‘There's Always Fresh’ ... Q&A with California ‘Capper Frank Scatoni

Sure shot ... With his home track of Del Mar always in the background, California public handicapper Frank Scatoni is at-the-ready with a Pick 4. He joins J.N. Campbell for a rousing discussion ... have a read!
Sure shot ... With his home track of Del Mar always in the background, California public handicapper Frank Scatoni is at-the-ready with a Pick 4. He joins J.N. Campbell for a rousing discussion ... have a read!

For the past number of years, one of my favorite public handicappers is Frank Scatoni. A fixture at both Santa Anita and Del Mar, his Late Pick 4 column is a go-to for many that love a good horizontal wager. Over the years, I have found his analysis and rating system (A, B, C, X) to be quite helpful when it comes to assessing talent. He calibrates his handicapping to be accessible to a variety of bettors, from experienced to the novice player.

I happened to run into him at his home track, Del Mar, during the Breeders’ Cup, and I immediately knew I wanted to get him signed on for a Q&A. The former editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine, Scatoni brings a wealth of experience, plus a savvy prose to each and every sequence that he pens. You can catch both his Santa Anita Late Pick 4 and the Golden Hour Pick 4 analysis here, santaanita.com/author/frankscatoni/ or you can follow him on Twitter @ScatoniSureShot, if you haven’t already!

Here is what he had to say when we got together for a chat about his background, turfwriters he admires, his style when it comes to playing, and much more … Don't forget that you can catch us on Twitter anytime ... @Horseracing_USA ...


J.N. Campbell: Frank, you have been in the business of handicapping and horseplaying for some time now. Let’s begin by telling our readers a bit about what attracted you to the sport, and what you love about it?

Frank Scatoni: I was first drawn to the sport because of the intellectual challenge of handicapping—and then, of course, the monetary aspect of it and the fact that you can win money just by being right. Of course, it’ s a lot harder to be right than one might think. But that’s the beauty of pari-mutuel wagering. You don’t have to be right too often, but when you are, you need to make it count. Also, I’d be remiss not to mention that the horses are, obviously, the number-one reason I got hooked on the sport. I was born in Brooklyn and lived in New York City, so the first time I went to Belmont Park, I was completely blown away. First off, it’s just a massive, gorgeous oasis—and for someone who was used to the concrete jungle of New York, it had such a positive impact on me. Throw in the fact that there are living, breathing, majestic horses competing against each other while doing what they were born to do, and I became an immediate fan.                                               

J.N. Campbell: Who were some of your influences when it comes to handicapping or turfwriting? What was it that you admired so much about their craft?

Frank Scatoni: I’m of the generation that learned so much from the greats like Steve Crist, Andy Beyer, and Steve Davidowitz. I read all their books, and I just had so much respect for these guys who could be so successful at the windows and also articulate their thoughts and approaches in such an entertaining and informative way. I was also fortunate to work on a book with my buddy Peter Thomas Fornatale called Six Secrets of Successful Bettors, where we interviewed horseplayers and gamblers from other areas (e.g., sports, poker, blackjack, etc.) and tried to discern what it is that makes them a winning player. I learned so much while working on that book.

As for turf writing, my all-time favorite was William Murray, who wrote for The New Yorker and was the author of a series of great race-track mysteries featuring a magician-cum-horseplayer named “Shifty” Lou Anderson. Murray did such an incredible job re-creating the sights and sounds of the track, along with all the crazy characters that inhabit our world. He also wrote a terrific group of essays for his book The Wrong Horse, which is a must-read for any racing fan.

I’ll throw out one more book for you that I had the pleasure of working on—and one of which I’m really proud: Finished Lines: A Collection of Memorable Writers on Thoroughbred Racing. It’s an anthology, featuring a wide array of authors writing about horse racing: from legends like William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway to brilliant contemporaries like Laura Hillenbrand and Jay Hovdey. There are also some really neat hidden gems in there that I think any racing fan would enjoy.

J.N. Campbell: Being a public handicapper is a complicated profession. What are the parameters that are most difficult, beyond just picking winners?

