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Getting Ready to Go…to the Races!

Note: This is GRTG’s first guest post! From nicolle neulist, the mind behind Blinkers Off and major fan of cute horse noses.

There are as many ways of getting ready to go to the racetrack as there are racegoers.

The Ascot Gavotte set may wear their fanciest hats. More casual types may pack a lunch and a picnic blanket. An photographer may gather a selection of lenses.

As a writer and handicapper, I gather my thoughts most of all.

Handicapping is the art of analysing horse races and picking winners. This cannot begin until I know which horses are running in which races, something that typically happens Wednesday for a Saturday race day. Once the list of races for the day (the card) is known, I can buy summaries of past performances (abbreviated “PPs”). Abbreviated past performance data is printed in the track programs; I used that to handicap when I first started going to the races. However, getting it in advance allows more time to handicap the card and better options for thorough data.

A page of past performances from the 2015 American Turf Stakes with my notes on individual horses, a quick map of their preferred running styles (speed, stalk, mid, close), and my selections in the race.  My top selection, World Approval, finished third.  My second choice, A Lot, finished second.  I had the race figured for an off-pace type -- but a different one, Divisidero, hit the wire first.

A page of past performances from the 2015 American Turf Stakes with my notes on individual horses, a quick map of their preferred running styles (speed, stalk, mid, close), and my selections in the race. My top selection, World Approval, finished third. My second choice, A Lot, finished second. I had the race figured for an off-pace type — but a different one, Divisidero, hit the wire first.

I handicap using pen and paper. I use my computer for race charts, race replays, and pedigree research, but I make all of my notes by hand on actual, physical paper. Some people swear by tablets, and I used one for about five months last year. However, someone pilfered it on the Pink Line. I reverted to paper, handicapped more confidently than I did on the tablet, and decided the rude little rascal had done me a favour.

Thank you, thief!

Everyone handicaps differently; even my own methodology has evolved over the years. The first thing I consider when handicapping a race is the pace. Different horses have different running styles, and that can have a dramatic impact. Can one horse take the lead, set a slow pace, and sprint away when closers mount their runs? Will two or more horses fight for a lead early and tire late? Speed also matters: is a horse fast enough to compare well with the others in the field?

There are other questions, too. Have they raced recently? Does the horse like the distance? Do they prefer running on dirt, turf, or a synthetic surface? Do they perform uncommonly well or poorly at the specific racetrack? There are dozens of factors, all of which I must weigh before even showing up to the track.

Handicapping requires weighing all of these factors across the entire set of horses running, known as the field of the race. A short field may only have five or six horses; a full field can have ten, twelve, more. An eight-race card with relatively short fields can take me three hours or so to handicap. More races and larger fields mean more time; handicapping a race card takes at least an evening.

Once I have handicapped the card, I write. I focus on spot plays, meaning either single races or small groups of them linked by a particular jockey, trainer, or sire, in my Chicago Railbird column. At Blinkers Off, I write full-card picks and analysis.

If the card contains a stakes race, I must prepare a little more. I write stakes race recaps for Picks and Ponderings, so I have to prepare my post-race interview plans with the connections: trainers, jockeys, and sometimes even owners of the horses in the race. These are like the post-game interviews you see on TV after any sporting event.

Some of the questions cannot be planned, as they relate to specifics of how the race unfolds on the track. However, a good recap covers more than just what happened on the track: it finds a reason why the race meant something special for someone connected to the horse. You never know who will win the race until it happens, so preparing for a stakes day requires looking for an interesting story around everyone in the field. This all happens before I even show up to the track.

Once race day rolls around, much of the work has been done. I have handicapped the card. I have likely written my preview of the day’s action. I sometimes have to re-handicap races if a key horse is pulled from the race, or if a race has been rained off the grass course onto a different track surface.

I pack my bag with the essentials for online race reporting: my laptop, phone, chargers, auxiliary phone battery, and the PPs I marked up earlier in the week (and a pen).

My race day kit.

My race day kit.

With respect to clothing, I do not wear my day-to-day jeans and a t-shirt to the racetrack, but neither do I go the seersucker suit route. A nicer shirt and pants work most days; a business suit sees action on Arlington Million day. My hair, however, always stays some fun colour. Sometimes, this is racing-related. So far, the only such reason I have changed my hair has been for the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes this year. For both, I dyed my hair green to match the colours worn by Keen Ice’s rider.

My green hair and I say hello from the Belmont Park paddock, a few hours before Keen Ice finished third in the Belmont Stakes.

My green hair and I say hello from the Belmont Park paddock, a few hours before Keen Ice finished third in the Belmont Stakes.

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