In horse racing, the Daily Racing Form is the Bible.
Founded in 1894, it generates hundreds of pages of data and analysis every day on races at tracks across North America, from Prairie Meadows in Altoona, Iowa, to Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Picking up the Form at Jimmy’s Smoke Shop -- just beyond the Greyhound bus station, just before the dark alleyway -- on a warm summer night in 1990 was the first step to my education in the game, much as it had been for my father decades earlier.
So when the Form unveiled its Preakness Stakes odds estimates last week and assigned my top pick, Departing, a price that was three times higher than I forecast, it got my attention. The Form pegged him at 12-1. I had predicted he would be the top rival to Kentucky Derby winner Orb in the Preakness, with the gambling public betting him down to 7-2.
My estimate gave Departing an 18 percent chance of winning tomorrow’s race. The Form’s odds gave him a 6 percent chance.
How had I strayed so far from the Bible?
What was I missing?
I went back to the film, scrutinizing Departing’s five races repeatedly for signs I had misread the horse. I found none. The replays revealed the same athletic, smooth, polished three-year-old I had remembered. His one loss, a third-place finish in the Louisiana Derby, came after he encountered traffic trouble throughout much of the stretch.
If Orb is to be defeated at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, extending horse racing’s Triple Crown drought to 35 years, it will be Departing that outduels him to the wire.
While a handful of contenders -- Mylute, Oxbow and Will Take Charge -- turned in respectable Derby performances, they will be left to compete for third place tomorrow.
Goldencents and Itsmyluckyday ran so atrociously in the Derby, beaten by a combined 72 lengths, that they can only improve in the Preakness. Even so, I doubt either is good enough to win. Governor Charlie has shown flashes of ability, but lost crucial training time after sustaining an injury. Titletown Five wouldn’t win this race if they ran it 1,000 times.
Figure Orb will go off as the 4-5 favorite (meaning you bet $5 for a shot at winning $4) following his 2 1/2-length romp in the Derby. Those odds, after factoring in the racetrack’s commission, imply a 46 percent chance that he’ll win.
With Orb setting that benchmark price, 7-2 on Departing feels right. I’m standing by my call.
The Form ratcheted down its estimate on the horse to 10-1 from 12-1, and then cut it twice more, dropping it to 6-1 after the owner of the fourth-place Derby finisher, Normandy Invasion, decided to skip the Preakness. Editors at the Form didn’t return a call for comment. Pimlico’s oddsmaker settled on the same 6-1 forecast when the nine-horse field was set two days ago.
There’s still a fat gap between my 7-2 and their 6-1.
Every cent of that spread is potential alpha, every tick above 7-2 is a mistake by the gambling public that I will seek to exploit. I’ll bet Departing to win as well as in an exacta box with Orb (the “box” means that a first-second finish by those two in either order produces a winning ticket).
If Departing’s odds fall to 7-2, I’ll cut the size of my wager in half. Anything below that price kills the trade -- the bet’s off.
Setting, and respecting, strike prices is a key to disciplined gambling, whether you’re wagering on the third race at Prairie Meadows, the fifth race at Assiniboia Downs or the second leg of the Triple Crown.
(David Papadopoulos, the team leader for Latin America markets coverage at Bloomberg News, has been following thoroughbred racing for more than two decades and was runner-up in 2008 Eclipse Award voting for feature writing on the sport.)