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Friday, April 27, 2007


- No, not the Rangers (he says hopefully). But Keeneland, which ends today, with racing moving on to Churchill on Saturday, and my handicapping gig for the Special. Final picks are up there now. Ken McPeek has four runners on Friday, and the guy is so hot that you almost have to consider anything he runs for at least a spot on your tickets. He had three horses run on Thursday, and had two close seconds. His horses are way live; and his entries on Friday include Ballymore Lady, my pick in the 4th, and who cares if the race comes off the grass.

Dale Romans is another hot guy - his Dinner Guest ran second at 4-1 in Thrusday's 6th, to Pauillac, a million dollar Mr. Greeley colt that snuck by at 7-1 making his debut for Biancone/Leparoux. Romans has a first timer running in the first who I picked, but we of course have to watch the tote on that one (though that strategy would have likely dissuaded me from that Biancone horse yesterday).

I think I did pretty well with the selections. I haven't kept a running total of my win percentage or ROI; having never claimed to be a great handicapper, I was mostly focused on making the columns an interesting and informative read. I was sometimes torn between picking an obvious winner or getting cute in order to emphasize an interesting pedigree or some nugget I discovered that wasn't apparent in the Racing Form; and usually leaned towards the latter. I figure that if I sacrificed a winner in order to turn someone on to a hot trainer or an angle that might be useful later on, than I did a good thing. After Pete stepped in and picked five winners on the one day I missed, I felt a bit embarrassed and perhaps got a little more conservative, which may have contributed to the four-bagger that wasn't published on Sunday. But in any case, I only took a goose-egg once during the entire meet, and I don't know that all of the more prominent public handicappers can say that.

Of course, public handicapping involves a lot of luck. For example, picking maiden races three days in advance is just a wild guess, really; and in any race, you never know what the tote board or the prevailing conditions will be like close to post time. Pete advised me to find horses that you can state a good reason for, write it down, and just hope for the best. Over time, you'll have your share of winners, assuming you're picking horses with at least a bit of logic to it.

Or maybe logic doesn't even matter. Tom Ainslie, in his seminal Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing, makes the case that just about anyone, betting horses strictly to win over time, can at least limit his or her losses to approximately the takeout rate.

Anybody who bets $1,000 on the races and emerges from the experience with less than $800 is doing something dreadfully wrong. A $2 bettor who selected horses with a hatpin, or by using numerology, or by consulting tea leaves, would seldom lose much more than $200 in a series of 500 bets..
It works like this. Of all money bet on any race, most tracks deduct approximately 18.5 percent for taxes and their own revenue. The remaining 81.5 is disbursed to the holders of winning mutuel tickets.

This means that, regardless of how the individual player fares with a bet, the crowd as a whole loses 18.5 percent of its wagered dollar on every race.. A random bettor, playing horses at random, should do no worse. A selection system employing daisy petals or playing cards or dice or something else entirely unrelated to handicapping should leave the bettor with close to 80 percent of the original capital after a series of 500 bets or more.
I find this concept to be alternately comforting and frightening. It seems soothing to think that I could devote a large sum of money to making a long series of win bets, and be virtually guaranteed to be left with at least 80% of it. On the other hand, I can't help but wonder if I've actually met that benchmark if I really totaled up all my lifetime bets! Of course, few of us really bet that way, making only win wagers in the same amount each time, and I suppose a trifecta player could theoretically go a whole year without hitting anything at all.

Ainslie goes on to respond to those who argue that casinos, with their smaller take, are a better bet, in an argument now largely outdated (though you can substitute "slots" for "roulette" here).
A roulette player...should lose only slightly more than a nickel of each dollar bet, assuming that the computation is made after a long, representative series of plays. The difference between roulette and racing is, however, a considerable one. The wheel spins every few seconds, all night. The roulette fanatic makes hundreds of bets in one session. The house "take" of 5 percent-plus nibbles away at his capital, and he finally has nothing left.

But the horseplayer encounters only nine races a day, a daily double, some exactas, a trifecta or two and perhaps a pic six. If he confines his wagering to the smallest possible fraction of betting capital, he might play for months or years before emptying his pocket.
Now, with simulcasting, and triples and pick-whatevers offered on virtually every race, the horseplayer can find his bankroll quickly evaporated. But Bill Finley, writing on, has a better idea. He takes a look at the outsized purses in relation to the relatively meager handle at Yonkers Raceway (as I did previously in this post), and concludes that the whole concept of high takeouts in racing should become obsolete due to the economics of racinos.
Imagine a game where there was no takeout or a very small one. The same exacta that is now paying $40 would pay $50. The winner that now returns $8 would pay $10. The result would be a true game of skill in which the best handicappers would defeat the weaker handicappers and make money. And even the poorer handicappers wouldn't get buried, which is what is happening to them now.
In racing, you can take a brutal game and instantly turn it into the best gambling product there is. With a realistic chance of making money, and maybe even a lot of money, people would flock to the racetrack. By taking little, if any, money out of the pools, the tracks would make next to nothing from the betting on the horses, but that's exactly what they're making now. The serious money would still come from the slots. []
Finley acknowledges that this could only be accomplished with on-track bettors, since tracks already receive only a small percentage of simulcast wagers. The whole idea very well could be wishful thinking. But it at least certainly shows far more vision than clueless state lawmakers who insist on keeping takeout levels well as and especially New York franchise bidders Empire Racing and Capital Play, both of whom are actually proposing takeout increases.


Hawken said...

I see you have Pleasant Strike among your selections in the 10th today. As he was the horse Any Given Saturday was running down in his Keeneland workout, I'll be hoping for a nice run from him.

John said...

I enjoyed your reflections on handicapping. Predicting the future is a skill I do not possess; handicapping is a frustrating game I refuse to play.

I think Dan Quayle in his infinite wisdom said it best.

"The future will be better tomorrow"