pick 4s. First, I look at the four morning line favorites. If I feel two of the four are vulnerable, I am in. Three, even better. Four? It’s rare, but today has been that sort of special so far. And behold, I truly felt ALL FOUR top morning line choices were extremely weak. It was time to put together a ticket. I have done this for years - play deep Pick 4s. 

I have played tournaments for only a short time, but they really helped me understand the difference in playing Pick 4s, and trying to pick one horse out of the bunch at six or eight to one to use in a contest. I have many theories as we all do, some may be horribly incorrect while others may be spot on. One I am certain of is this: I do not believe I am good enough to pick that single horse at 6-1 and beyond on a consistent basis. I need options, something that Pick 4s offer you. Tournaments do not and are much more challenging in this sense. 

People who have not played contests should, for an enlightening exercise if nothing else. It can be frustrating when you have narrowed to two horses that are nice prices, and you choose the wrong one only to watch the other win at 9-1 and you get nothing for your near miss. For anyone who thinks tournaments are not really handicapping and just luck, they will give you an appreciation for the nuances of how completely different a beast they are, and how you must refine your handicapping skills to a minute level. In the process you will understand how they can simultaneously be a lot of fun and torture.

Back to the late Pick 4. Leg one race six. Wide open. Here another of my theories came into play. I do not believe in the ALL button in most circumstances when playing Pick 4s. I truly believe this. In vertical wagers I have no problem using the ALL button. My honest opinion in using the ALL button is horizontal wagers is lazy in most cases. Here, the first leg presented the most dependable morning line favorites in my assessment. #3 See Through is legit, but has her negatives - she has never strung together two consecutive solid performances in her abbreviated career. As a former trainer of fifteen years, I ask myself whether the trainer got this horse to this race as planned. We must remember owners are paying (in Southern California at least) a minimum of $3,000 a month to keep their investments in training. They don't give them six or more weeks’ rest in most cases as a matter of course (graded stakes performers being an exception). 

In #3 See Through's case, I did feel she was being pointed to this grass race with Los Alamitos being the only option during the six weeks off. She had worked consistently every week and was a worry. From a negative standpoint, she was zero for three and going to have to work out a trip on the downhill course which is tough from behind. 
Remember my theory is to find weak favorites and spread liberally. Not many people agree, but it works for me. At this point I am looking for any legitimate reason to include a horse. I decided on using seven of the eleven starters. The winner, at 53-1, had numbers competitive to the field. 

My day was unfolding exceptionally well, and this was confirmed not just by the win at a monster price, but equally importantly by the fact that the four morning line choices I omitted filled the last four placings. The seven I chose to include on my ticket finished 1st through 7th.

The second leg was a baby race. These used to be my nemesis. As a numbers or sheets or figures player, I never had a system to help me with the absence of form. However, after many years and futile attempts, now I have one. I must give credit to Erin Thompson. I mean this with all sincerity. She is my girlfriend and loves to handicap races in her spare time. I saw her doing a baby race one day, and she came up with a $36 winner to beat me in a personal wager. She was kind enough to show me her formula for evaluating the babies. It works. It is simple but genius, in my eyes anyhow. 

I had a tough time with these races because of my fifteen years on the backside. I think that experience actually hurts my handicapping at times. I am biased against certain ideas, and things I saw and experienced with workouts and in other areas still color my perception today, affecting my ability to properly analyze baby races. Erin's formula, now dubbed the E.I. for Erin Index, has helped me to ignore my stubborn perceptions and also gives me the numbers I crave. I am a firm believer that everyone who handicaps has something to offer if you are willing to learn. I have had incredible success in two year old races the past nine months. Once my biggest weakness, I dreaded them in a Pick 4 sequence. Now, I hope at least one is involved. 

So I do the work on leg two and find seven horses, either first time starters that offer a good EI profile, or are numbers plays from my figures. Again, beating more than just the favorite was paramount because I was going unusually deep this day with the large fields. I needed to be confident the second and third choices were weak as well. This race was the reason I decided to plunge heavily. The morning line choice was #7 One Gun, who I wish I had the gumption to completely leave off because of her odds, but I couldn’t confidently do so because she did have some positives. At the same time, I also found her to have several of my favorite demerits for today’s circumstance – an important distinction, as she may go on to be a very nice horse, but it’s all about today. She was unimpressive in her only start. Her sole speed figure was not competitive with several who had starts. In her debut, she also did not appear to have a quick enough turn of foot to sprint. They were adding blinkers which made perfect sense from my former-trainer's perspective. At more than today’s seven furlong distance, she would have concerned me more so as a threat. The second choice was a first time starter in the two hole with a very weak EI. I tossed her at 4-1. 

Now I have big price opportunities, which I need as I spread seven by seven to start the wager. I caught a 28-1 Peter Miller-trained horse who had looked like she would lay close and be the outside speed on the Santa Anita main track that is very conducive to this style. My heart is pumping like crazy! I am pretty sure I have never been live for this much in a Pick 4. I hear Trevor say the Pick 6 has already carried with two races remaining - this must be a very good thing! 

The third leg was one of my favorite races to handicap in retrospect. Here comes another theory: with the rail out, it’s harder to close on turf. This race was highly competitive from a figures standpoint. I felt three horses did not belong, and was thrilled to see the #2 horse was 4-1 on the morning line....complete toss for me based on his numbers and off-the-pace style with the rail out. Coincidentally he is trained by Peter Miller, who I was loving for bringing in the previous 28-1 shot, but we all know this game has us rooting for trainers and jockeys one minute and inevitably rooting against them just as passionately thirty minutes later. 

