Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Unlearning Horse Handicapping

After 37 years, I finally figured out handicapping wasn't working.

Sure, once in a while you figure it out, but you can drown in data for hours and still come to the wrong conclusions. Proper handicapping takes time so we look for shortcuts, patterns, perhaps a favorite jockey. Many bettors turn to handicapping software to help them filter through mountains of data and yet they still lose just as much money at the track as their Grandpas if not even more.

Handicapping used to work, especially if you could calculate Beyer's numbers before Beyer published them. Now it seems a race can be dissected, categorized and simulated (thousands of times) until the tote board odds reflect cold, calculated reality.

Depending upon your method of handicapping, you might find some odds you consider overlays but these are invariably beaten by some ex-claimer averaging an 89 Beyer in his last three starts. There seems to be no point in assessing the past performances of the horses as these are so well understood by the general public that the tote board can be accurately predicted – hence the morning line.

The tote board itself is quite the uncanny creation, often being cited by economists as the ultimate example of a free market. You are free to bet as much money as you like on any horse you like. This is similar to choosing a product or service, so naturally the government has funded statistical studies based on parimutuel wagering on a variety of sports. Inquiring minds want to know...

Anyway, it is Einstein who was supposed to have said,”The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” After 37 years of handicapping, I am (still) broke. Some people might say my problem is betting horses to begin with and I have no argument.

Addiction aside, the fact remains that no matter how much sense the tote board makes, it isn't real. An odds on favorite may not really have an odds on chance. That 13-1 shot might really be only 8-1, who knows? There is quite a bit of money waiting if you can cash $28 for every $18 bet.

The infield tote for the most part reflects the past performance of each horse in the race. Although some consideration is given to the human beings directing the animal to race, I believe most of the money is looking at the recent races of each horse. It is called a horse race, isn't it?

Well, that horse race is caught up in this rat race. The people behind the horses have to make money to compete in a difficult business made worse by a dying economy. I am not implying that anyone is cheating, although I know some folks have been caught in the past. My point is that human beings make all of the decisions for these creatures we handicap, so unless the horse is a freak like Zenyatta, you might argue that the horse is least responsible for its own record.

Is it astonishing to see the same names leading the jockey and trainer standings year after year? Are you surprised when you find out the owner of your favorite horse also owns a car dealership, a record company or an investment bank? Of those three, whose horse would win a race?

Years ago, I rented a video from my local Blockbuster store that purported to be a college level course on thoroughbred handicapping. It was only two hours long, so it must have been the condensed version, but it was interesting, nevertheless. The instructor was Professor Alan Ball, professor of what, I don't know. It was really very introductory and I only took away one tidbit that stuck. Professor Ball gave his top ten list of most important handicapping factors and he listed “Connections” twice. The people behind the horses were so important to him that he insisted on listing them twice!

Since I was so much smarter than him, I figured that was a cute angle and then dove right back into writing my programming masterpiece: Nag-O-Calc. Yes, there are people, I thought, but they're factored into the tote like everything else. After all these years, I wonder if the Professor had a point?

Maybe I was right, maybe everything is factored in. Maybe all the economists and scientists are right to proclaim there is no way to beat a perfect market. Maybe the “take” is too high (anyone can reduce their losses to 10% just by betting favorites, but tracks bank on vigorish of 20% and up.)

Ultimately, I am an addictive personality (or so say my few friends.) I just poured a tall drink of cheap whiskey and am considering heading outside for another puff of Smokin' Joes (Injun Joe?) I can no more quit horses than stop breathing. The racetrack is already part of me.

I think our only hope out of the mess we're in is our noggins – we have to use them effectively. If something has been proven not to work, after 37 years it is time to move on.

No longer to handicap horses, I handicap connections. I haven't figured out how to do this yet, but I am seeing encouraging results. It really does appear that the people with the money to do things the right way win a lot of races. You find these people by simply watching who is winning races...

Anyway, it's good to have my name back. As soon as I get my life back I'll be posting here more.


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