Scatoni: Handicappers (And The Game) Must ‘Evolve Or Die’

by | 10.09.2015 | 1:11pm
Frank Scatoni

I recently caught up with accomplished author and expert handicapper Frank Scatoni, who participates in the newcomer on-track seminar at Del Mar, and puts together online Pick Four betting strategies and analysis for some of Southern California's biggest exotic paydays.

Scatoni is the author of several books and is the former editor of Horseplayers Magazine. I had the pleasure of working with Frank at Daily Racing Form some time ago on three well-polished racing titles which included: The Secrets of Successful Bettors; Finished Lines; and Saratoga: The Ultimate Racing Experience. These days, Scatoni is nearly 3,000 miles away from his hometown of New York, spreading his wealth of handicapping knowledge to Southern California racing fans (new and old).

After spending some time with Frank, there's no doubt that each racetrack across the country that's even mildly interested in attracting new fans, bettors, and increasing on-track handle, would be best served to have a racing ambassador like him on-track every day promoting this great game.

Q: Frank, for those who might not be familiar with your racing background. Can you tell us how you first got interested in the sport and how you became a New York transplant to beautiful Southern California?

A: I was working as an editor for a book-publishing company in New York City when I went to the racetrack for the very first time. It was the 1996 Belmont Stakes. On a complete lark, I bet my meager paycheck on Editor's Note. When he won, I was completely hooked and became obsessed with the sport, and I jumped head-first into the deep end of the pool. I relate this story at my Newcomers' Seminar at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, and everyone gets a big kick out of it when I tell them that hitting that big score my very first time at the track ended up costing me a small fortune because, as we all know, the learning curve in this sport is very steep. Fortunately, early on in my racing career, I befriended some very sharp old-timers, as well as industry professionals (including jockeys and trainers), who helped show me the ropes. Through my good friend Peter T. Fornatale, I met the famous author and horseplayer William Murray, who lived in Del Mar. In August 2000, I visited Del Mar for the first time and was completely blown away by the atmosphere and the area. Two months later, I quit my job, packed up my belongings, and moved to Southern California. I now live right across the street from the track.

Q: Can you tell us how your handicapping has evolved over say the last 10 to 15 years?

A: The most important advice I can give to any horseplayer is this: evolve or die. The game is constantly changing, and if you don't change with it, you'll go broke. I started off using the print version of the Form, just really honing my skills on the fundamentals and basics of handicapping. I was never a big speed-figure guy because I enjoy the nuance and subtlety of handicapping—the fact that every horse's past-performances tell a story, and it's the handicapper's job to predict the next chapter in that story. I also think the greatest skill any handicapper can have is being able to envision how the race will unfold—so if you don't understand pace dynamics and race-flow, you're in trouble. Lastly, you have to really watch—and understand—the races. Replays are crucial. I think I'm a pretty good race-watcher, and I love taking trip-notes, looking for subtle things in a horse's performance that might indicate future success—that's something that doesn't show up on the paper and can give you a differential advantage from all of the other players out there. Recently, I've been working with NHC champion John Doyle—who is one of the smartest players I've ever met—on an incredible handicapping platform named “optixEQ” that he has developed, and it has really taken my game to a new level. Not only does it help streamline the handicapping process, but it also forces you to think about the races in a superior analytical way.

Q: Was there a turning point in your handicapping success or failures that you can talk about?

A: Every day is an important day for me. I'm a seeker of knowledge, so when I'm playing the horses, I'm constantly analyzing my play—looking for things that I can be better at. If you think you know everything you can about this sport, you're a liar. What works for you today might not work for you tomorrow. I'm constantly challenging myself and forcing myself to learn and get better. I remember the first time I spent a day at the races with tournament-player extraordinaire Jonathon Kinchen. We started talking about handicapping and what we like to look for, and Jonathon was just so passionate about the process, it was reinvigorating. As you know, being around racing for a long time can inure you to the joys of the sport, so it was refreshing to hear a sharp, young, super-successful player be so upbeat and positive about handicapping and horseplaying. It's no surprise he is one of the best players out there today.