Frank Scatoni: Well, I always say that being a public handicapper is a thankless job. If you’re wrong, people will call you an idiot. If you’re right, people will say, “Any idiot could’ve had that horse!” Either way, you’re an idiot! Obviously, I’m joking here, because there are always some really appreciative folks I’ve met at the track or on Twitter who will say, “Hey, Frank, thanks for putting me on that horse. I never would have had him.” And that makes me really happy, because I like seeing people win and succeed.

As for what’s the most difficult part of the gig? I’d say it’s the constant search for value, especially in this day and age of shrinking field sizes, computer wagering, big rebate players, and, of course, almost insurmountable takeout. I regularly find that horses I could have sniffed out at 10/1 five years ago are now going off at 4/1 or even less. The markets are just too efficient these days, so you just have to be that much better at what you do because it’s getting harder and harder to find value. To me, that’s the biggest challenge because I hate giving out chalk. I will, if I think that horse is going to win and deserves to be a short price, but my first inclination always is: how am I going to beat this chalk?

J.N. Campbell: Let’s talk about hard and fast rules that you regularly apply … never bet a 1st time starter that is drawn inside … going down the Hillside course @SA, look for those that have experience or are cutting back in distance … etc. Maybe give us some examples that we might not expect …

Frank Scatoni: You know, I don’t really have any hard and fast rules because every race is different—but there are angles that I might lean on more or use to bet against a horse. That said, I did have two “automatic bets.” I don’t do this one so much anymore, because he’s no longer based in California, but Tom Proctor was so good when he stretched out a second-time starter to a mile on turf. That sprint-to-route move for him was gold. And anytime one of his horses showed up like that, I would bet, no matter what. The other “automatic bet” is: Mark Glatt sprinters coming off a layoff (with Prat or Hernandez or sometimes Cedillo riding). I’ve had a lot of success with that comeback angle over the years. It’s not as good as it used to be because he has a lot more horses now, but for a few years, that angle was a good one for me.

As for negatives, yeah, there are old-school angles that can still be used to downgrade a horse, especially if the horse is going to be the chalk (like 2-year-old fillies breaking from the rail; an over bet favorite breaking from the rail going 7-furlongs; an over bet horse doing a few new things for the first time, etc.), but as I said: every race and every horse is different, so you need to assess things on a case-by-case basis—especially since what might have worked for you a few months ago won’t work forever, since trends have a funny way of getting over-exposed.

J.N. Campbell: Are there periods when you just feel like you can’t miss? When things are rocky, what kind of adjustments do you make when it comes to your approach?

Frank Scatoni: For sure … There are just some days when you look at the Form and nice-priced horses just leap out at you. I find that happens a lot more to me at Del Mar because I’m there every day, and I’m in a certain groove and routine, and the racing is so competitive with big, full fields that you can usually find really live horses at good prices. But there are also some days when you’re just plain wrong. As you know, I do a Pick 4 column for the Santa Anita website, and there are some days when all my “A’s” will just run big; but there are other days when I’ll have three “X” horses win. There’s no rhyme or reason for it except that you’re going to be wrong a lot more than you’re right—especially when it comes to multi-race wagers where you have to be right four or five times in a row; that’s not an easy thing to do. So, you have to be pretty resilient and just trust that things are going to turn around.

If I’m in a bit of a slump, I actually like to look at other tracks and handicap a few races where I don’t know the circuit and who the main players are. I feel like that helps re-hone and re-sharpen my fundamentals. In fact, one of the reasons why I really love writing about the Golden Hour Pick 4 for the Santa Anita website is that it allows me to look at two races from Golden Gate, a track I never used to play. I love those Golden Gate races because they are usually really competitive, and handicapping them allows me to heavily rely on my fundamentals as opposed to bringing any kind of bias to the table, which happens if you follow one circuit very closely (like I do with SoCal racing).

Another thing that really helps me avoid long losing streaks is the handicapping platform OptixEQ. I use that religiously as part of my handicapping process, and I find that if I’m not seeing the ball with my own two eyes, there’s a pretty good chance that the information in Optix is going to get me back on track pretty quickly. So, I feel like I have a few tools in my toolbox to help avoid a slump in the first place.

J.N. Campbell: Ok Frank, so let’s do some quick hits and touch on a myriad of topics … if you please … here we go …

Frank Scatoni: I am ready!

