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Winning combo: hard work, a little luck

Winning combo: hard work, a little luck

Dave Litfin is generous with his time, even though he doesn’t always have much to spare.
Winning combo: hard work, a little luck
Handicapper Dave Litfin is seen in the office of his home last week.
Photographer: Ana Zangroniz

Dave Litfin is generous with his time, even though he doesn’t always have much to spare.

He’s also generous with his information, and there’s stacks and stacks of that.

That would seem counterintuitive at a racetrack, where pari-mutuel wagering pits everyone’s knowledge and money against everyone else’s.

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 the second part of this series, a profile of handicapper Bill Heller from Monday'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.

As a handicapper for the Daily Racing Form, it’s his job is to dispense selections based on every nugget, big and small, that he’s mined from the depths of the resources in front of him.

It’s up to you to figure out what to do with these mysterious gems, though.

Saratoga Race Course set a record (more than $123 million) for on-track betting handle last year, and almost $460 million more was wagered off-track.

That’s $123 million that went in one direction, over the course of 36 days: out of the bettors’ pockets into the coffers of the New York Racing Association.

How much of that money comes back to you in the form of winning

bets might have something to do with how well you’re able to use the opinions of people like Litfin. In 2007, he was a good guy to follow, as he picked more winning horses than anyone out of a group of about 30 handicappers who publish their picks every day in the various Capital Region and downstate newspapers that cover Saratoga.

That’s a testament to the years Litfin has put in observing, following and interpreting the patterns and nuances at Saratoga, where trends can last a matter of days. Widely acknowledged by his peers as one of the hardest workers in the press box, Litfin is the first to point out how much luck plays into handicapping, too.

For instance, there were six post-race inquiries at Saratoga last year, in which a winning horse was in jeopardy of being disqualified for interfering with another horse. Whether the horse was taken down or not, it seemed like the final result favored Litfin’s selection every time.

“And every time that was happening, [Gazette handicapper Mark] Cusano was behind me going like this,” Litfin said, pounding a tabletop, “because he had the other horse. In handicapping, you’re going to be involved in a lot of close decisions. That’s just the nature of the game up there.”

worth a look

To get the best chance to come out on the winning side of the close decisions, and the not-so-close ones, bettors frequently rely on the picks of handicappers during the Saratoga meet, which opens Wednesday.

Saratoga is known for offering some pretty inscrutable races. Still, someone like Litfin has so thoroughly investigated the background of the horses and has so much institutional knowledge that it would be foolish not to at least check to see who he likes.

Although it’s difficult to accurately make blanket statements about what might happen at this year’s meet, it’s no secret that Todd Pletcher, who won trainer of the year five years in a row before Hall of Famer Bill Mott took the title last year, will be a prominent presence again.

Litfin believes Pletcher will be motivated to get his 2-year-old division cranking after a dismal 2007 at Saratoga.

“Last year, I think he was 3-for-47 with 2-year-olds and he just killed everybody [the bettors], but he could also come out and start firing with both barrels,” Litfin said. “I’m sure that sticks in his craw. It was a great year for him in a lot of ways, but I’m sure he’s just itching to get back there and smoke out some 2-year-olds.”

Because so many outfits try to get their horses to peak for Saratoga, bettors need to watch trainers who get hot right from the start of the meet, Litfin said.

“You’ve got to pay attention,” he said. “Especially early, look for trainers that come out and all of a sudden two or three horses start running well and maybe they were off for 30 or 60 days. These are guys that look like they pointed for the meet. A guy like Gary Contessa, he’s probably going to set a record again for wins [on the New York Racing Association circuit] in the year, but he runs hard all year.”

Many of the factors Litfin tracks as a matter of routine may not even be on the radar screen of most bettors.

On the turf course, for example, the track superintendent at some point will probably install a temporary rail to allow chewed-up inside lanes to grow back a little bit.

When the rail is eventually removed, the condition of those lanes will have changed, a big influence on how turf races are run.

“It’s a pretty fair track,” Litfin said. “You just can’t be parked wide all the way around the turn on the main track. Some jocks are better at that inside-out kind of stuff. Pat Day was the best at it.

“If the pace is too fast, somebody’s going to come from off the pace. Except if it rains, whenever it’s drying out or in the process of being rained on, it takes some of the control away from the superintendent. But by and large he keeps it fair.”

Litfin admits that predicting how horses shipping in from other states and even Canada, South America and Europe will perform on a track they’ve never seen against horses they’ve never faced can be a tricky proposition.

“That makes it hard, yeah,” he said. “Handicapping in the winter, you’re getting the same horses coming back against each other and they go up and down a little bit, but you basically know who they are and you’re not getting too many strangers.

“Up there, the first two weeks of the meet, 40 percent of the horses are from Kentucky and Delaware [Park] and Colonial [Downs], or they’re first-time starters, just horses you have no good handle on, really.”

‘captivated’ early on

Litfin, a New York City native, started working for the Racing Form in 1982. His entree to the sport was hitting his first bet ever, to place on Preakness runner-up No Le Hace in 1972.

“Then I got spoiled,” he said. “OTB was just opening up in the city, and that’s where I lived. They weren’t too strict about the under-18 betting rule, and it was still a big-time sport then. It was just captivating watching Secretariat and Ruffian and Affirmed and Alydar.”

After a stint working for NYRA, Litfin returned to the Racing Form in 1990. Almost five years ago, he and his wife, Robin, who have three children, moved to Wilton.

As more information becomes available to bettors, one trend Litfin has observed at Saratoga in recent years is that it’s become more difficult to nail a big long shot. More people are able to figure out when a favorite is ripe for the plucking, so more people are sharing the win payouts on long shots.

In those cases, he suggested investing in multiple-horse exotic wagers, such as exactas and trifectas.

“Now all that information is factored into the price,” Litfin said. “I guess my best advice would be don’t try to grind it out [looking for a huge long shot]. If you have a good opinion about a horse that’s a little bit of a price, try to get some leverage in the exotics. If you don’t like a favorite, don’t be afraid to pitch him.”

Litfin’s press box championship last year was all the more remarkable because with deadlines for the advance copy of the Daily Racing Form, he has to make his picks a day ahead of the handicappers who work for the daily newspapers. Then, because the post positions are drawn 48 hours before race day, he has to wait for the racing secretary’s office to distribute the draw sheet before he sends in his picks and comments.

“You can probably tell from my voice that I’m very proud of him. He works very, very hard,” Robin Litfin said.

“I think Dave Litfin works a lot harder at it than I do, because that’s his entire job,” said Gazette handicapper Bill Heller.

“Most people appreciate that you’re going to be wrong most of the time,” Litfin said. “It’s just the nature of the game. Try to have fun. It’s not rocket science. Go to the paddock. They still allow you to get fairly close. There’s a lot of races for young 2-year-olds and horses you haven’t seen before, and if you go see them in the flesh, see what they look like, sometimes that helps.

“I guess eventually the luck all evens out. It never feels that way. After last year, I can’t complain about whatever happens this year.”

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