When the TV Handicapping Experts Make Us Angry

If you’re like most handicappers, you have at some point heard what an “expert commentator” said on TV, shook your head, and said to yourself, “I know more than that guy.”

Chances are, you’re right. You do know more than that guy. However, “that guy” knows some things that you don’t. Namely, how to speak clearly and act naturally on TV. It’s not as easy as it looks, and there is a definite skill to it. Almost all of these commentators, even in our narrow world of horse racing, do an excellent job of that. Some are so good at it that they probably deserve a larger audience than they now command.

But what about content? Shouldn’t they be expected to display something beyond mere minimum proficiency?

Reasonable minds can differ on this, but my bar may be well lower than yours on this point. To me, opinions on a race are like anything else in life. Some are better than others. And those who go on television—either on a television channel or a simulcast feed—and trade in shallow, once-over-lightly, “if-it’s-not-the-favorite-it-must-be-the-second-favorite” analysis shouldn’t make us angry or jealous. We should think of them as our best friends—helping to spread conventional wisdom in a game in which conventional wisdom, over the long haul, gets punished.

For me, the most valuable commentators are either those who occasionally point something out in a race that I hadn’t considered or someone who, by virtue of liking the same horse I do, makes me feel immediately as though I must have mis-handicapped the race. (Typically, that does prove to be the case.)

Plenty of people on social media and elsewhere will get on TV handicappers for dispensing nothing but obvious horses—or for giving out Pick Four tickets that go too deep in each leg…or contain the favorite in every race…or that are so top-heavy that it appears the goal is not to win but just to be alive in the last leg. Perhaps such picks do not do much to grow the game by teaching people how to win, but to people like you who are sharp enough to play contests seriously, these people should, again, be seen as friends and not foes in my estimation.

I also believe that it’s far from easy to give intelligent opinions on 12 to 18 races across four or five tracks over a two to three hour period. It’s even harder to do that and sound smooth while you’re doing it. This, perhaps, makes it ever-easier to fall back on the most basic of handicapping concepts rather than delving into cogent analysis. And sometimes time constraints don’t really permit them more than a few seconds of analysis anyway, so how in-depth can they get?

Still, there are two situations that get even a normally tolerant viewer like me steamed from time to time.

One is when a commentator makes it clear—not over a race or two, but over seven or eight races—that he/she hasn’t looked at the PPs for more than a minute per race before going on camera. I find this happens less often than it used to, thank goodness. But you will still see this. Rather than dwell on the negative here, I will focus on the fact that certain commentators point themselves out as people who always put in plenty of pre-show study. You may disagree with their picks…you may dislike them personally…but they never, ever mail it in. These people have my undying respect because, from my experience, they do it that way because that’s just how they’re wired. In fact, there’s a very good chance that their bosses have no clue how much work they put in before the light goes on. I’m sure there are plenty of days when they put four or more hours of study into then next day’s card, go 0-for-12, then wonder if all their work day in and day out is worth it. I hope you agree with me when I say that it absolutely is worth it—and that we notice the effort.

The other example of something that bugs me is fresh in my mind because it happened just this past week. It was something that made me want to throw my remote through the TV screen.

I was alive to two horses in a Pick 5 that would have paid $1,000 or $3,000 depending on which horse won. I got beat by a 12-1 morning line horse that didn’t appear to be the main speed but wound up wiring the field at 4-1. His ultimate off-odds, in my opinion, were very hard to envision five races ahead of time. I won’t belabor the point with more race details.

Could I have use more horses in the race? Of course. (Though I probably would have needed to go at least six deep to use this one.) Was the horse an impossible looking sort? Absolutely not.

I was all set to accept my loss gracefully (if such a thing exists when you are home alone at the time) when the commentator came on after the race and remarked about the multi-race payoffs being extra generous considering that the final leg was won by a horse that “totally made sense.”

Of all the feelings one experiences while betting the races (with the possible exception of a teller mis-punching your would-be winning ticket), nothing seems quite as aggravating as someone telling you after a crushing loss, “Well, that one was obvious!” It’s just bad form—like telling someone how well off financially you are, or how gifted your child is. Even if it’s true (and sometimes it isn’t!), you just don’t tell people that.

I believe that “red-boarding” or 20/20 hindsight (including “How could the crowd let Trainer X/Jockey Y/Sire Z off at that price?”) should trigger some sort of immediate fine or suspension for TV announcers similar to what would be imposed if they swore on the air. The FCC may not agree, but to me the offense is no less egregious. Consider your audience out there. It’s fine to say that stuff before the race, but never after it.

In fact, I wish more TV handicappers would really go to town on a race beforehand. Take a stand. Don’t tell us you like eight horses, be bold. Yeah, you might take some flack afterwards…so what?…that’s part of the fun. Just please don’t try to make me feel like an idiot after a race.

I can do that just fine on my own.