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Gauging horses a humbling exercise

Gauging horses a humbling exercise

Bill Heller’s Daily Racing Form looks like an exam that’s been corrected by an exasperated schooltea
Gauging horses a humbling exercise
With his Daily Racing Form in hand, Bill Heller handicaps a Belmont Park card at his Albany home.
Photographer: Ana Zangroniz

Bill Heller’s Daily Racing Form looks like an exam that’s been corrected by an exasperated schoolteacher.

Whole lines of tiny agate type are crossed off in blue pen, some groups of characters are circled and the word “NO” shows up more than once on every page.

Heller isn’t giving the test, though, he’s taking it.

Like most professional handicappers who try to pick winners in thoroughbred horse races for newspapers, Heller has a routine that takes from 21⁄2 to 5 hours every day.

Read the rest of the handicapping series

* To read the first part of this series, a profile of handicapper Mark Cusano from Sunday's edition, click here.

* To read Mike MacAdam's column, A Seat in the Bleachers, from Sunday's edition, in which he talks about his attempt at handicapping, click here.

Writing assignments come and go for the longtime sports writer and author, but handicapping never goes away. He analyzes races on the New York Racing Association circuit year-round for The Daily Gazette, including the six-week Saratoga Race Course meet that begins on Wednesday.

That’s when things heat up for those who pick horses, and the pressure comes from more than one angle.

Besides the attention that Saratoga draws as the finest thoroughbred meet

in the United States, a group of about 30 handicappers who work for papers in the Capital Region and downstate compete against each other in an informal contest to see who can pick the most winners. You want to do well — for the readers, against your peers — while saddled with one of the most difficult assignments in handicapping.

One of those sitting in the press box pressure cooker is Heller, who has developed an ever-evolving system since getting hooked on thoroughbreds in 1972, when he came to Saratoga for the first time and saw Secretariat win the Hopeful Stakes.

“I absolutely love doing this,” Heller said. “It’s a tremendous mental challenge, and it’s also something I really believe that, if you’re open-minded, you can continue to learn things. That’s important, because if you think you have this whole thing figured out, Saratoga will humble you very quickly, be it a jockey, trainer, owner, handicapper, fan . . . if you think, ‘Wow, I’m on a roll here, I’m king of the world,’ you’re going to pay for thinking that. As soon as that thought enters your head, you’re doomed.”

It’s not all gloom and doom for public handicappers at Saratoga, it just seems that way sometimes.

To give himself the best chance to formulate a reasonable opinion on who will win a race, Heller follows a thorough series of steps through the past performance information in the Racing Form, supplemented by other tools, including video replays, Saratoga-specific statistical publications and his own research.

For instance, while writing his sixth handicapping book last year, Heller compiled a list of mares who have given birth to graded stakes winners, and that list still informs his decisions when he investigates pedigrees of contenders.

It’s that level of detail he said he believes can mean the difference between a winning pick and a losing one.

Before Heller does anything else, he notes which horses are coming into the race with significant equipment changes or are using the diuretic Lasix for the first time, which is used to correct pulmonary bleeding, a common affliction in racehorses that clogs their lungs and windpipes when they breathe hard.

Then he starts chewing on the past performance lines, which show records of not only where a horse finished in a race but its placing at various checkpoints throughout. The recent workout information is also an invaluable indicator of a horse’s fitness and preparation, Heller said.

“The first thing I like to do is figure out which horses I can’t see winning, and when I do, I write ‘No’ by their names,” Heller said. “I’m always cognizant of how many horses are in the race and how many I’m down to. At Saratoga, sometimes you could spend a half-hour and get a field of 12 down to 10, and you have to keep smacking your head and say you’ve got to do more.”

The three factors Heller is trying to evaluate in each horse are speed, class and form.

Speed is a pretty simple concept, and split times and final times are listed for each race. The key is deciding when and how you believe each horse will use whatever speed it has.

Class can be based on the pedigree and is usually reflected in what level of races a horse has been entering. If, for example, a horse is dropping from a series of stakes races, the highest level, with purses into seven digits, into an allowance race, that horse would appear to have a class edge over its opponents.

“I’m looking for dropdowns, and a lot of times that’ll be the difference in a race,” Heller said.

Form is defined by workouts and how the horse is finishing races, either by winning or at least appearing to consistently give an honest effort.

“With form, I believe workouts are extremely important,” Heller said. “As you grow older, and you have trainers that you see every day for years in New York, most trainers have a trainer pattern and also have a go-to jockey. When I open up the Racing Form and I see it’s a field of first-time starters and Todd Pletcher’s got a horse — with him, I want to see a workout every seven days. That’s what he likes to do, every six or seven days.”

A handicapper’s priority is to pick winners. That doesn’t mean picking just favorites, because they don’t always win, of course. Someone like Heller has hit the books and dug deep into the hieroglyphics and perhaps has some insight that can prove profitable for his readers.

That means going against the grain sometimes and taking a chance, as Heller did in 2006, when he picked Remarkable News to beat Artie Schiller, the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Mile champion, in the Fourstardave at Saratoga.

“I liked Remarkable News, and I had won on him the year before, and I said, ‘Well, you know’ — I talk to myself constantly — ‘if you think he’s as good as he is, you have to go ahead and swallow and pick against a horse that’s going to be 1-2,” Heller said, “and I did, and he won that day.”

Heller’s system, developed over the past 30 years, has been successful on racing’s biggest stage. He won the Saratoga press box handicapping competition in 2000 and finished second to Kyle Brownell of the Glens Falls Post-Star in 2006.

He’s picked seven of the past nine Travers champions and once selected six straight winners that produced a $2,000 Pick Six.

Last year, Heller led for much of the meet until a dry spell toward the end dropped him to seventh behind Dave Litfin, the lead NYRA handicapper for the Racing Form.

Heller might bet a dozen or so times during the meet, but last year, as he chased the title, he didn’t bet a single race for the first time. He wasn’t so much worried about jinxing himself as he was keeping the right mind frame, he said. As Crash Davis instructed the rookie fireballer Nuke LaLoosh in the movie “Bull Durham”: “A player on a streak has to respect the streak.”

“The reality is sometimes you’re going to have good days, you’re going to have bad days,” Heller said. “Sometimes you’re a genius, sometimes you’re an idiot, and you never know which, which is why we don’t get rich doing it.

“I want to do well, I really do, and I want people to use my picks and I want them to make money off my picks. I think the fans at Saratoga are so sophisticated, it’s amazing. I’ll tell you, there’s a level of serious horseplayers in this area that are really, really sharp. I want to think that when I make a pick that I’m doing somebody a favor, because I put the work in.”

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