TrackMaster Articles Edit Article

Hold’em Your Horses

Using Poker Concepts at the Track

By Craig Walker - TrackMaster, An Equibase Company

The main event of the World Series of Poker at the Horseshoe Las Vegas had a record number of entries this year. As the series is winding down, I wanted to give a refresh to an article I wrote many years ago. Successful methods for winning poker play can be transferred to playing the ponies. This article will focus on some concepts from the world of poker that can be applied to everyday handicapping at the racetrack.

Why play every hand?

In all my years of playing poker, I have yet to sit at a table and see any player bet on every hand, but I have seen a multitude of horseplayers wager on every single race on the card. Some are even betting every race from almost every signal that is being simulcast to their host track. This doesn’t make any economic sense, especially in today’s age of simulcast and internet wagering. There are plenty of opportunities to be found that offer a good chance of making money. The astute handicapper can pick and choose the races to play for the day. Please, don’t bet on every race that comes along, unless you only go to the track a couple of times a year for pure enjoyment. Stay away from situations that “drain your chips.”

Having the “Nuts”

When a poker player has the best possible hand, “the nuts,” and can’t be beat, he bets in a way to maximize his profits, making larger wagers to get paid off with big pots. In a similar fashion, you should bet more money on the races where you have a strong opinion, especially when it differs from the wagering public. This gives you a chance to “take down a big pot.” Circumstances that come under this heading include a race that you believe has a vulnerable favorite, a horse that had a subtle poor trip or a trip against the bias in his last race, or an underappreciated trainer that has a winning pattern going today. These types of advantages come in all shapes and sizes. The key is to maximize profits under these advantageous conditions. Bet less in less than optimal situations and be sure to wager more on bets that you deem as prime plays. Many handicappers only make large wagers on “sure thing” favorites, instead of taking a shot on a medium priced play supported by strong information. This concept may sound simple, but most handicappers don’t take this advice to heart.

Pot Odds vs. Acceptable Odds

When a poker pro doesn’t have a made hand, but has a draw that can make him a winner, he calculates how many outs he has to determine his chances of winning. He then figures out his pot odds to see if it is worth it to call a bet based on the return he can get back from winning the pot. Pot odds are as easy as computing the number of cards left in the deck that will potentially let a player win versus the number of cards left in the deck. The player compares the “outs” or the chance of winning to the size of the pot. If the chance of winning is better than the ratio of the pot size to a bet, then the player has good pot odds. If it's lower, then the player has poor pot odds and normally wouldn’t call the bet.

A meticulous horseplayer creates a personal odds line that establishes acceptable odds for each contender in a particular race. He then plays the horses/wagers that offer value in each race he wishes to bet. He bets on the race in a way to take advantage of the horse or horses whose odds on the tote board are equal to or higher than the acceptable odds line. This same idea can also be expanded to include multi-race wagers. It all comes down to valuing the risk versus the reward. If it is worth it then make a bet, otherwise pass. The TrackMaster F.A.S.T. Sheets and our Race Lens product, offer an easy and effective way to get a set of acceptable odds for the contenders without having to do all of the grunt work. The acceptable odds generated by these products can then be used to make bets when you have the best of it.

“Changing gears”

Experienced poker players have a knack at knowing when to “change gears.” They vary their style of play so other players can’t get a read on them. If they are in a tournament, they understand the structure of the wagering levels, the Independent Chip Model calculations, and change their play accordingly.

Horseplayers can use this game plan, especially when they are in the middle of a losing cycle. Sometimes it seems like a player can’t catch a break and everything is going the wrong way. Handicapping becomes a chore rather than an exciting enterprise. This is the time to “change gears.” Try to do handicapping exercises that will change the way you view a race. Try to figure out which horse will finish last, or which horse will have the lead at the quarter pole. Try utilizing a wager that you don’t normally play. Buy a book on handicapping that has a different viewpoint from your normal style of play. This can help change your thought processes and rejuvenate your excitement for the handicapping process. It may also help you realize when to use certain wagers for certain types of handicapping situations. Be creative and think outside the box to break out of a handicapping rut.


Many of the best poker players in the world have never played online because they are unable to observe their opponents. Top players are able to pick up “tells” on opponents by noticing their body language, manner of speech, the way they put their chips into the pot, betting patterns, etc.

In horse racing, there are many “tells” given out by the participants. First is the equine body language of the horse. A horse that has a strong musculature, a dappled coat and is on his toes looking ready to run is displaying positive body language. I like a horse to look good if I’m making a large wager. If a horse looks dull and I’m planning to make a wager on him, I will cut down the bet size (gets back to the concept of maximizing profits in prime situations). Some horseplayers successfully use a horse’s body language as a primary handicapping tool. These are usually handicappers that have had more experience working closely with horses at some point in their lives versus the typical racing fans contact with horses.

Similar to the horse’s body language, a jockey’s temperament can play a significant role in finding optimal wagers. Many times a jockey will get into a zone and win races in bunches. Any mount ridden by a hot jockey should be examined and if some positive aspects can be found, his mount should be used in your wagers. The same can be said for jockey/trainer combinations that get on a winning streak. Be sure to remain alert for these situations and jump on the bandwagon until the connections cool off.

Solve For Why

One of the most significant changes to poker play in recent years is the introduction of poker solvers. A solver is a powerful piece of poker software that calculates optimal strategies/solutions for user inputted scenarios. In that same vein, the Handicapping Angles and Back-Testing features found in Race Lens are invaluable. The ability to create angles geared toward the tracks you play, having the results updated each and every day and to be notified of the angle on the home screen and in the past performances, is a game changer for the serious player. There are so many variables available as angle criteria to create specific angles, to test if your handicapping theories are profitable or not. Finding these hidden nuggets can be a gold mine for the dedicated handicapper and lead to prime betting opportunities.

Putting it all together

Be selective, bet more when you have more confidence in a race and it offers a chance at a significant payoff. Come to appreciate underutilized information. Following these simple steps can help make profit taking at the track a more frequent experience. Remember, “there’ll be time enough for countin’, when the dealing’s done.”