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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Left at the Gate

- Dick Powell at Brisnet the other day touched on a subject that I’ve often wondered about – how much handicapping information is too much? This year, I added the Racing Form’s incredible Formulator 4.0 product to the arsenal. Am I blessed or burdened by the endless wealth of information, including and certainly not limited to access to each horses’ last three race charts and past performance lines of each of the opponents in those races it provides? You can see all the details of it here if you’d like, but let’s just say that it’s comprehensive. If they develop a Formulator 5.0, it will probably give you a live shot of each horse in its stall and a chance to ask him or her “How ya doing?”

Powell writes of a study conducted by, believe it or not, the CIA in 1979 (not declassified until 1999), in which they used 8 handicappers to consider the question of exactly how much information is needed to make an accurate judgment?

The handicappers were first asked to rank the importance of 88 handicapping factors (weight, distance, rider, etc...).

They were then given the five most important factors to use and handicap a race. Then the 10 most important, the 20 most important and, finally, the 40 most important factors.

The results were startling: three handicappers showed less accuracy when information increased, two showed more accuracy and three others showed no change. As a group, the eight handicappers did not improve their accuracy when more information was provided and their accuracy actually went down some.

But more importantly, as more information was provided, the handicapper's confidence grew. By the time they were given the most handicapping factors, their confidence had doubled. Their results went down some with more information and their confidence grew, making the gap between winning and losing even wider.
Powell goes on to relate a recent example in which he dug up the sales breezes of a first time starter, and figured he was on to something most others weren’t: With this additional information, my confidence level went skyward.
Had I just stuck to my usual routine, I would have had Bonnie Dares as a contender based on her recent sales price and fast workouts at Saratoga the past month on the turf. But, I also would have paid more attention to the fact that trainer Phil Serpe only wins 5 percent with his first-time starters and 10-pound apprentice rider Julien Leparoux had won three races at Saratoga but they were all going two turns and not in sprints where the start is critical.

The betting public dismissed Bonnie Dares at 14-1, but most of them didn't know what I knew about her training breeze at the Fasig-Tipton sale. More for me and I bet her with way too much confidence.
This is a familiar scenario for me (the horse finished 8th); I can easily get hooked on a horse because I found something, somewhere that many others haven’t. Powell talks about having too much confidence in this situation, but to be perfectly honest, for me I think it’s more narcissistic. I want the extra work and my cunning to pay off; so, at times I no doubt skew my judgment so that I go with the horse that would make me not only a bit richer, assuming the odds reflect the public’s ignorance to what I know, but a bit more clever too. In doing so, I put aside class, speed, and all the other basics of handicapping. It’s kinda like fixing the facts around the policy, gee, where have I heard that before? After all, I don’t bet enough nor in a way that’s going to make me wealthy; half the fun is just being able to say “I had it,” and it’s even better to be able to say “I had it,” and add a dazzling explanation as to how and why.

I often think back to my much, much younger days, when all we had was the Daily Racing Form, and we were lucky if able to get it the night before. And the Form had no Beyers – adding together the paper’s own speed rating and track variant served us all well for many years. There were no stats for the trainers in the relevant categories; no indication of how fast the workouts were in relation to the others that worked at the same distance that day; no information as to how much the horse sold for and at which sale. Lasix, what was that? Yet, I recall many grand days of winning, even on occasions when I was half blind from ludes and beer (in fact, winning is just about all I remember from those particular days.)

Why, if you think about it, if our handicapping ability all increased – forget about exponentially, say just one-tenth exponentially with the rate of the increase in the quality and quantity of information that we can freely access nowadays, we’d all be owning horses instead of betting on them. But yet, at least for me, that’s hardly the case. I sometimes feel that my best handicapping days are behind me, and that I’m just lost in the morass of fine print, talking heads, links, downloads, software, TVG, HRTV, and simulcasts, simulcasts, simulcasts. That’s why I write a blog called Left at the Gate; because that’s how I too often feel even after attending the races with regularity for over 30 years. With all of my experience, and, especially, with the technology that allows us all to conduct a virtual CIA investigation into the detailed history of every horse, trainer, and jockey in every single race at every track, you’d think we’d ALL be able to make a little money at this!


Anonymous said...

Great post. Though I'm fairly new to handicapping, every time I read another book, I tell my friends that it seems to get harder, having more info and angles to sift through and consider.

So I guess you like the Formulator? I've been considering checking it out.

Alan Mann said...

Sometimes I think that people should just read Tom Ainslie's Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing and just take it from there. It was all I needed to get started, really. As far as all the info and angles you're learning, my advice would be to utilize the one that you find most enjoyable; they all have their upsides and downsides and will produce hot streaks and droughts I'm sure.

Formulator is an awesome product; it's worth checking out just to marvel at how much information it provides. As far as whether it actually helps or hurts, I'll leave that up to each individual to decide!

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