When the Happy Handicapper first laid eyes on "Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies," he was more than a little perturbed.
Not only did the mailman's delivery of the 362-page book wake him from his afternoon nap, but the title was a definite turnoff.
What did he, a guy who's been playing the ponies since Venetian Way won the Derby in 1960, need with a primer aimed at people who know nothing about the sport?
But then he started reading a few pages and soon realized that despite its title, this was a book that could be useful for "Dummies" of all sorts.
He started following one of author Richard Eng's most often repeated pieces of advice, and he started cashing tickets. Nice tickets. Tickets nice enough to help him break out of a two-week slump that had staggered his bankroll.
That particular piece of valuable advice is first encountered on page 38, where Eng writes, "The key to succeeding in the parimutuel wagering system is to find overlays (meaning horses going off at higher odds than their actual chance of winning)."
Everybody knows this, right? Yes, but horseplayers tend to forget that long-run success comes in finding "value" bets, not just picking winners.
As Eng repeats on page 161, "The secret to betting on horse racing is to beat the race favorites with overlays."
"But how," a dummy may ask, "do I find overlays? That sounds difficult."
It is, but it isn't. It seems especially worth the effort after you hit a few good payoffs.
Eng, a professional handicapper for a Las Vegas newspaper, suggests you start with the morning line. That's the prediction (made by a track employee known as the "oddsmaker" or "line maker") of how the public will bet each horse in each race.
Remember, Eng warns, "The line maker's job isn't to handicap the winner of the race. His job is to handicap the bettors and predict how he thinks the public will wager."
The morning line -- readily available in the program, on OTB entry sheets, in the newspaper and elsewhere -- lists numbers such as 3-1, 4-1, 5-2, 7-2 and 20-1 next to each horse's name.
With morning line in hand, you watch the tote board to learn the actual odds, which are determined by the amount of money being bet on each horse.
As Eng says, "If the betting public allows a horse to go off at much higher odds than the morning line, bet a couple dollars to win on the horse. It's a no-brainer system."
As an example, Eng uses a horse named Run Thru The Sun, which was 6-1 on the morning line in a race at Del Mar in August. However, "He was ignored by the betting public and allowed to go off at 27-1 odds, meaning he was an overlay."
Run Thru the Sun won by two lengths and paid $57.60 for a $2 win bet.
Of course, finding profitable overlays is a little more difficult in real life than in a book. But the H.H. gave it a shot and found it profitable, although it certainly doesn't work every time.
The H.H. decided to restrict his play to horses going off at a minimum of twice their morning line odds. For example, if a horse is listed at 5-1, he's not worth betting until his odds are 10-1. A favorite listed at 5-2 is not worth a bet unless he goes off at 5-1.
To find good overlays, you have to mind the H.H.'s first rule of racing: pay attention. Keep notes and watch that tote board, especially in the five minutes before post time.
Sunday afternoon at Woodbine, the board showed three overlays in the seventh race. Three horses that had been listed at 15-1 on the morning line were going off at higher than 30-1. The H.H. bet $2 to win on each and was rewarded with an $81.30 payoff when a filly named Lit de Jimmy won.
Tuesday afternoon at the Mohawk Street OTB parlor, the H.H. found a similar situation in the simulcast from Philadelphia Park. In the fifth race a filly named Adele Lucille, 4-1 on the morning line, neared the starting gate at 8-1. The H.H. bet $3 on her and collected $25.10.
Unfortunately, the H.H. wasn't paying close enough attention and missed two other big payoffs the same afternoon. In the sixth at Philadelphia, Wild Champion, a 12-1 morning-liner whom he didn't notice drifting up to 25-1 in the last flashes, won and paid $52. In the seventh at Finger Lakes, he missed One O'Clock, a 10-1 morning-liner which closed at 33-1 and paid $69.50.
While playing this way has its obvious rewards, it obviously has its frustrations. You can be victimized by last-minute odds changes, get shut out by long lines at the betting windows and just plain lose your nerve when the "no-brainer" system tells you to bet a huge long shot that most everybody else thinks is a definite loser.
Probably most difficult of all is you're almost always betting against the favorite.
"No matter how you slice it," Eng writes, "the favorite wins one out of three races. No ifs, ands, or buts."
This method is just one of many things Eng covers. There's something good for "Dummies" of all degrees, including a lot of basic angles that the most grizzled veterans may have overlooked.
It's $20 (see dummies.com). One good overlay and it's more than paid for.