Tuley's Take on setting a morning line

Over the 20-plus years I’ve been writing about sports betting, I’ve often been asked: “How do you keep coming up with topics to write about?” My stock answer has always been: “It’s pretty easy, as the calendar usually dictates everything. The year starts with the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl, then we get ready for March Madness, followed by the start of baseball season, then the NHL and NBA playoffs, the Masters in early April, Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May, then things slow down a little in the summer after the NHL and NBA playoffs end, but then we get ready for football and it all starts over again.”
We’re still in shock in the Tuley’s Takes home office over how much we took for granted has been turned upside down. Except in rare cases of player strikes or owner lockouts, we never had to concern ourselves with when the seasons would actually start. But now that seems like the first thing we talk about during this coronavirus pandemic.
Fortunately, we’ve had horse racing during this hiatus. We had more success last week in our extra “Tuley’s Thoroughbred Takes” picks columns on VSiN.com and while playing in some National Handicapping Championship qualifying events.
Last week I gave my “Take on takeout” and how to overcome the track rake by finding overlays on the tote board. A couple of readers asked how to make a morning line to compare with the available odds. (I guess I don’t rely just on the calendar to supply story ideas!)
Take on your own morning line
As discussed two weeks ago, horse racing wagering is conducted under the parimutuel system in which the track collects all the wagers, then pays the winners after taking its cut. Unlike sports betting, the tracks (or the books down the line) don’t really care which horses win or lose, as tracks win the same amount regardless.
We also discussed how the morning line is set by the linemaker at the track and how it should be taken with a grain of salt, as it’s just one man’s opinion. However, it should be used for what it is — a starting point when handicapping a race. This is hopefully done the night before or the morning of a race instead of when they’re in the post parade and you’re betting at the last minute. It’s not the best time to do a comprehensive job of handicapping the field.
The morning line is one of those things many people take for granted. It’s just something that was there, whether it’s on a weekday card at some minor track or on the biggest stage at the Kentucky Derby.
Just like in sports betting, you can learn a lot and make more objective decisions by actually setting your own line — in this case, a morning line to compare the horses in the field with each other and then ultimately to the odds on the tote board.
But how is a morning line made? Well, in my previous life with the Daily Racing Form, I met morning-line makers at tracks around the country, and our staff handicappers created their own morning lines. Everyone I remember talking to pretty much learned the same way: They assign odds to the horses based on how they expect the betting public to wager. This is not necessarily their own opinions of who will win, though that’s obviously part of trying to predict what the public is thinking. Then they convert those odds into percentage “points” and add those up. Now, if there was no takeout, the percentage points would add up to 100. But since the takeout in win pools is between 15 and 20%, depending on the state racing commission, the points should add up to about 120.
 Converting odds 
to percentage points
1/9                90.00
1/5                83.33
2/5                71.42
1/2                66.67
3/5                62.50
4/5                55.56
1/1                50.00
6/5                45.45
7/5                41.67
3/2                40.00
8/5                38.46
9/5                35.71
2/1                33.33
5/2                28.57
3/1                25.00
7/2                22.22
4/1                20.00
9/2                18.19
5/1                16.67
6/1                14.29
8/1                11.11
10/1              9.09
12/1              7.69
15/1              6.25
20/1              4.76
30/1              3.23
40/1              2.44
50/1              1.96
99/1              1.00
Now, how do you come up with the odds? That’s trickier, as there are a ton of things to consider:
— The speed of the runners.
— The class of competition they’ve faced (are they moving up or down in class?).
— How they’ve run at today’s distance, at this track or elsewhere.
— How each runner fits into the pace scenario. 
You also need to consider a horse’s current form and whether it has “back class,” facing better competition in the past and facing easier foes today. And the list goes on.
I didn’t mention the jockey and trainer. Those are definitely important. However, I would implore you to try to ignore those when doing your original handicapping so you can objectively compare the horses. They’re the ones actually racing. I think most handicappers overvalue and overbet the top jockeys and trainers, so this is where you can find the overlays, as other horses are overlooked. Upgrade for the human element when you really think it improves a horse’s chances — such as a trainer who works magic with turf runners, or a jockey who knows how to rate and get the most out of a horse in the stretch — and not just because it’s your favorite jockey or the hot jock everyone else is betting.
Before assigning the odds, I like to rank the field in order based on all the handicapping factors mentioned previously. You could take a shortcut and list the horses in the order of the track’s morning line, then adjust from there. But for this exercise, let’s start from scratch.
We’ll call this the Coronavirus Handicap (odds, with percentage points in parentheses). We rank the horses in order and then assign what we believe would be true value (or fair) odds in relation to the others:
Heroic Healthcare Workers 7/5 (41.67)
Stimulus Package                9/2 (18.19)
Celebrity Donations            6/1 (14.29)
Hand Washing                    10/1 (9.09)
Contactless Delivery            15/1 (6.25)
Social Distancing                15/1 (6.25)
Masked Shoppers                20/1 (4.76)
Toilet Paper Shortage          20/1 (4.76)
That adds up to only 105.26, so that pretty much means I didn’t factor in enough takeout or might have been pricing horses too high (possibly wishful thinking). Let me repeat something from last week:
The key to all this is to be honest and objective in predicting a horse’s true odds and recognizing actual value. You’re only cheating yourself if you try to convince yourself that an 8/1 shot has a 50/50 chance to win or should be 2/1 or so. The better you are at determining the true odds of the horses, the better you’ll be able to overcome the takeout.
The more you do this, the better you’ll be at intuitively setting a morning line that is close to the takeout. But, in this example, we would need to tweak the number a little to get a better estimate of what we think the horse’s true odds should be. This is also a good second chance to adjust the horses’ chances. So I would lower Heroic Healthcare Workers from 7/5 to 6/5, lower Stimulus Package from 9/2 to 3/1, lower Celebrity Donations from 6/1 to 5/1, lower Hand Washing from 10/1 to 8/1, lower Contactless Delivery from 15/1 to 12/1 and raise Toilet Paper Shortage from 20/1 to 30/1. This is what we come up with, and the points add up to 120.16.
Heroic Healthcare Workers 6/5 (45.45)
Stimulus Package                3/1 (25.00)
Celebrity Donations            5/1 (16.67)
Hand Washing                    8/1 (11.11)
Contactless Delivery            12/1 (7.69)
Social Distancing                15/1 (6.25)
Masked Shoppers                20/1 (4.76)
Toilet Paper Shortage          30/1 (3.23)
That’s how it’s done. And now we would be ready to compare our odds with whatever happens on the tote board. As I wrote before, I’m usually looking for overlays in the longer prices in the field, especially when the betting public ignores a horse and its odds drift higher. In this mythical case, I think Contactless Delivery is going to be more popular, but if offered a higher price, I’d take it. Likewise, even though I don’t bet chalk, there could be value on Heroic Healthcare Workers if not given the credit it deserves.
Good luck making your own lines, and check out my “Tuley’s Thoroughbred Takes (April 8-12)” column on VSiN.com this week as we try to put all this into practice. Check back each morning as we update it through the weekend.
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