5 Point Checklist for Winners

by Rich Nilsen, AGameofSkill.com

Experienced handicappers know that the fine art of handicapping is not a science. It is more than a numbers game because humans and animals are involved. Horses are flesh and blood. They feel good on some days, not so good on others. Jockeys and trainers are humans and they make a variety of wise decisions and equally poor mistakes.

However, all too often, we fall into the trap of looking for the “magical” number or method to produce winners. There is no such thing. Playing the horse with the fastest speed figure last race will not work. Playing a certain post position will not work. Wagering on your favorite jockey will not work.

What works is having a proper procedure for handicapping the races. What I present here is a suggested five-point checklist.



One of the most underrated, yet one of the most relevant factors with horses is the distance of the race. Just like Olympic runners, horses have their own preferred distances. One of the biggest traps that handicappers fall into involves subtle differences in distance, e.g. 5 1/2 furlongs versus 6 furlongs.

Theses “small” changes in distance can be extremely important. The Kentucky Derby (G1) highlights this fact every year. Horses who win going away at nine furlongs are sometimes found huffing-and-puffing at the Derby’s ten furlongs.

The surface of the race can be just as important, be it on the turf or an “off” track. How a horse will perform at six furlongs on a fast track may be quite contrary to how he will run at eight furlongs (one mile) on an “off” track. This may be obvious to the veteran players, but one of the first questions a handicapper should ask is, “Is this horse suited to the distance and surface of this race?” If not, we are probably looking at a vulnerable runner or at least a horse you don’t want your hard-earned money.



The handicapper has more questions to ask. Is this horse capable of winning this race? Has he already been defeated numerous times under the same conditions? For example, if this is an allowance race for “non-winners of two races other than,” check to see how often the horse has lost this at this level. In my opinion, if a horse has lost this type of race five or more times, chances are he will not win today. It would take some type of serious change, for example a trainer switch or equipment change, for me to consider a horse who is a proven loser at the level. In general, proven losers are bad bets.

On the same thought, we must ask, “Is this horse fast enough?” The BRIS Speed Ratings, which are my preferred figures of choice, are very useful for identifying contenders and pretenders. Remember to keep in mind the distance and surface when analyzing speed figures. So what if the horse ran a 45 in that 9 furlong turf race last time out? Today, he is going six furlongs on the dirt. What was the figure the last time the horse ran under similar circumstances?

Improving form is another essential factor. A horse may be a few points slower than other rivals, but if the horse has undergone a positive change (e.g. returned sharper since a layoff), he may be fast enough to win today if he appears to be “on the improve” or has a good reason to improve.



Both the trainer and jockey are important, although the trainer, in my opinion, has a much stronger influence on the outcome. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the conditioners at the track is of extreme importance to serious handicappers. When runners change barns, via a claim or just a trainer switch, they will usually either improve or decline in form. Predicting this beforehand can give the handicapper a tremendous advantage.

Trainers specialize with certain maneuvers. Take the case of Southern California trainer Ron Ellis. This trainer is a very respectable 12% winner with first time starters. But Ellis is a sensational 30% winner at a flat bet profit with second time starters! His runners are not pushed hard in their debuts, but they are ready to fire big time in their second starts. Knowing situations like the one with Ellis are essential to horseplayer looking to turn a profit.

Jockeys are very important when it comes to rider switches and running styles. Certain jockeys tend to perform well when riding horses with a particular running style. Make it a point to notice how the jockeys on your circuit are winning. Are most of the wire-to-wire winners ridden by only a handful of jockeys? This is important to know when analyzing rider switches. Some of the best longshot winners have been a result of a positive switch to a jockey who utilized the horse’s running style.


Pace and Track Bias

The pace scenario of the race in question, as well as the prevailing track bias, go hand in hand. Handicappers should be in tune to the general bias at the track from their own notes and observations or from reliable sources that offer online reports. In other words, what type of running style and post position is preferred for this race? Does the runner fit this profile?

Serious handicappers will compare this knowledge to the recent track bias. If anything has changed during the course of the week, they will compensate for this change. For example, the inside posts may be ideal at this track, but if a sudden change in track bias has occurred (due to weather or other circumstances) then the astute handicapper will be the first one prepared to adjust…and consequently, profit.

Horseplayers should analyze each horse’s running style in respect to the track bias and the expected pace scenario. Is there a lone speed horse on this speed-biased racetrack? If closers are winning, then who has the best finishing kick? There are numerous scenarios, but the point is clear: Compare the horses in the race to what is winning on this racetrack.



Finally, demand value at the windows and don’t opt for a horse just because he is lower odds. A fellow horseplayer recently told me that he found an outstanding longshot based on solid trainer stats, but he only used the horse underneath in the exactas. Who did you think he use on top? He used the favorite who was ridden by the leading “big name” rider, because he felt that this horse would probably win. Of course, the longshot rolled to victory and the favorite finished second. The disgusted handicapper failed to cash on the race, even though he had pinpointed an excellent longshot. Sounds ridiculous, but haven’t we committed similar mistakes?

In summary, a handicapper’s best bet will pass the following checklist:

1 – The horse is suited to the DISTANCE and SURFACE.

2 – The horse is shows the ABILITY to win today’s race.

3 –  The horse has positive connections, especially in regards to the TRAINER.

4 – The horse fits the PACE scenario and TRACK BIAS.

5 – The horse offers VALUE on the tote board.

The ideal wager does not come along in every race or every day, but a horse worthy of “best bet” status should meet the above criteria. Best of luck!

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About Editor

Rich Nilsen is a 19-time qualifier to the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC), an event he has cashed in four times. He was the first player to finish in the top 10 of the NHC twice. A former executive with Brisnet.com and a member of the NHC Players’ Committee, Rich is a graduate of the University of Louisville Equine Business Program and is founder of AGameofSkill.com, a site devoted to horse racing education and promotion.


  1. Bill Mentes says

    Thank you, Rich. For years, I have been asking Mark Cramer to present a checklist, but it was not his style. I do see, however, that his proven loser method is included in your list. This looks like a good start for a book (wink, wink).

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