by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

“Weight is going to get you beaten once in a while, but a man who doesn’t expect to take a beating shouldn’t be in horse racing to begin with.” - Max Hirsch, legendary thoroughbred trainer

We at TGS have long been fascinated by the parallels between horse racing and football and their related wagering components. Participants in both endeavors, as Max Hirsch reminded long ago, should be prepared for the consequences. Unlike football, however, where the great “equalizer” (the pointspread) is, in fact, illusory, there is a physical application of the “equalizer” concept in the handicap division of thoroughbred racing. Meaning, of course, the various weights assigned as a way of minimizing the differences between the horses, thus helping to create a viable wagering enterprise.

But even the sharpest horse racing minds have long admitted that assigning weight is not an exact science. The late Jimmy Kilroe, a famed racing secretary from New York as well as the West Coast, once explained the mechanics to Sports Illustrated. “There is no positive rule to assigning weights,” said Kilroe. “In general you can figure a length at a mile is equal to about 2 or 3 pounds; at distances under a mile it is about 4 pounds to a length, at a mile-and-a-quarter about 2 pounds to a length. But there are other factors to consider, such as current form, one horse’s preference for a certain kind of track, and, in looking over past performances, the appreciation of how various horses were going at the finish.”

In later years, when working for Santa Anita, Kilroe was asked what would be the perfectly-weighted handicap race. “A dead heat involving all of the horses,” deadpanned Kilroe, not afraid to acknowledge, as would Tommy Trotter and other famous racing secretaries of note, the inexactness, and the amount of subjectiveness, in the exercise.

The parallel to Kilroe’s tongue-in-cheek comment about an all-horse dead heat in a handicap race would be for every football game to land on the listed pointspread, odds of which being far greater than Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann ever becoming chums.

There has always been a translation of that “handicap” process from horse racing to other sports that we believe much of the sporting public fails to grasp. Sports oddsmaking, much like Kilroe’s duties as racing secretary, is also an inexact and subjective exercise. And whereas Kilroe and his colleagues were trying to make their races as competitive as possible with the different assigned weights, the main duty of the sports oddsmakers and their pointspreads is to split the wagering action on the game as best as possible...not to act as gospel by predicting the actual result of the contest.

Distinctions, therefore, need to be made. Pointspreads are indeed the ultimate arbiter of the wagering results, but throughout the decades we are convinced their role in the football handicapping process has often been distorted...often to the detriment of the sports bettor.

Pointspreads, remember, are merely a guide for the punter, but an equally-important concept in football wagering remains the on-field performance of each team. More specifically, how is the team performing against the posted spreads on its games? Is a team overachieving, or underachieving, against the number? If so, by how much is it overachieving or underachieving against the line? Often the best ways to seek those answers are by merely reviewing a team’s pointspread results chart, and measuring how far away from the posted spreads their final scores are landing. Oddsmakers will eventually adjust to changes in on-field form, although the betting public, often distorted by perceptions, often dictates that they react more slowly to successes and failures related solely to pointspread results. We try to provide those sorts of clues each week in our sister publication, THE GOLD SHEET EXTRA!!! , in the Systems Spotlight feature, where we list weekly updates of the pointspread streaks (both winning and losing) and running “Away From Spread (AFS)” numbers to chart the teams performing the most above, and the most below, posted numbers their games.

Football handicapping is a process that involves several steps, although we have always believed the actual wager on the game should come as a separate act of the exercise. Too often we have heard handicappers and bettors take “pointspread shopping” to extremes and use it as the only guide in their selection exercise.

We don’t mean to minimize pointspread shopping; indeed, once you decide upon which games you prefer, by all means shop for the best available price, just as you would for a car, appliance, or any other purchase. But throughout the decades, we have never let a half-point decide whether we would wager on a game, or not. We’re convinced that more handicappers have cost themselves wins by “over-shopping” a price on a game, thus not playing it at all, than actually benefiting from a half-point, or even a point, on the line. We’ve yet to see a contest where the difference between a half-point and a point would keep us from wagering altogether on a side we strongly prefer (although we might adjust the amount bet).

Some distinctions, however, should always be made for the “key” numbers, but then again, we believe this concept is often exaggerated within the industry. Which numbers are “key” and which aren’t? With that in mind, we provide the following list of margins of victory in the 758 college football regular-season games in 2010.

1-point margin-33; 2 pts.-18; 3 pts.-59; 4 pts.-23; 5 pts.-25; 6 pts.-23; 7 pts.-49; 8 pts.-18; 9 pts.-6; 10 pts.-21; 11 pts.-16; 12 pts.-10; 13 pts.-13; 14 pts.-44; 15 pts.-11; 16 pts.-4; 17 pts.-25; 18 pts.-17; 19 pts.-8; 20 pts.-20; 21 pts.-30; 22 pts.-18; 23 pts.-9; 24 pts.-24; 25 pts.-12; 26 pts.-8; 27 pts.-16; 28 pts.-17; 29 pts.-5; 30 pts.-9; 31 pts.-15; 32 pts.-3; 33 pts.-7, 34 pts.-13;35 pts.-22; 36 pts.-4; 37 pts.-8; 38 pts.-13; 39 pts.-7; 40 pts.-3; 41 pts.-9; 42 pts.-7; 43 pts.-3; 44 pts.-4; 45 pts.-10; 46 pts.-6; 47 pts.-4; 48 pts.-7; 49 pts.-4; 50 pts.-1; 51 pts.-2; 52 pts.-2; 53 pts.-4; 55 pts.-1; 59 pts.-4; 63 pts.-1; 67 pts.-1; 68 pts.-1; 69 pts.-1; 72 pts.-1.

As could be expected, the multiples of 3 and 7 were the most frequent margins of victory (with 3 and 7 rating on top, as usual, in 2010). Even so, 3-point margins accounted for only 7.8% of all results last season, 7-point results at 6.5%. And those percentages decrease in games where the posted spreads actually hover around 3 or 7. We could have added in several more seasons to the calculations, but any measure of time would closely reflect results similar to those from 2010.

Bottom line? Of course, take 3½ instead of 3, or 7½ instead of 7, whenever possible; conversely, lay 2½ instead of 3, or 6½ instead of 7, if you can. But those rules apply to almost any posted spread. Shop for value, but don’t let that half-point keep you off of a well-researched selection...even on “key” numbers.

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