By the book: A review of handicapping books everyone should have in their collection

Hey everyone! My name is Chris Felts and this is the first post in a new series of book reviews that I will be doing called “By the Book”. I was recommended this book by Spencer and it has really helped out my handicapping. It’s a little old school (was published when beyer figures were basically non-existent) but there’s some good stuff in here you could apply to today’s game. Be sure to pick it up if you haven’t already!


Dick Mitchell’s book Common Sense Handicapping was published before the turn of the century, in 1993. Mr. Mitchell passed away in 2005, but the amount of information he put into this book makes it a must-add to any horseplayer’s book shelf. It will have you hooked through the introduction, where he talks about getting into the proper mindset of winning (which will make you want to run through a brick wall). One thing he mentions is that “you can be a 25 percent handicapper and make your living at the track if your odds are greater than 7 to 2”, something that is difficult but attainable; he argues that through hard work and perseverance you can solve the puzzle that is handicapping. 

The first section of his book talks about the ten commandments of handicapping. In my opinion, one of the most important commandments he mentions is to “Know thy Track”. What this means is to pay close attention to what is winning at your home track. If you don’t have a home track, I would recommend finding a circuit you like and following it more closely. It means building win profiles, figuring out the average par times and ability times for horses that are winning for each class level at your track. It means to figure out how far off the race leader the winner is on average (i.e. how far off the leader are they at the first call, second call, etc.). Both par times and ability times vary for distance and surface, and the book goes into how to calculate those numbers. If you have the time, start building these win profiles for each class level and then use that information in your handicapping. This book will help walk you through how to do that.

Know thy Track also means keeping track of horses for courses. There are horses that love certain tracks, and every so often you can catch a price on a horse that is overlooked, but you saw that they had multiple wins at that track. Even more so, watch to see which trainers and jockeys are overbet. Here’s one example that Mitchell shares::

“Imagine yourself at Oaklawn Park. You are watching the post parade. The first seven contenders look okay. The eighth contender is a lot shorter than all the other horses. In fact it looks very much like an alligator. Pat Day is riding this reptilian-looking creature. You can bet that this creature won’t go off at odds greater than 4-1. Reason: Pat Day.”

The other commandments he talks about have to do with ability, form and condition, angles, and wager value. Wager Value is especially important because he talks about how to calculate your “edge” on each bet and how to become a better bettor (try saying “better bettor” five times fast). It is just as important to be a good bettor as it is to be a good handicapper.

While some of this information may be a bit outdated (keep in mind beyer speed figures were a brand new concept at the time), it is still useful knowledge to have and apply to your own handicapping. Mitchell goes into each specific class, from maidens all the way to stakes races and how to handicap each. Surprisingly, he shares that it is the maiden races that are most predictable and stakes races the least- ironic, as most people figure it’s the other way around. By the way, there’s an entire section dedicated to turf races, so pay close attention to that. Turf racing is dominated by late speed and class, and there are certain intricacies you should be aware of.

Towards the end of the book, he has another section about exacta wagering- he has his own exacta grid called the Mitchell Matrix. He shares here that “the second best win horse rarely comes in second”. If you want to improve your exacta betting, start using his method. You should note here that he really doesn’t mention the other exotics. Mitchell also gets into financial planning. Basically, he suggests that you start with maiden races. Only place win bets on maiden races, and do that for 20 races. Once you have a positive ROI, do that 5 more times (!!) with a positive ROI. Mitchell actually suggests a 20 percent profit over the 20 x 5 times you do this for each class. Only then can you move on to claiming races and other classes, as well as other types of wagers. He then dives into bankroll and figuring out what percentage of your bankroll you want to be spending per race to get your intended profit. 

All of this starts with the desire and how much you want it. Mitchell tells you that you can’t expect to make a living off of handicapping if you don’t put in the work. So if you want to be a recreational handicapper, that’s fine, just don’t expect to supplement your income. I would highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone who wants to learn more about handicapping and the art and science of the game. It will be well worth your time. 


I am a regular contributor to The Daily Gallop, mostly writing about the NYRA circuit. You can find me on Twitter @Cjfelts87.

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  • Problem with reviewing old handicapping books is that it has all been done before. Unfortunately,the game has changed and some of the information isn’t relevant to todays game.

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