Industry Profile: Handicapper Marshall Gramm, Memphis Rhodes Professor

The Rhodes professor has become one of world’s best at betting the horses

He grew up in Washington, D.C., poring over the horse racing odds that appeared in The Washington Post sports section. Then he went to Rice University in Houston, got his Ph.D. from Texas A&M, got hired by Rhodes College 19 years ago and never left Memphis.

After initially researching “bank regulation boring stuff,” he decided to turn his habit into his job. He began to use horse racing data to look at betting markets as a proxy for financial markets and pricing.

He’s also a co-founder and part-owner of Ten Strike Racing, a 10-year-old syndicate named after the 1884 winner of the Tennessee Stakes held in Memphis.

He owns about …

Industry Profile: Jockey Alex Birzer, rider of the heartland

While researching Alex’s accomplishments, I came across a race that really grabbed my attention. On July 28 at Prairie Meadows, I watched Alex Birzer aboard She’s Our Fastest engaged in a spirited stretch duel with Our Majesty who was piloted by David Cabrera.

As they battled it out, Cabrera and Our Majesty came over a path or two and leaned heavily on She’s Our Fastest and the two bumped and nudged each other down the lane. But I was then utterly amazed when Cabrera started throwing elbows at Alex and hounded him through the entire stretch all the way down to the wire. Alex never stopped riding and didn’t try to retaliate. He just put his head down and persevered on his mount.

Our Majesty finished a head in front of Alex and She’s Our Fastest but the horse was taken down and Alex was rightfully awarded the win. This was no big deal to Alex but it was impressive to me, that he didn’t take the bait for a fight and he also showed what kind of work ethic he has from that one race. Alex wasn’t going to waste time swatting at a pesky jockey nor was he going to jeopardize his safety or the betting public’s money. He just did his job and rode …

Industry Profile: Handicapper Jonathan Kinchen

“I think the biggest sucker play in racing is handicapping for 45 minutes, and then spending three minutes deciding how to bet it. So often, players will get home from work, handicap to 11, wake up and handicap, go to the track and then construct their Pick 5 ticket at the window. I think you should spend as much time constructing your ticket as handicapping, if not more.”

LAS VEGAS, NV.–Jonathon Kinchen is maybe the closest thing the handicapping world has to a rock star. In little more than four years, Kinchen has gone from an unknown real estate investor with little tournament experience to a commentator on Fox Sports’ Saturday at the Races. He’s arguably the most recognizable and popular player at the NHC, and it’s easy to see why. Kinchen’s young (for a horseplayer), he can pull off the odd tropical shirt, and his sleeved left arm is covered in tattoos of Barbaro, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. His Tweets are often clever, and even his Twitter handle–@UTBigHair, a nod to his alma mater–is above average.

At root, though, the 36-year-old Kinchen is simply a good horse player. He remains the only player in NHC history to have both of his entries qualify for The Final Table, and in 2015 he won the NHC Tour, a testing year-long series of NTRA-sanctioned events.

You’d be familiar with Kinchen’s introduction to handicapping. He grew up in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, and his father often brought him along on trips to Lone Star Park.

“He’s a horrible bettor,” Kinchen laughed. “He doesn’t look at the Form; he’s the guy standing in line in front of you looking back at the TV screen, betting our address. But I saw a lot of guys with computers and papers doing it seriously, and I figured that if I was going to come with him, I should at least figure what it’s all about.”

 

Industry Profile: Bryan and Judy Wagner

This past weekend Bryan Wagner was inducted into the NTRA’s Horseplayers Hall of Fame, post mortem.  His wife and racing partner, Judy Wagner, a dear friend of mine, gave an emotional acceptance speech at the 20th annual dinner banquet for the NHC.  [This article originally in the Horse Player magazine, which is no longer in print.]

BRYAN AND JUDY WAGNER

2009 NHC TOUR CHAMP & 2000 NTRA HANDICAPPER OF THE YEAR

By Rich Nilsen

I sat down with Judy and Bryan Wagner for this Horse Player Magazine interview not long after their appearance in the 11th annual National Handicapping Championship (NHC). I met the charming and gregarious couple from New Orleans on the tournament trail several years ago and am blessed to have become friends with them during that time.

