Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Book Review: 'Handicapping On the Road' by Mark Cramer

--Brian DiDonato

Renowned horse racing author Mark Cramer's Handicapping on the Road is an important and interesting addition to several genres within racing literature. Last year, in an effort to raise funds and awareness for Thoroughbred retirement ($1.50 from the sale of each book goes directly to the TRF), Cramer and fellow horseplayer Alan Kennedy (both Americans living in Paris) took a 1,000-kilometer bicycle tour of French racetracks, attempting to pay their expenses in full with winning wagers. They succeeded on both fronts, and Cramer entertainingly chronicles the entire adventure while presenting readers with a number of useful angles and handicapping insights.

Cramer, perhaps best known for the contrarian methods outlined in his 1993 work Kinky Handicapping, relies on different factors than most other horseplayers. Always in search of the "automatic bet," many of his plays are determined before entries are even drawn--he thoroughly researches and identifies particular angles or situations which have proven profitable over a significant sample size, and simply waits for those betting opportunities to present themselves (Cramer does, however, adjust his plays based on more "traditional" handicapping techniques). The author explains, "Classical handicapping and statistical handicapping are equally valid for picking winners. However, the betting public practices classical analysis much more than statistical handicapping, so the average odds for classical choices are lower than for statistical choices." Cramer weeds out, for the most part, the human, subjective elements of horseplaying and is left with all that really matters in terms of profit--the stats.

Handicapping on the Road is structured in a way that mirrors Cramer's own methodologies. The first part of the book lays the foundation, discussing both the fundamental principles underlying his techniques and presenting examples and particular angles, while the second half follows the author and his companion along the roads of France and from track to track. By the author's own admission, the first half of his work is more geared towards serious handicappers--it's a bit dense and may not be of interest to everyone. But to those serious players, it's a must-read.

One of the most illuminating elements of the handicapping-centric first section of the book comes from Cramer's interesting perspective on the differences between handicapping American races and European ones. His methods are very American, but have been adapted successfully to the different considerations present in races abroad--this not only gives those employing Cramer's methods an edge when playing foreign races, but provides a deeper understanding of dynamics at play in races on both sides of the pond. The author goes as far as to argue that, "From Dubai to France, and virtually everywhere else in the world, American handicappers can often find an even greater edge than back home."

The insights offered by Cramer are most useful to American readers/bettors for comparing North American and foreign form when the two overlap, namely in the Breeders' Cup, Arlington Million, major turf races at Woodbine, the Dubai International Racing Carnival and at Royal Ascot--or any time a European horse resurfaces stateside. The intersection of Internationally diverse influences can also be less pronounced; while following results from Royal Ascot and other European venues recently, I couldn't help but wonder if Cramer was cashing in on one of his angles that involves American-breds running in Europe. If he was betting the races in question, he was certainly making money. Cramer also presents readers with an excellent primer on trainer angles--an increasingly popular and important handicapping factor. His focus is on European trainers, which is useful in its specificity, but all concepts can be easily translated to American racing.

The second half of Handicapping on the Road features a noticeable change in writing style. Cramer, who also penned the well-received works of fiction Scared Money and Tropical Downs, allows his humorous, somewhat sarcastic style to shine through in a way that it cannot in the first section due to the nature of the subject matter. Whereas the first half of the text has a limited target audience, the second half will appeal to anyone interested in a number of broader topics.

Presented as a travel log, it's reminiscent of Beyer's excellent My $50,000 Year at the Races, but with a much more exotic back-drop. Stage by stage, Cramer discusses his surroundings--both inside and outside of the track--offering up interesting information for those wanting to familiarize themselves not only with the larger tracks in France, but the smaller rural venues--and with French life in general. The author, of course, places wagers along the way that are based on the groundwork from section one, allowing for a real-life glimpse into the considerations and actions taken by a horseplayer of Cramer's ilk. While this section is not as heavy on the handicapping, readers are given shorter explanations of the author's methods, serving to re-enforce ideas for those who read part one and fill those in who did not. Cramer does well in his aim to entertain and engage both groups.

Handicapping on the Road is an excellent read for the serious horseplayer, but also has much to offer for those who do not wager regularly. With its underlying concern for the good of the horse, it is a worthwhile addition to the library of both the horseplayer and horse lover.

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