Getting a Line on the Early Odds

By Joe Kristufek

As Arlington Park's official morning-line odds maker my job is to predict, as accurately as possible, how the betting public will wager on each race. The actual odds change minute by minute based on how much money is bet on each horse.            

The intention of the morning line is to give the wagering public a general idea of what the odds on each horse is expected to be at post time. It's a subjective system, and is merely my educated guess, based on my 18 years of handicapping Illinois horseracing professionally.

Keep in mind that the morning line odds do not reflect the odds maker's selections, they are merely a prediction of how the betting public will wager on the race. Although I do my best to calculate accurate early odds, some races are tougher to assign odds values on than others.

In races that offer consistency amongst horses that compete against each other regularly, the odds are generally easy to set, but races that are infused with first-time starters, particularly 2-year-old events, can be more difficult to peg - therefore I take a slightly more conservative approach. Early meet races with horses invading from a variety of tracks, and those with layoff horses or huge class droppers can also prove tricky.

Factors used in calculating a morning line include a horse's recent form, their human connections (jockey and trainer), class, strength of today's competition, and the potential pace scenario. Horseplayers also tend to gravitate toward speed figures, so a horse that has an edge in that category will often times be designated as the favorite.

Some odds makers wrongfully get caught up on relying too much on what a horse's odds were the last time they raced, and although that information can be somewhat helpful, it's a different day and race we're dealing with.

I take a somewhat conservative approach with my morning line. No odds-maker wants to see one of their 6-1 shots sent off as an 8-5 favorite, their 2-1 favorite sent off at 9-2, or a 30-1 morning line outsider at 5-1.

In today's world of simulcasting, it is important that the early odds are as accurate as possible. A racetrack loses creditability when the morning line maker does a poor job, both with experienced horseplayers nationwide and new fans who have a tough time understanding why the odds in the program are so far out of whack with the odds on the toteboard.

Morning-line odds can often affect the payoffs in multiple race wagers. Often horseplayers foolishly handicap the first leg of a Daily Double, Pick Three or Pick Four, and rely on the morning-line to tell them which horses are "live" in the later legs. If the line maker "misses", and one of their 8-1 shots is actually a 5-2 proposition, that horse won't be nearly as live as they should be in the multiple race wagers.

Scratches in an individual race lower the projected odds for every other race in that contest, particularly if one of the withdrawn runners was pegged as one of the favorites.

Also remember that the betting public can be wrong. I take a lot of pride in the accuracy of my morning line. If I've installed a horse at 8-1 in the program, and they're on the board at 25-1, chances are that horse is an "overlay" and may be worth a bet. On the flip side if I've pegged a horse a 5-1, there are no significant scratches, and that horse is sitting on the board at 5-2, that horse is probably an "underlay" and isn't offering the value you should be looking for.

If you want to take your handicapping to the next level, avoid looking at the morning line until after you've handicapped the entire card. Sometimes the program odds can influence how you look at a race. Learn to make your own morning line, this way you will have three points of reference (your odds, morning line odds, actual odds). It may take a little more of your time, but if you think about it, while you're devising a set of odds, you're actually handicapping the race at the same time.

By formulating your own morning line, you will have a better idea of which horses offer value in YOUR eyes. While establishing the morning line may appear to be a simple task, it actually requires a mathematical formula to be done correctly. There's much more to it than tabbing one horse at 5-2, another at 10-1 and so on and so forth.

A true morning line must "balance". If there wasn't any takeout from the ‘win' pool, the base for the point system would be 100. But the line maker must factor in takeout to his formula to arrive at a mathematically correct morning line.

The takeout in the win pool in Illinois is 17 percent. Therefore, by adding 17 to a base of 100, we arrive at 117 points. Then, by designating an additional point per horse, the morning line will generally balance between 125 and 129 points for fields consisting of eight to 12 horses.

Once each race is assigned a point value, the oddsmaker must now balance the field of horses to add up to the designated total (give or take a point or two). In an eight-horse field in Illinois the point value is 117 + 8 = 125.

So, how does an oddsmaker arrive at points for odds so they add up correctly?

By dividing 100 percent by the odds plus one, a line maker arrives at a point system. For example, 2-1 represents 33 points (100 divided by two plus one, or 3). This can be seen in the chart attached below that indicates the point system used in calculating an accurate morning line.

Odds in a race generally range from 4-5 to 30-1. In a majority of competitive races, the morning line favorite is usually around 5-2. Horses that the public will most likely ignore are made longshots, in the range of 20-1 or 30-1. Middle-range horses, the type some fans will like and others won't usually fall in the 6-1 to 10-1 category.

Take a clean race and give it a go. It's a great exercise and is actually a lot of fun. Rarely will your line "balance" the first time through. If it adds up to say 112 points, you'll need to lower the odds on a few horses. If you come up with say 150 points, which often times will happen in competitive races with many viable contenders, you'll need to raise the odds on a few horses to zero in on accuracy.