Their beloved Saints (which Bryan used to own a piece of) upset the Colts to win the Super Bowl and temporarily turn their world upside down – but in a good way. The Wagners still found time in their busy schedule to share their thoughts about the NHC, the challenge of finishing one-two in the NHC Tour last year, and handicapping in general.

 

HP: How did you each get started with handicapping and following our great sport of horse racing?

Bryan I started by going to the track as a teenager and immediately feel in love with the track and racing.

Judy – I met Bryan in late June, 1994.  He took me to the track with him the next month.  After my second visit to the track with him, he handed me a Racing Form and said I want a partner not a companion.  He said you can learn this since you are a person that likes stats.  I took the racing program the first couple of times and saw who the leading trainers and jockeys were and looked for runners that they rode or trained.

 

Bryan and Judy Wagner at 2018 Eclipse Awards, Gulfstream Park, FL 1.25.2018 copyright AGOS

HP: Winning the NHC Tour was quite an accomplishment, but finishing one-two was pretty amazing. When did you decide to go after the grand prize of the tour?

Bryan – I became very involved with Congressman Joseph Cao, our first Vietnamese Congressman, in 2008.  He will run for re-election in 2010.  Since 2009 was an off year, I felt if either one of us could get some early Tour points this was the year to give it a shot.  With the TwinSpires.com Leaderboard, other online contests, our local contests and the other contests we like to travel to, I would have the time for probably approximately 15 contests.  After Judy was in first place in early May, we really started giving this more serious thought.   I then won a contest in June and that pretty much sealed the deal to give it a big effort.

Judy – I was very fortunate to win the first online NHC Qualify tournament of the year in April.  A couple of weeks later I received points in the free NHC Tour contest on Kentucky Oaks/Derby weekend.  Since there were not that many contests in the early part of the year, the total points I received in these two events put me in first place.

As with all of us we like seeing our name at the top of a leader board.  Although I had said in the past, once I qualified I would not go for the Tour top prize, when the rules changed where the top five finishers get the auto qualification to NHC the following year, this made me revisit my quest.  Prior to the auto qualify the following year, I felt I did not have the time to play enough tournaments and the chances were so slim with the odds against me, I really did not consider going for first.  With the top five getting the pass for 2011 coupled with the start I had, I decided to continue to play, especially in online tournaments.

I was very fortunate to pick up more points in July online.  By this point with both of us having won tournaments and having other points, we were in the top 15 and the Tour grabbed us.  The year for me did not start with the goal of chasing the Tour but it grabbed me about July – really tight.  It was never a situation that one of us was trying to beat the other.  We were and always have been each other’s biggest cheerleaders.  We were working hard at that point to try to get one of us to the top and hopefully the other in the top five.

 

HP: I think you both knew it would be a major challenge to finish in the top five on the Tour. Just how difficult was it?

Bryan – It was extremely difficult and we did not know until the last tournament of December that we both made it.

Judy – In September I moved into fourth or fifth place and Bryan was in top 10.  He had a good finish at Fairplex, moved into the top five, and knocked me down a few spots.  Within two weeks I had two good point finishes at Fairplex and moved into first.  Shortly there after, someone else moved into first.  The scores were so tight it was obvious the 2009 Tour was going to be tight to the end as the scores were so close and numerous players were within striking distance.

After Bryan had a first place finish, and I had a second in the TwinSpires.com Leaderboard that ended in November, Bryan was back in first and I was in the top five again.  We really felt we had to be aggressive at this point to try to get the results we wanted.   We made plans to play in two tournaments in December we had never participated in – Keeneland and Turfway.  We both did not do well.