Q: You've become quite an active and successful participant in handicapping tournament play. How were you introduced to tournaments, and what do you think they've done for horse racing as a whole?

A: That's a complicated question because I have a complicated relationship with tournaments right now. Don't get me wrong, I think they are great for the sport, and I really enjoy playing in contests—but I think things need to change. I know I'm in the minority, but I just think it's ridiculous that there are mythical $2 win/place tournaments where players can have three entries. I don't begrudge anyone for taking advantage of this format, but to me, that's not handicapping. That's leveraging a numbers-game, and there are some excellent players who are masterful at doing that. So while in the past, where I loved participating in these tournaments because they kept me in action all day long—and also offered a big reward for a small outlay—I just don't play in those games because I don't feel I have any sort of edge. I also found that playing in those mythical tournaments actually hurt my skill-set as a live-bankroll player because it doesn't mirror daily play—you're basically just looking for different price horses and covering them on multiple tickets, hoping to be in a position in the last few races to make something happen. So over the past year, I've moved away from the mythical format and started to play in some live-bankroll tournaments because they more accurately reflect the day and life of a true horseplayer. The Santa Anita live-bankroll tournaments are terrific, and if you want to read a great cautionary tale about one of my experiences, I encourage you to read this piece by Peter T. Fornatale called “Hugging the Machine,” which was published in DRF. I had to learn this lesson the hard way!

Q: What's it been like to conduct the newcomer seminars around Southern California? Have you gotten positive feedback?

A: The Newcomers' Seminar has been a great experience, and Del Mar is the perfect venue for it because we get so many first-timers to the track. I love doing the seminar because the people who attend are genuinely eager to learn. We all know racing is extremely intimidating, and the barrier to entry is difficult because the learning curve is so steep. In my seminar, I give aspiring players just a few simple things that anyone can do—with no previous knowledge at all—to make some informed, educated decisions at the track. 

Q: The University of Arizona Racetrack Industry Program has announced that it will award a $10,000 prize as part of a contest to encourage new ideas and technologies to improve the horse racing industry. Can you offer some FREE suggestions for the Paulick Report readers as to how you think racetracks can attract, cultivate, and keep new racing fans?

A: I used to attend the U of A Symposium on Racing & Gaming every year as editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine, and I was always impressed. People always say horseracing is a dying sport—I wholeheartedly disagree. Every day, I meet young, passionate people who love the sport. When I was learning the game, there weren't nearly as many young people interested in racing as there are today. And I think U of A is a big part of that—they are educating the future leaders of our sport, and that's so important. So if people say that racing is a dying sport, it's not because it lacks new blood—it's because the industry is so fragmented, antiquated, greedy, rudderless, and often clueless. For instance, how can it be that no one from our industry participates in the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference to learn how other sports are embracing technology and analytics? We have the greatest sport in the world—and you can make money betting on it legally! No other sport can lay claim to that (outside of Las Vegas). How are we not doing a better job with the golden goose we've been given? Racing has so many facets that can be explored—the lifestyle aspect of the allure and charm of racing (which I think has been marketed very well) and, of course, the hope of untold riches by hitting a big score (which hasn't been marketed nearly as well). Look at what daily fantasy sports (DFS) platforms have done in just the last two years—people are becoming millionaires, and the growth of DFS has been extraordinary. How can we tap into that mindset—hey, come to the track and become a millionaire? I leave this to the marketing experts and the young folks who are tapped into the Zeitgeist of their generation, but I think what U of A is doing is a great first step to encourage new, exciting ideas for our sport.

Q: It's my opinion that a lot of people don't become repeat horse racing customers because they don't win often enough. Do you think something as simple as not cashing enough tickets often leads to a “bad taste in the mouth” mentality when it comes to establishing and keeping repeat track goers?

