Looking for a winner in the Preakness? Bet on the horse whose ears are pricked forward, pointing up.
If they all have upright ears, go with the one that has most reliably taken the early lead in prior races. Or forget the horses and treat the betting like a corporate raider does the stock market: seek out and exploit the undervalued.
The art and science of handicapping - predicting a winner in a horse race - has evolved from hit-or-miss bets based on lucky numbers to a sophisticated system of money management. With its own statistics-packed daily newspaper, super-accurate stop watches and the Dosage Index of performance and pedigree, horse racing rivals baseball for its fascination with numbers.
Statisticians say that, over the long run, the average bettor must lose. But don't tell that to the creators of the innumerable systems, studies and techniques who say it is possible to win if you're willing to work at it. They've created a cottage industry out of handicapping races, using everything from actuarial tables to the alignment of planets.
"The old myth that you don't win at the races is not true," said James Quinn, author of eight books on handicapping, including "The Best of Thoroughbred Handicapping," a review of leading betting techniques, and "Figure Handicapping," to come out this fall.
The public tends to pick the winner one-third of the time, but the average odds are about 1.6-to-1 - not enough to pay for the money wagered, he said. But, with effort, those numbers can be improved, said Quinn, a psychologist and member of the Turf Club at Santa Anita racetrack.
For example, if you pick the winner 35 percent of the time and the odds average 5-2, you'll earn 22.5 cents for every dollar bet.
"Those are very attainable odds," he said.
Among the systems he has reviewed:
A study and book by Bonnie Ledbetter on equine body language. Using physical profiles, she tells how to fit a horse into one of six categories: dull, ready, frightened, sharp, hurting and angry. Sharp is the best bet, denoting an animal that might be sweating, but is also alert, with ears pointed up or forward, but never flattened or pinned back.
William Quirin's landmark 1979 computer study, which proved, among other things, that horses taking the lead early in races tend to win more often. Quirin, an Adelphi University mathematician, recommends avoiding favorites - because they rarely pay much - and horses that have not raced for 30 days. He also has shown that favorites that lost their previous races tend to do well.
William Ziemba, alias Dr. Z, a professor of management science at the University of British Columbia, who preaches the Z-system of market inefficiency. It is based on the theory that the public tends to be good at picking winners, but often ignores place and show bets (for second and third place, respectively). With proper calculations, bettors can compare the win bets with place and show and come up with under-bet" horses that will pay well.
"In general, big stakes races like the Preakness or Breeders' Cup tend to be difficult to handicap," Quinn said. "They tend to have a real champion that will be over-bet."
One simple technique is to take the morning line ' the odds designated by the track's handicapper - and use it as a guide. If bettors drive the odds on the top one or two favorites to 3-1 or better, forget them. Drop the long shots also. Look for five or six horses in the middle that have a shot at winning and yet would offer attractive returns, he said.
Pick a few of those horses and bet them to win; don't spread your money around too widely.
Stay away from the tip sheets sold at the track, because they make picks on every race - something an experienced handicapper avoids, he said.
Also keep in mind this warning from Daniel Q. Naiman, who teaches probability at Johns Hopkins University: The essence of pari-mutuel betting is that most people must lose most of the time.