We faced a very difficult decision about going to Surfside, leaving family on Christmas night.  Steve Hartshorn was breathing down Bryan’s neck as he had won the NHC Qualify online in the middle of December.  California is his home turf and he is such a strong handicapper, that we felt we had to go to fight for both of us to try to stay in the top five. I was barely hanging on to 5th position.  The racing Gods smiled on us and our family forgave us for leaving children and grandchildren at 8 pm Christmas night. Bryan finished second at Surfside sealing his first place position.  I was lucky and finished third.  This gave me the points to move from 5th into a tie with Steve for second.  We were fortunate as there were several very good handicappers that could have won or moved up.  We just hung on for our handicapping lives.  Yes, I would say it was difficult, but the pressure was worse.

 

HP: Let’s talk handicapping. You each have different approaches to handicapping. Can you go into detail how you dissect a race.

Bryan – Since I do not have to play every race, I will look at a race for about five minutes for an angle- lone speed, lone deep closer, hidden jockey change, and “better-than-it-looks” races.  I will also search for one of only a few horses that can go a particularly long distance.  If race is a mandatory race, I just handicap race and look for best value and how the price of the horse affects my standings in the contest.

Judy – First thing I look for is to see if a runner has been the distance and condition.  If not, I look at pedigree for distance and surface. My favorite races are those that are first time starters and first time on turf.  I also look at trouble first trips.  I feel young runners can change very quickly with even one start.  Some are quick studies with one time in paddock and starting gate.

Also trainer/jockey stats for conditions are very important.  Some trainers are anxious to get horses to the starting gate and their stats show that runners may not be ready.  Others will not send a runner to a race until they are sure they can handle race.  These stats are very important in my analysis of race.  Also for distance races, especially long races of 1 1/8 miles or more, I really look at experience and pedigree for runners.  My favorite races to handicap are those with first turf starts and first time starters.  I especially like to follow young sires.  The lower profile sires with high percentage success is an angle I search for.  Also, the trainer stats for this type runner is very important.  Although some of the top trainers do not push their first time runners and I shy away from their runners.  I really like to find an “under-the-radar” trainer that has a very high percentage for this race condition.

A great example was Saturday, day two, of the NHC. In Gulfstream Park race 3, the #6 horse had a trainer with over 40% success with first turfers.  The runner won at over 80-1.  This was a very much under-the-radar trainer.

 

HP: What tools do you rely on in your handicapping?

Bryan – This depends on how many tracks are in a contest.  If only one or two tracks are involved, I use DRF or BRIS Ultimate PPs, as well as the Sire Stats book for first time on a new surface.  I will use HTR for workouts and quick stat summaries.  In contests with several tracks, I also use Thorograph Sheets for a more comprehensive view of race.  This also allows for a quick look at many aspects of race in a shorter period of time.  Frankly, I am dissatisfied with my ability to consistently get the results I need and I am going to dedicate this year in deciding on a lone handicapping methodology.

Judy – I start my handicapping with the Brisnet Insider Picks and Power Plays.  I use this as my racing program. I feel naked if I go to the track without my Insider Picks & Power Plays report. On it, I note runners, trainers or jockeys that have outstanding stats.  It gives me the red flags that tell me whether or not to pay attention to a particular runner.

From this I go to HTR and review their stats and especially workout ratings for first time starters and first turfers.  I also keep notes during the year on young sires and what their runners have done.  The past workouts have really played an important part in my handicapping.  I watch for layoffs and how a trainer brings runners back after layoffs.  I immediately note jockey changes in the materials I use.  I still have a racing form to refer to as this was my initial tool when I started my handicapping journey.  I really like to compare the various information that is available.  This is especially important for new sires. I never handicap without my Sire Stats book from BRIS that has several years of notes that are transferred every year.

 

HP: Do you feel there are some handicapping factors that are over-weighted, as well as factors that not emphasized enough by the wagering public?

Bryan: I think that workouts are often overlooked by the public. However, at major tracks the workouts can be overbet due to the presence of more clockers and dissemination of information.

In some states, the state-bred runners are equivalent to anywhere in the country; whereas in other states, they can be vastly inferior.

Judy: I think for the average player that does not really dissect the race, certain trainers and jockeys are overbet. Certainly there are excellent well known trainers and jockeys with good percentages, but I love to see these types “bet down” when I have a longer priced runner that I really like. Oftentimes, these are horses with lesser known connections.

