BY his own admission a neurotic gambler who suffered from the jitters at the betting windows, Len Ragozin, founder of The Sheets, is nevertheless one of the most pioneering and influential handicappers (tipsters) in America, writes MARK VAN DEVENTER.
A maverick denizen of New York’s bohemian Greenwich Village, he built up a reputable turf advisory business, ran his own racing stable and partnered successfully with sharp bettor, Len Friedman to become a wealthy man through racing.
Ragozin (photo) is now a widely respected old sage but was initially seen as a controversial character who’d been stirring things up since the 1950’s due to his revolutionary theories about racing, left- leaning Marxist political views and support of anti- war protest groups opposed to the Vietnam conflict.
An assertive character, (some would say, arrogant,) Ragozin’s haughty demeanour could be off-putting to his detractors. Ultimately though, many of the important handicapping theories this Harvard grad with an I.Q. of 170 + stood for, have since been vindicated, particularly his insights into condition handicapping or pattern recognition.
Underpinning his research, are accurately crafted speed figures. Most racing jurisdictions base analysis on class and weight handicapping – South Africa being a case in point having copied methods that work well in Britain and Europe.
Like many American form experts, Ragozin preferred to use recorded race times as the crucial gauge of thoroughbred merit, juggling arcane calculations to measure the effort put forth by any horse at any circuit in America, after factoring in his proprietary track variants.
Attention to detail when gathering data was key in coming up with the right figures. Ragozin going so far as to use wind correction stats from airport weather bureau’s, timing each horse individually from the gate using video software and having private observers at each track noting the trips horses experienced, including exactly how wide they travelled around each bend.
Using Ragozin’s methodology, the lower the figure the better. Secretariat scored -1, Spectacular Bid -2 and Monarchos got 0 for their Kentucky Derby wins, whilst a hopelessly cheap claimer would score 30 +. “The figure is the ultimate distillation – it’s my E = MC², my Picasso sketch.” Ragozin crowed in a 1978 Sports Illustrated profile piece done by Jerry Kirshenbaum.
Ragozin would then graph these performance figures on Sheets and try decipher patterns as horses either improve, regress or stay at the same level. That was probably his biggest contribution to modern handicapping theory – an understanding that thoroughbred performances wax and wane according to the ever-shifting physical capacity of the horses themselves.
Some racehorses would decline after a stressful effort if not given sufficient chance to recover – he termed that “the bounce.” So- called “alternators” combine good and bad figs one after the other whilst “cyclers” would go through extended spells of peaking to a “top,” or declining form.
He paid less heed to what he saw as secondary factors such as distance suitability, track specifics and changing states of going, nor did he get hung up on imprecise judgements about the supposed class of racehorses or their pedigrees. For him it was all about the speed figures, interpreting patterns in the past performances and making a prediction how they would run today.
In an intriguing twist, Ragozin would compare a horse against itself, rather than against other horses. Most punters, consciously or otherwise, tend to rank horses against one another, looking for the best handicapped, highest ability rated or fastest horse in the race. Ragozin’s breakthrough thesis was to predict and recognise radical changes in what a horse might do today, rather than simply averaging up old performances and expecting history to repeat itself.
This might lead him to a seemingly slower but healthier horse in sparkling condition ready to produce a career best, (overlooked by the majority of punters,) and offering exceptional value.
In his excellent autobiographical book, Odds must be Crazy,” Ragozin lays out three criteria which determine the horse to bet upon:
-The horse has numbers which make him a contender (sometimes for younger horses by projecting improvement)
-The shape of the horse’s form leads us to believe he is ready to run one of his better races.
-The price must be good enough relative to the horses’ chances so that you are offered decent value.”
This is eminently sensible counsel. Unfortunately, Ragozin struggled to apply his own advice. Yet, when he hitched up with legal brain, Len Friedman to take care of the betting side, the two Lenny’s raked in munificent profits in partnership. Friedman has been betting about USD 2-mil per year over four decades and is a disciplined horseplayer able to cope with fluctuating fortunes at the track.
Friedman also has a clever exotic betting strategy which has helped him land some heavy hits using the trifecta as his preferred betting type. With Ragozin’s speed figures as a basic tool, he then looks for a lively outsider with close-to-competitive scores that is cranked up to run an improved figure.
By distinguishing those that have a legitimate shot based on an esoteric reading of their form patterns from long priced entries with no hope, Friedman finds big priced roving bankers that routinely outrun their odds. He surrounds his fancy with all the main contenders and takes the bet multiple times. It’s a wise contrarian approach that has served him exceedingly well over the years.
Ragozin and Friedman have been an enduring and highly successful horse-playing duo. Their skills are complementary, with a handicapping approach founded on soundly researched principles, though the pattern recognition component requires expertise and imagination to apply. They acknowledge that for every strike that connects, there are three times as many examples of miscues. That’s why a method that deals in probabilities and emphasizes getting good value is essential to the long- term profitability of their play.
They may now both be seen as quirky, ancient gurus by modern standards. Computer syndicates run sophisticated software programs which quickly calculate fair odds for any race and can batch and transmit optimally structured exotic bets in seconds.
But the hand-crafted speed figures that Ragozin generated working through the night in his cluttered New York office, and the imaginative exotic betting strategies that Friedman employed showed how intellectually and financially rewarding solving the brain game puzzle of horse racing can be.