Sports Nut

Will American Pharoah Win the Belmont? Don’t Bet on It.

Really. But do bet on every other horse to win.

American Pharoah.

Jorge Alvarez rides American Pharoah during training at Belmont Park on June 4, 2015 in Elmont, New York.

Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

This Saturday, American Pharoah will become the 13th horse since 1979 to attempt to win the Triple Crown. The list of Triple Crown contenders who have failed at the Belmont Stakes over the last 36 years is now longer than all those who ever succeeded.

Despite that losing streak, American Pharoah will be a heavy favorite—even money or less. If you’re a serious horseplayer, this Belmont offers a great chance to make some dough, thanks to the persistent tradition of the Triple Crown—a feat unachievable by the modern thoroughbred—and the peculiar 1½ mile distance, which none of these horses have run before, and most will never run again.

Here’s my wagering advice: Place a win bet on every horse except American Pharoah. On almost any other race, this would not be a profitable strategy. But if you had placed $2 on every horse running against a Triple Crown contender since 1979, you would have wagered $202 and collected $427.10—a 111 percent return on investment.

1979 Spectacular Bid 1-3 8 Coastal $10.00
1981 Pleasant Colony 4-5 11 Summing $17.00
1987 Alysheba 4-5 9 Bet Twice $18.00
1989 Sunday Silence 4-5 10 Easy Goer $5.20
1997 Silver Charm 1-1 7 Touch Gold $7.30
1998 Real Quiet 4-5 11 Victory Gallop $11.00
1999 Charismatic 8-5 12 Lemon Drop Kid $61.50
2002 War Emblem 6-5
11 Sarava $142.50
2003 Funny Cide 1-1 6 Empire Maker $6.00
2004 Smarty Jones 1-5 9 Birdstone $74.00
2008 Big Brown 1-4 9 Da’Tara $79.00
2014 California Chrome 4-5* 9 Tonalist $20.40

There’s a misconception among casual racing fans that the way to make money at the track is by picking the best horse and betting him to win. Parimutuel wagering, in which the amount of money bet on each horse determines the odds, is a competition between gamblers. So playing the horses is not about predicting the behavior of horses; it’s about predicting the behavior of your fellow horseplayers, then exploiting their mistakes.

(I know a professional horseplayer who bucks himself during losing streaks by walking through the grandstand—past the chain smokers, the chain drinkers, the old bachelors betting their Social Security checks, the women playing lucky numbers, the card players watching the horses in between hands of spades, the tapped-out loser wailing, “I’ve never had any luck, not once in 55 years!”— and asking himself, “I can’t beat these people?”)

There’s a horseplaying concept called “overlay” and “underlay,” similar to the Wall Street concept of undervalued and overvalued stock. An overlay is a horse whose betting odds are greater than its chances of winning. If you think a horse has a 50 percent chance of winning a race, but his betting odds are 2-1, he’s an overlay. If a horse is going off at even money, but has less than a 50 percent chance—as will be the case with American Pharoah—he’s an underlay. (I give American Pharoah a 25 percent chance to win, which would make him a fair bet at 3-1. His morning-line odds are 3-5.) Essentially, you’re trying to identify inefficiencies in the market.

The late Dick Mitchell, author of the indispensable book Commonsense Handicapping, wrote that “we’re not looking for good horses, we’re looking for good bets.” Mitchell was a Los Angeles computer salesman who regularly lost money at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Then he took a class at Los Angeles City College called “Probability Theory as Applied to Horse Race Handicapping.” There he learned that handicapping is not about identifying the horse most likely to win, it’s about determining each horse’s probability of winning and betting the overlays. With that knowledge, Mitchell quit his job and became a professional handicapper.

If you think you can make a betting line on this Belmont, go ahead. But the Belmont has become freakishly unhandicappable. Since 1999, the average payoff for a Belmont winner has been $37.40. (The average win-payoff at all New York tracks last year was $12.20.) Favorites win a little more than a third of all races, but only two favorites—Point Given and Afleet Alex—have won the Belmont in those 16 runnings. This is happening for the same reason no horse can win the Triple Crown.

From 1930 to 1978, 18 horses won both the Derby and the Preakness. Ten of those 18 went on to win the Belmont. But that was when horses were bred to run the classic distances: 1¼ mile in the United States and 1½ miles in Europe. Today’s horses are designed to win the six-furlong and one-mile races that make up the majority of racetrack cards. As the only 1½ mile race these 3-year-olds will ever run, the Belmont has become a last-horse-standing competition. The Triple Crown attempts of the 1980s and 1990s were ruined by low-priced horses: Easy Goer, Touch Gold, Victory Gallop. (I bet on Victory Gallop myself.) But consider some of the recent upsetters. Da’Tara, who spoiled Big Brown’s party at 38-1, had previously won a maiden race at Gulfstream Park. He never won again and is now living in Venezuela. Sarava, the longest shot in Belmont history when he beat War Emblem at 70-1, had won a minor 1 1/16 stakes on the Preakness undercard. He also never won another race. These were mediocre nags whose only qualification was that they hadn’t worn themselves out winning the Kentucky Derby and/or the Preakness.

Despite this, the Triple Crown mystique persists. Of the contenders since 1979, only Charismatic and War Emblem went off at higher than even money. Smarty Jones was 1-5. Big Brown was 1-4. The betting public has not absorbed the fact that the Triple Crown is now nearly impossible to win. (Some of that money comes from fans buying souvenir tickets.) We have a negative opinion of the favorite, so we know this is a betting opportunity, but we don’t have a positive opinion of any other horse, since the Belmont is so unpredictable. If American Pharoah were an undervalued stock, we could short-sell him. At the racetrack, the only practical way to do that is to bet the field, and hope for a long shot to cover your investment. Betting the field has been profitable in six of the past seven Belmonts, even when there was no overpriced Triple Crown hopeful to skew the odds.

So take $14 to your local racetrack or OTB, and tell the clerk, “two dollars to win on 1,2,3,4,6,7,and 8.” (American Pharoah is starting from the No. 5 post.) If you want to go for an even bigger payoff, spend $84 to box all the challengers in the exacta, an exotic bet requiring a gambler to pick the top two finishers. In Triple Crown attempts since 1987, when the exacta was introduced, that strategy would have cost $1,284 and returned $5,119—a 299 percent return. (Only four contenders have finished second: Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and Smarty Jones.) Either way, you’ll probably end up ahead.

*Correction, June 5, 2015: This article originally misstated California Chrome’s odds to win the Belmont Stakes in 2014. They were 4-5, not 4-9. (Return.)