I think that the general wagering public does not get into pedigree handicapping, nor do they spend the time necessary to figure out a trainer’s strengths or weaknesses.

As I like to bet first time starters, there are several well known, very successful trainers that do not push their horse first time out, and I think this is something that is overlooked numerous times by the public.

Sometimes, articles and information often put out by women are not given the same type of respect as information put out by men. For example, I love the work that Lauren Stich has done in regards to pedigree information.

 

HP: What are your favorite wagers to make?

Bryan: I like to make exacta wagers, as well as the Pick-4. My favorite wager of all is when there is a carryover pool on the last day of a meet where there is a mandatory payout.

 

Judy: As far as contests go, I like win and place wagers. In terms of betting, I prefer the dime superfecta wager, especially in a full field of maidens or two year olds.

I love keying a horse that I like at 5-1 or higher in multiple trifecta partwheel tickets.

 

HP: Bryan, you were the lone player eligible for an incredible $2 million bonus if you captured the NHC in January. How much added pressure did that put on you, and is there anything you feel that you would have done differently?

Bryan: First of all, I have been to the NHC enough to realize how incredibly tough it is to win it. I would say that the favorite in a tournament like that should probably between 80 and 100-1. Secondly, I don’t get along with Vegas and the higher altitudes, so that makes it tougher on me. Thirdly, I prefer tournaments that only have a few tracks versus a lot of tracks like the NHC. With those factors in mind, I did not feel a lot of pressure. But I sure did enjoy the experience and being the Tour Champ. People were very gracious.

As far as doing anything differently, I should have played some higher priced horses at the NHC.

 

HP: Judy, I believe, this was the third time you have cashed in the National Handicapping Championship [and fourth time finishing in the top 30]. Do you approach that tournament any differently than a contest during the year, and what do you feel has been the secret of your success at the NHC?

Judy: Just the common sense things. I try to go out a couple days early and be well rested. I spend a lot more time dissecting the types of races I like there, than I do at other contests during the year.

I download the reports from Brisnet early in the week, and then later in the week, use some of my other tools. I keep all my notes on my form at the NHC.

 

HP: What preparation do you typically do leading up to the NHC each year?

Bryan: First of all, tracks that are running 30 to 35 days prior to the tournament – I like to look at those races so that I can judge for myself where the really tough fields are, how the track plays, and hopefully some of the “better than looks” horses will show up in the tournament. I will put them in my stable email.

Secondly, BRIS reports come out with some of the information earlier than other sources. I try to get a jump on the races that way.

Judy: The tracks that you assume will be used in the tournament are the ones I will watch. For the tracks I normally don’t follow, I will go through the result charts for the past several weeks to try to uncover any types of patterns, hot trainers and jockeys, etc.

I am not very good with pace handicapping, but the BRIS Ultimate Past Performances will give me details on the track biases that I can note, as well as the pace ratings for each runner.

 

HP: Since you are already qualified for the 2012 NHC thanks to your top five finishes, to what extent will you go after the tour this year? What advice would give to players participating in the tour?

Bryan: I definitely plan on participating in a few tournaments this year, just because they are fun to play in. It will be great to play in a contest where there is very little pressure. If one of us happens to win a couple of tournaments in a row, then obviously it would change our plans concerning the Tour.

I would love to expand on that second question in a future issue of The Horse Player magazine!

Judy: I have not made a firm decision on the Tour this year. There was a lot of stress going after the Tour last year! I still have my household responsibilities, so going after the Tour the same way is a tough decision. Now, if early in the year, I win a tournament again and find myself on top of the Leaderboard, it is possible I will chase the Tour the same way. Regardless, I will certainly participate in the Tour to some extent. We are entered for the $500 level.

My only advice would be that if enjoy tournament play or just handicapping in general, then you should definitely give the Tour a try. You do need to have a real competitive spirit if you are serious about doing well on the Tour.

 

HP: Having owned horses myself for 10 years, I feel that has given me insight into the game that most handicappers don’t have. You have owned a stable for many years and have a piece of Kelly Leak, who defeated Mine That Bird in the 2009 Sunland Derby. How has owning racehorses influenced your handicapping?