J.N. Campbell: Favorite racehorse of all-time, and why …

Frank Scatoni: It’s funny, because my Twitter and Facebook handles are “Point Given,” who is one of my favorite horses. But I have to say that my favorite horse of all-time is—bar none—Zenyatta. For her to accomplish what she did with that deep-closing running style was just truly remarkable to me. Plus, she was such a performer. She knew exactly what she was doing, and she knew how to put on a good show—from her balletic prancing and dancing in the paddock to her incredible burst of power on the race track. She was a diva. And she was an absolute pleasure to watch.

J.N. Campbell: Best score most proud of …

Frank Scatoni: Two friends and I hit a Pick 4 that paid $37K at Del Mar back in the $1 minimum days when you could still have a score like that. We had to sweat out an inquiry in the last race. It felt like an eternity waiting for them to post the results, but when they left our number up, we were very happy. I’m proud of that one because it was a true team effort. Each one of us gave a horse that the other two wouldn’t have had on their own tickets, so that was just a lot of fun because we all had a clever horse in a different race to add to the mix—and those horses ended up winning. We all liked the same horse in the nightcap, so it would have been especially painful to lose via DQ after all of our individual clever horses had won!

J.N. Campbell: The pick that got away … “If only I had” …

Frank Scatoni: I feel like every horseplayer has a thousand of these stories, so I’ll just say this: if you are telling yourself that after the race, you need to stop! Never put yourself in a position where you should have done something. Just do it! Don’t leave off a horse to save a few bucks. Don’t lessen your bet because something or someone made you second guess it.

J.N. Campbell: Best aphorism or adage you ever heard from a horseplayer …

Frank Scatoni: There can only be one answer to this, the true horseplayer’s mantra: “On to the next one!” Or as William Murray used to say after a losing day, “Well, there’s always fresh!” Meaning, you can’t change the past; turn the page and move on to the next race! My good friend Casey Irgens will appreciate this answer because “On to the next one” is etched on his father’s headstone.

J.N. Campbell: Trap question … Santa Anita or Del Mar? Favorite place to watch a race is …

Frank Scatoni: Both! Santa Anita is my favorite track aesthetically. It is just a beautiful, classy facility, and the vista with the mountains as the backdrop is breathtaking. I call Santa Anita “God’s Racetrack,” because it is such an awesome, inspiring place.

Del Mar is my favorite track to hang out at. It’s my home track; all my friends are there every day; it has such a great summer vibe. There really is nothing better than mornings at the beach and afternoons at Del Mar. And then all the bars and restaurants after the races that just add to the chill summer experience.

J.N. Campbell: Another trap question … Ever yelled at a jockey for a ride? Which one?

Frank Scatoni: Hahaha. I’m smiling at this one. Oh, I’ve cursed a lot of jockeys in my own mind—but I would never yell at a jockey in real life. These guys and gals risk their lives every time they get on the back of a horse, so I can never take out my frustration on them. I have too much respect for what they do. You know, they’re human, and they’re going to make mistakes. It happens. So, while I would never yell at a jock for a ride, I feel like it’s my duty as a public handicapper to be critical of a ride—especially if you can use that info going forward when you’re handicapping a later race.

J.N. Campbell: Which are more helpful clocker reports or trainer’s quotes?

Frank Scatoni: Clocker reports by a mile. There’s this old joke about trainers: How do you know when a trainer is lying? His lips are moving! I jest, of course. Trainers are put in a tough spot. You don’t want to overhype your horse for many reasons because nothing good can come of that. If the horse loses, you’ve got a lot of explaining to do. If the horse wins and you’ve been blabbing about it, he might not be a good price. So, I don’t put too much stock into what a trainer says unless it has to do with the campaigning of a horse. I like it when a trainer has a plan and a specific target for a horse. To me, that’s useful information. As for clocker reports, I find they can be very valuable, but so do a lot of other people—and here in Southern California, that’s often reflected in the horse’s price, since there are some really good clockers out here, like Andy Harrington.

J.N. Campbell: What is the stat on the form most overlooked by ‘cappers?

Frank Scatoni: The final quarter-mile in a turf race. Big field, honest pace: you’ll win a lot of races just by taking the horse with the most consistently fast final splits.

J.N. Campbell: What a pleasure to have the chance to talk with you today, Frank! Thanks for the chat, and I know folks will glean some gems from these responses. Appreciate it!

Frank Scatoni: My pleasure … I had fun answering your questions!