Ellis Starr, best known for his well-thought out analysis process, had winner Dust and Diamonds (9-1) as his top pick in the Gallant Bloom (II).
In the racing world, the professional handicapper is comparable to the local weatherman where he is praised when he is correct in his forecasts and disregarded when he is wrong. The weatherman possibly has it better, as faith in the studious handicapper often involves some amount of money that is won or lost in a game determined by patterns, luck, and athletes who cannot speak.
Personally, I don’t have very many go-to handicappers when in search of a second opinion on a given race, but Ellis Starr is among the highly-regarded few at my fingertips, and not just because he represents my go-to source for past performances at Equibase. Known as the “Ubercapper,” Ellis was right on cue in winning the $10,000 first prize of the Belmont Stakes Day Derby Wars shootout, and was the only public handicapper to nail the top 3 finishers in order in the 2009 Belmont Stakes (Summer Bird, Dunkirk, Mine That Bird). His motto is forever "Friends Don’t Let Friends Play Chalk."
Galloping Hat Rack: Thank you again for agreeing to answer some questions, Mr. Starr! Did you see yourself becoming good enough to be a professional handicapper or is your success with the ponies all a surprise?
Ellis Star: Not either really. As with many things in life, my career resulted from a series of events over the course of many years. First, when in another line of work meeting people that took handicapping and wagering a bit more seriously than casual fans. Second, meeting a man (Dick Mitchell) that was to become my mentor. Third, going to work for TrackMaster and moving into the racing information industry. Fourth, discovering my passion and talent for handicapping and teaching others.
Speaking as one of many people who are just getting a hang of the handicapping game, how do you approach analyzing a race? What do you do when you’re having trouble figuring out a particular race? (If such a thing happens)
Handicapping is mostly art, not science. That shifts later in the process when it comes time to determine if/when to wager. Horses are athletes, so my approach is to look at their performances in situations similar to today’s race (distance, surface, track) and estimate whether those races can be repeated. If so, then to match up the two, three, four or even more representative efforts of various horses to determine which one has the highest probability to win, then second highest, and so forth.
This is done asking the question: “Is there an effort from a horse’s past that if it repeated today it would be competitive?” The second question is “Can it be repeated today?” and the third is “How good is that horse’s expected effort versus the expected effort of another horse that might be competitive today?”
There are many races that are tough to decipher such as maiden races with a majority of first time starters. Those races just require a shift in methodology (from past races to pedigree, workouts and trainer statistics). Other races can be more problematic, such as races for horses that haven’t won in a year. Although I pass few races, a high percentage of those I pass are those kinds of races.
Favorites win one-third of the time. They have to be considered “legitimate favorites” a reasonable percentage of the time. The key is figuring out when they are legitimate as well as when they are “vulnerable” or “false favorites.” When a favorite sticks out, I say so, suggesting alternative ways to profit from the race or to pass the race. Alternative ways to profit from a race with a legitimate favorite include using it on pick three tickets or using it in an exacta in the win position with a number of horses in second, trying to get a much better return on your investment then you would on a win wager of the same amount.
Do you have any “memorable” long shot picks from the past that won?
Human nature is that big wins stick out, although not necessarily a particular long shot. I still remember the 1994 Kentucky Derby when I believed strongly that Go For Gin would win and Strodes Creek would run second or third. I played the trifecta many times that day and it still sticks out in my memory in terms of a big win. This year I was lucky enough to win a handicapping contest in June and one of the horses, Mr. Ornery, who returned $83.40 to win, is a horse I’ll never forget.
The all-important question: Who are some of your favorite horses?
A.P. Indy was one of my favorites. Cougar II was probably my all time favorite from my youth. A remarkably intelligent horse, he would almost always come on the track without a pony and stop numerous times in front of the grandstand, turning to the crowd to get applause, before continuing a few more yards down and do the same thing. His stretch runs were breathtaking.
Thank you again to Mr. Starr for his time and his insightful comments! You can follow him (and get some of his choices) @Ubercapper!