Bryan: This gives me great insight into why a horse might be placed in a race. In some cases they may not have been able to find a proper race so they are giving the horse a start. Sometimes you will see a horse, particularly a filly or mare, run in a stakes race in a short field just to get black type (a top three finish for their pedigree page) which enhances the breeding value.

For the modest cost of getting into a partnership, I recommend every horseplayer, who can, to become an owner at least one time.

Judy: Right now I don’t personally have any horse ownership. When owning horses, however, you know the importance of proper training. You tend to investigate trainers to know more about their ethics, their philosophy, etc. You tend to understand trainer patterns, such as why they may have a certain jockey on a horse. You understand more why a trainer may place a horse in a certain spot.

Almost by osmosis, when working with your trainer, you pick up details on other trainers and how they handle their stock.

 

HP: Judy, you are without a doubt one of the most accomplished female handicappers in the game. How do you feel the sport can market to women better and bring more Judy Wagners into racing?

Judy: I have gotten to know a fellow female handicapper from Arkansas. I got to sit with her at Louisiana Downs. By conversing with her, she reminded me that females are less intimidated to ask other females about how they got into a certain field, hobby, whatever.

I wish I had the magic answer for this, but I really don’t.  I have done some seminars entitled “woman in handicapping.” One of the first things I tell woman in those seminars is to get to know the leading trainers and jockeys.  Also, you can’t learn everything in a day, a week, or even a year. Choose one segment of the game and begin by learning about that.

I would love to get to know more women who are committed to handicapping and learning.

Industry Profile: Trainer Jonathan Sheppard

Over Flat or Fences, Jonathan Sheppard Wins Them All

Born in Ashwell, Hertfordshire, England in 1940, Sheppard initially seemed destined for life as a stockbroker in his family’s business, and to his credit he did give the task a try for a time. But early in his adult life, Sheppard knew he wanted to work with horses and went to great lengths to make his dream come true, beginning when he left his job in 1961.

“[I] wanted to train horses and not sit in an office all day,” Sheppard explained in the Aug. 10, 1990, edition of the Owensboro, Ky. Messenger-Inquirer.

Fulfilling that dream would be easier said than done for Sheppard. Training in England seemed out of the question since he was the son of a racing official, and the rules of British racing would thus have restricted Sheppard’s ability to participate as a trainer. No matter though – Sheppard simply pulled up stakes and moved to the United States, where he rode races and worked as an assistant to steeplechase trainer Burley Cocks before going out on his own in 1965. Fittingly, Sheppard scored his first victory the following year with Haffaday, a tough-as-nails jumper whom Sheppard would eventually train to victories in the 1967 Pennsylvania Hunt Cup, the 1968 New Jersey Hunt Cup, and the 1968 Maryland Hunt Cup.

More than five decades later, Sheppard’s results are nothing short of staggering. His horses have earned over a million dollars in purse money every year since 1982. He’s trained the winners of more than 3,300 races, including more than a thousand steeplechase events. He’s trained champion flat runners and steeplechasers, including the Hall of Fame inductees Flatterer and Café Prince and the Breeders’ Cup champions Forever Together and Informed Decision, the latter three all owned by his longtime client George Strawbridge, Jr. He’s led all steeplechase trainers in North America by earnings on 28 occasions and by …

Industry Profile: Chuck Fipke Mining for Success in 2019 Pegasus World Cup

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – Seeking the Soul figures to be a price at the betting windows when the Grade 1-winning 6-year-old horse competes in Gulfstream Park’s $9 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1). But owner-breeder Charles “Chuck” Fipke has made a career out of long shots. Actually two careers.

Fipke, who grew up dirt poor in British Columbia in Western Canada, became a multi-millionaire by literally finding diamonds in the rough throughout the world as a geologist and prospector. For the past quarter-century, he has done the same in racing and breeding thoroughbreds.