I stuck with my theory of not wasting money with ALL and use six of the nine horses. This is the point I focus on the financial data of my investment. My ticket was seven by seven by six by five. Of a total of 41 runners in the sequence, I used 25. Some people may think this is hardly handicapping, and I would agree in some circumstances. The distinction here is in the example being a horizontal wager where the four morning line favorites, as well as most second choices, are incredibly vulnerable. Determining who is capable is important, but it is secondary to resolving we are dealing with particularly beatable favorites, that will eventually lead to big returns. I refer back to my theory that I am not good enough to pick which ONE of these higher prices is THE ONE. 

The pick 4 and a $4,000 earlier hit allows us the luxury of spreading. I rarely play a ticket this big, but so is finding a sequence of four especially vulnerable favorites with a pool of $612k on the screen at the time I was punching the ticket. Also consider how not lazily using the ALL button in one of the eleven-horse fields allowed us some extra horses later on. A lazy ALL in either of the first two races would have made the ticket $1,155 instead of $735, a 57% investment increase. With a budget of $735, being lazy and pushing the ALL in an early race would have forced me to take two horses I did like off the ticket. Finding vulnerable favorites with good handicapping allows you to stop putting horses on tickets you feel cannot win, despite what the morning line says, at the expense of another later in the sequence that you feel is capable. 

So after front-running #5 Little Jerry won the third leg I was staring at a ticket with a $108.20 horse - a $59.40 horse and a $19.00 horse.
The $1 Pick 3 came back $35,000 roughly. I paced nervously in anticipation of the Pick 4 will pays about to flash across the screen. I had five of the ten horses going into the finale. The payouts came up and I was in awe. I knew they would be big, but based on the 50 cent increment I was unprepared for the possibilities. We were live to the #3 for $126,000; #5 for $115,000; #7 for $233,000; #8 for $29,000, and the #10 for $39,000.
Time for another theory. I am against hedging. I chased the NHC Tour last year and met some great handicappers along the way. One of them is the Brooklyn Cowboy from the TV show Horseplayers - Kevin Cox, a really good guy, a fantastic handicapper, and a huge believer in hedging. At this moment, I wished I had listened to his theories on the topic during our many dinners and hotel stays together. Despite never hedging, I felt strongly I needed to. Truth be told, if it was just $29k or $39k on the line I would not consider it, no way. But when I saw $115k, $126k, $233k? I had to. I am a numbers person through and through. I ended up needing to hedge the 5 horses we did not have. I chose $10,000 as the level for which I wanted to aim in order to secure an overall $5,000 profit on the original wager. This meant the $735 I invested, plus another $4,000 in hedge wagers on the various odds of the five unused horses. I ended up putting about $300 on two of the horses, $1,000 on another and $1,200 on two others totaling $4,000 in hedges and $735 in original investment. 

Then something funny happened. My internet went down. I actually had to call my friend Jason that I have been working with the past 4 months to get him involved in handicapping. He was about to be thrown into the fire by putting in the $4,000 in hedges.

On one hand I was happy not to be betting $1,200 to win on horses I did not like, going against everything I stand for with the ALL button. But the six figure payouts on a Pick 4 never figured into that theory, and I felt it was justified in this extreme situation. The last leg had another weak favorite in the #8 horse Militant. He looked like he needed the lead and I felt he was not going to get it. The race was laden with speed and he was in that unenviable position of being all-out to chase a fast pace to probably not make the front. The only first time starter had poor EI ratings, and the other 4 horses who had previously started had poor figures. 

I made my choices in this race in a very different manner. I used Timeform’s Pace Predictor to help me confirm a pace scenario. If you look back at this race their predicted order early in race, my figures matched up exactly with the first five in order. I chose to use these five horses on what I know is a speed favoring surface, with cheaper horses signed up to boot. The last five minutes to post seemed like an eternity. As they loaded into the gate I felt a sense of calm, the one you get when you are in the zone as handicappers - it is a very arrogant feeling, one of thinking, “which one of my horses is going to be the payout?” 

Experienced handicappers also know the feeling on the opposite end of the spectrum - which one will stumble out of the gate? Which jockey will ride a horrible race, how will I get bobbed on the line? I liken those scenarios to the trainer's excuse handbook. Too many to list, but when things are not going well there is a long list from which to choose, whether on the backside or at the windows. They broke and once again I felt as though I was standing above the track as a guest puppeteer. My crystal-ball vision played out before me…the five horses I used were laying first through fifth down the entire length of the backside. The five I did not use were pretty far back. Eventually the #10 pulled clear with little challenge and my Pick 4 had come to fruition, an almost $40,000 payout on the .50 increment.
I have hit some pretty nice Pick 6s and Pick 5s. This Pick 4 broke my previous record of 21k by almost double. I know we all have the same thought in this situation as horseplayers - "I got the second lowest payout of my five…man, that $233k would have been nice, or even that $126k or $115k,” forgetting I got the fourth best outcome, because five of them would have been really bad. Remember the five I did not have! Typical horseplayer. 

As horseplayers, we have our very own vocabulary, our own theories, and our uniquely demented outlooks! What we also have is tomorrow, if we’re so lucky of course, and the next day and the one after. Because each and every one of us has a story to tell, I thought I would use a special Pick 4 to relay this tale to keep everyone who is not seeing clearly through a crystal ball at the moment to remind you it is just around the corner, when you least expect it. Find some weak favorites and spread liberally. Thanks for reading and share your next cool scenario so we can all live it with you and certainly learn a little from it.
All the Best of Racing Luck,  Brent


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