A: Nobody likes to lose…unless you are a born loser—so, yes, cashing tickets and winning money is paramount to long-term retention. But, of course, that's easier said than done. The biggest problem with racing, from a professional bettor's standpoint, is takeout. It's just absolutely crushing for a daily player who is looking to grind out a profit. That's why so many people chase the big scores—and if you don't have the bankroll to endure losing streaks, then you're going to go broke. I'm not saying reducing takeout is a magic bullet, but it's an extremely important part of the problem. There also isn't any innovation. I'm stunned that exchange-wagering was such a non-starter. Exchange-wagering opens up a whole new area for racing to capitalize on, appealing to a young, market-trading demographic. You can back horses, lay horses, and often arbitrage by taking advantage of market inefficiencies so you can lock in a profit and stay in the game much longer. How is that a bad thing for the long-term sustainability of the player? But the industry would rather waste countless man hours and money talking about Lasix. That kind of stuff drives me crazy.

Q: It always amazes me when taking a trip to a live venue on-track, or even visiting my local OTB in southern Jersey, how many people are betting with inferior information. Or none at all! Not only do that not have a program or Daily Racing Form in hand, many are betting strictly off the TV monitors. Do you think this is a result of economics; lack of ability to read and understand past performances; and/or a combination of both?

A: I actually think it's a personality issue. The best players I've met are so focused and disciplined, and they work their tails off—they have a game plan before the wagering day even begins. I think we are slowly trending away from the dark days of OTBs and “degenerate gamblers” to a more sophisticated, analytical, professional type of player, which is why I think analytics and exchange-wagering are important to the future of the sport. Also, because players now have so many tracks and platforms to play from, it's a lot easier to treat horseplaying as a true profession rather than as a hobby or a distraction or as a way to get a quick gambling fix. The poker world was legitimized overnight when it became televised and popularized. Before that, it was considered shady and questionable to outsiders. Now it's as mainstream as Taylor Swift. Racing needs something like that—something or someone to show the world that, hey, horseplaying is a legitimate, reputable profession. The TV show Horseplayers was a nice attempt, but it fell way short of the mark. But I definitely give them credit for trying.

Q: Are there any other racing-related projects that you're working on that you'd like to share with the readership that we should keep our eyes open for?

A: In addition to hosting the Newcomers' Seminar on-track at Del Mar, I do a daily Late Pick 4 analysis (using DRF Ticketmaker) for the Santa Anita website for their live meets, as well as some handicapping analysis for Del Mar during the summer and fall. I love writing about the races because it really forces me to look at a race in a much more detailed way—and that helps my overall play. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I'm working with John Doyle on “optixEQ,” which I believe will revolutionize the way players handicap and wager. We'll be rolling out the platform to select users pretty soon, and I'm excited for that. Doyle is a visionary—he's one of the few people in our sport who just won't accept the status quo way of doing things, especially when that status quo is severely lacking. He also sees where the sport needs to go from an informational, analytical, and data-driven perspective, so everything “optixEQ” has on offer will tap into a realm that just didn't exist before in handicapping.

Q: And finally, who wins the Breeders' Cup Classic in 4 weeks? Beholder or American Pharaoh?

A: Tonalist.

  • David Worley

    Frank if you read the comments here, I’m curious what your thoughts are on racing’s arcane timing methods. I want to see detailed data dumps on any past race so that I can see EXACTLY how fast the horse was moving, their position on the track, and acceleration/deceleration throughout the race. The fact that we use fractional times is just ridiculous. Thoughts on this?

  • Andrew A.

    Right on the money when it comes to takeout. Blended Takeout at major jurisdictions is 5% to 7% too high for the sport to survive.

  • Joe Sollitto

    Here’s an idea: stop “fighting the tape” (an investment term). If the market wants “fantasy betting” then provide “fantasy betting”.