Seeking the Soul — winner of Churchill Downs’ Clark Handicap (G1) in 2017, most recently second in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) and fifth in last year’s Pegasus — is a good example. He is a son of Perfect Soul, the Fipke homebred who gave the breeder his first American Grade 1 triumph in the 2003 Shadwell Keeneland Turf Mile in a still-standing course record 1:33.54. Perfect Soul sired Fipke’s first Breeders’ Cup winner in Perfect Shirl, the 2011 Filly & Mare Turf heroine at 27-1 odds, and Golden Soul, second in the 2013 Kentucky Derby (G1) at 34-1.

For Fipke, the thrill …

Industry Profile: A sibling rivalry. How Ortiz brothers took horse racing by storm

Angel Cordero Jr. was playing dominoes inside the jockey’s room at Gulfstream Park one afternoon recently, killing time during the races, when he was asked for his opinion on racing’s two new riding hotshots, brothers Irad Ortiz Jr. and Jose Ortiz. Cordero once ruled the sport, a fierce rider …

And it’s why Cordero is often asked to compare the two.

“People always ask me the same question: Who is better?” Cordero said, turning a domino over and over in his fingers. “The only answer I can give is this: Flip a coin. I can’t separate them.”

Cordero isn’t alone.

While neither Ortiz has yet to win a Kentucky Derby, most figure it’s only a matter of time. They’ve won just about everything else at an age when most riders haven’t yet reached they prime.

Breeders’ Cup victories? Check and check for Irad and Jose.

The Belmont Stakes, final leg of the Triple Crown? Check and check again.

Pegasus Cup 2019: Big Brown’s Owner is Back in the Game

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – After watching a Santa Anita turf stakes on New Year’s Day, 2018, Michael Iavarone got the itch again.

And he’s soothed it in a big way with the purchase of Next Shares, who will start in the inaugural running of the $7 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational (G1) Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

One of the principles of the IEAH Stables syndicate that campaigned 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown and a slew of other Grade 1 winners, Iavarone was out of the horse ownership for five years following IEAH’s financial implosion. He was dabbling into re-entry when he saw a horse close from well back to finish second in a $100,000 stakes over Santa Anita’s downhill turf course.

Iavarone immediately called his friend Nick Sallusto, the bloodstock agent who helped IEAH buy many of its stars, including Big Brown. With Next Shares a 6-year-old gelding with no breeding future, Iavarone was simply looking for a good horse who could run in good races. His owners had the same idea, having just purchased Next Shares for $190,000 at Keeneland’s 2017 November sale after the horse had won an Aqueduct allowance race.

“He hadn’t run in a while, and I saw he’d changed ownership and trainers,” Iavarone said. “This horse is kind of a big heavy horse. He closed just unbelievably fast, ran some really fast fractions. I said ‘Wow, this horse is really eager. I think if they can get this horse to go a little more ground that they’ve got something.’”

Iavarone and his wife, Jules, bought 50-percent interest in Next Shares last March not long after the horse finished a close second in Santa Anita’s Frank Kilroe Mile (G1)…

A look into the mind of Jockey Drayden Van Dyke

There is no doubt that Drayden Van Dyke has, along with Flavien Prat, taken over as the top young jockeys at Santa Anita. At 24, he gets a lot of the best mounts and has emerged as the first call for trainer Bob Baffert, when Mike Smith isn’t riding a Baffert horse. In fact, Drayden was Justify’s original jockey…

So, here’s our Q and A with Drayden.

What’s your favorite TV show that you are currently watching?

Every new movie that comes out, I like to go see it. But, like a TV show, they …

Beloved Individuals that the horse racing industry lost in 2018

John Asher, who was an ambassador for the Kentucky Derby and the face and voice of Churchill Downs, died at the age of 62 on Aug. 27.

Asher died of a heart attack while vacationing in Orlando with his family. Asher was an award-winning journalist and publicist for over 30 years. He joined Churchill Downs in 1997 and served as vice president of racing communications since 1999. As a radio journalist, Asher earned five Eclipse Awards for “outstanding national radio coverage of thoroughbred racing.” Asher was also known for his community service outreach and volunteerism. He was well known, well respected and will …