Thoroughbred horse racing has many fine attributes, but one of the greatest is the fan’s chance to be a part of the game through handicapping. Of course most horseplayers have a strategy of some sort. Some conventionally calculating, others a gut-type feeling thing. Now that the calendar has turned to 2013, a part of every player’s resolution is to win more. So what is the best strategy when looking for a pony payoff? Here is a mostly true tale of one horseplayer’s predicament and how things worked out.

The date was November 23, 2012 and historic Churchill Downs was the place. The Clark Handicap is traditionally the biggest race of the fall meet beneath the Twin Spires and this year would be no different. One of the Thoroughbred racing’s real heroes was going to be showcased in this grade 1 event and excitement was in the air.

Shackleford is a spirited four-year old colt that had time and again thrilled his fans with gutsy runs. In 19 previous starts, this son of Forestry had enjoyed five trips to the winner’s circle, finished second five times, and third once. Included in those wins were a thrilling gate to wire run in the 2011 Preakness and a gutsy triumph in the 2012 Met Mile at Belmont. However, his attempt to bolt for the breeding shed off a big win went awry as he stumbled at the start of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile on November 3 at Santa Anita and finished a disappointing eighth. Realizing his runner deserved another chance, trainer Dale Romans pointed Shackleford toward the Clark with eyes on one more win.

The mile and an eighth Clark is one of the most historic races in Downs history as it was first run in 1875. The 138th edition promised to come up rather tough as Shackleford would be facing an accomplished ensemble of runners. Take Charge Indy was training well and had Calvin Borel in the irons, Mission Impazzible had finished second the year before and looked primed, Bourbon Courage had won the Super Derby, and Lunar Victory was trained by upset-minded Bill Mott. What would be the best way to determine the winning ticket?

So here is where the handicapping advice begins. In the humble opinion of this poor, old, part-time handicapper, there is not a single method to picking winners. I have always believed each trip to the track the formula can change. Figuring the philosophy that works on that particular day is the challenge. However, one thing that always has to factor in is the gut. It usually never lies and the Clark Handicap once again proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt.

As a big fan of Shackleford, the most important thing I had to do was not let my heart decide my ticket. Yes I had won a coin or two on this regal runner, but was this the time to continue riding him, or was it right to jump on another horse?

To try and make the decision, some serious digit crunching began. The numbers said he might be in over his head distance wise. A mile or less had seen a lot of success, but beyond that Shack was a fading, frontrunner. But in the 2011 Preakness he stayed the distance. Had his aggressive campaigns over the past two years taken too much out of him? And what about the peaking form of some of the other runners? Heart said a bookie attack with Shack, numbers said a pulmonary payoff is unlikely. What to do?

Perplexed with the preponderance, I reverted to yet another handicapping method. With the Clark just two races away, it was time to think like a horse. If I were Shackleford, what would be going through my mind right now? As a rather spirited Thoroughbred with perhaps a loose screw or two, he was someone I could relate to.  Think like Shack, then make a gut decision, that was the plan.

Sitting at our table on elegant Millionaire’s Row, scenarios raced through my mind like horses beneath the Twin Spires. As I thought like a Thoroughbred, a few things came to me. Will the other runners let me go to the lead and set the pace or will they press me? Is that little filly sitting at the table next to me admiring my hind quarters?  Can I still run this far and finally, why do I like peppermints?

In a serious effort to understand the thinking of one of the heroes of horse racing, I almost went into a state of near unconsciousness.  Suddenly a funny feeling came over me. Was this the onset of a pony premonition? Forehead started to sweat and a nervous feeling came over me. I was getting all worked up like Shack normally does in the paddock. Then a rumble was felt deep in the abdominal cavity. Uh-oh, my pony prognosticating duty was about to fall. After quick-stepping to the facilities faster than Shackleford’s opening furlong on Kentucky Derby day in 2011, it became all too clear. As I relaxed in my stall like a Thoroughbred after his morning workout, I determined the old wives tale was true. Yes, veteran trainer Carl Nafzger had told me all horses get nervous and drop a few steamers before the race, but I am not just any horse. I am the mighty Shackleford…or a facsimile there of. Besides, I was the only Clark entrant that was lightening the load in the fourth floor facilities.

After bolting to the betting window and playing heavily on Shackleford and then putting him over Take Charge Indy in an exacta, it was nearly post-time for the real horse. Perched on the track with camera in hand, I looked for signs my feelings would come to fruition. As Shack came onto the track, he began bucking with his normal spirit. Feisty and nervous, just like me, that was a great sign for this speculator. I didn’t see him dropping a deuce, but he didn’t have to, that had already been taken care of by yours truly. I had a feeling of confidence, much like Shackleford seemed to have as he headed for the starting gates.

When the gates opened, our hero boisterously bolted to the lead. Unpressed as he powerfully strode around this majestic oval, Shackleford was in complete control throughout. Fending off challenges as he headed down the home stretch, Dale Romans’ rowdy runner completed his final race in storybook fashion. In an emotionally charged moment both Shackleford and myself exulted in victory. And with Take Charge Indy finishing second, my “think like a horse” handicapping had worked to perfection. As happy as I was for the two winning tickets in my pocket, there was even more glee for the glory this courageous colt was now enjoying.

So after collecting at the window, I offered up a thanks to Shackleford for introducing me to an all-new horse-picking process. Will it ever work again?…If you here a whinny from the restroom stall, you’ll know what’s up.