    Horse racing rewards horses in an inverted fashion (the older you get, the less chances you have to earn money) that encourages early retirement, and horses also race so infrequently that horse betting is a non-starter from a fantasy sense. Thus fans cannot really ever find an idol like a LeBron or Peyton Manning – the stars are gone as soon as they form.

    However, jockey, trainers and owners race every single day. Imagine an exchange whereby one could bet on a jockey, trainer or owner for a day, week, meet, et cetera. Points could be totaled, (e.g. six for win, two for place, one for show, or even better points x win payoff, place payoff, show payoff (thus evening out the field somewhat) over a race day at a single track or even nationally (for owners or trainers), or records could be kept for a weekend, entire meet or year. This would instantly create a regular rooting interest for an entity that would be there every day with a single (hopefully larger than $2) bet. Imagine rooting for Johnny V. at the Spa versus Castellano, or even versus Bejarano at Del Mar. Or maybe you took a swing on an apprentice, hoping for a big payoff. How about Ramsey v. Midwest or Pletcher v. Ward for a day? Heck, just the merch sales (“I’m a Chad Brown guy” T-shirts, anyone?) would probably dwarf the racing handle :)

  • Manny Marquez

    Great Q&A with one of the nicest guys I have ever met at the track. So much to comment on. But to make it brief, I could not agree more with this statement from Frank “So if people say that racing is a dying sport, it’s not because it lacks new blood—it’s because the industry is so fragmented, antiquated, greedy, rudderless, and often clueless”.

    What I can say that Frank can’t is that Santa Anita is the epitome of this.

    I personally know two bright minds from U of A that were discouraged while working there and moved on. It is a place filled with cronyism, nepotism and people that really are clueless. I worked with people in the marketing department that did not even know how to make a wager!

    Santa Anita was by far the most frustrating place I have ever had the pleasure of working for. Loved the game, but hated seeing morons running it into the ground in favor of their own personal agendas.

  • Sal Carcia

    This is a wonderful perspective. I get excited about the game just reading this article. It strikes me that this type of perspective is what the game sadly lacks. It is really a customer’s point of view. If horseracing would focus on just that, it would do just fine.

  • LongTimeEconomist

    His point about newcomers and cashing tickets is one I have been making for decades. Newcomers should be steered clear of exotic bets where they can easily go all day without cashing a bet. Start them out with win or combination betting only so that they cash a few tickets. They’ll enjoy it even if they lose money overall for the day.

  • PG

    Cashing tickets will bring newcomers back.Its time to create a new bet .Maybe a 3 dollar win where if you lose you get half your money back,this can be a separate pool from the win pool.its like a insurance bet, this is just a idea I don’t know if it will work or not.Thanks

  • Andrew A.

    The industry MUST have WPS takeout at 15% with penny breakage. Additionally Exacta takeout should be 15% take. Churn!

    A concerted effort by the Industry to direct casual fans towards these wagers would grow the game.

  • bocapunter

    I grew up in biking distance from Aqueduct, Belmont, and some of you might remember Jamaica. I’m a fan for 60 years and currently live in Boca Raton, Fl. so, of course, I go to Gulfstream. I’ve embraced the technology of the ADW account which has brought my enjoyment of the game to another level. Leverage that technology and I think you’ll continue to add fans.

  • chet

    Regardless of who the Handicapper is or how good he or she is there is one constant fact in the Sport of Kings, and it goes like this; The average written race defies the logic of even the most astute handicapper, and the Race Tracks do a very poor job of educating the general public on handicapping basics. What novice with average intelligence can pick up a program and decipher the header describing the conditions of the average race. Its like reading a Chinese calculus math question. Do you think the track would print an easy to read and understand program explaining the races conditions in plain simple logic? NO I don’t. Do you think they would at least furnish television monitors explaining what the program header meant in simple laymens terms? I don’t. In order to garner new blood into the sport they need to change their approach. They are not customer friendly.

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