From the Archive: Horseplayer’s Axis of Evil (2006)

[I wrote this article back in 2006. A little dated with Bush-era terminology, but still applicable, it was the first piece on playing the races that I ever wrote. SA]

As horseplayers, we are always seeking value in our selections. Whether you’re wagering on a horse at 15-1, 4-1, 8-5, or 3-5, the ultimate goal is to find the overlay. Yet, while the overlay concept is sound in theory, it’s typically wrecked in practice by all but the most emotionally disciplined of players. This is the work of the horseplayer’s axis of evil, which gains its strength by praying on our all-too-human characteristics. Without further ado, let’s meet its membership:

(1) GREED: This first member of the axis is deceptive and devious, and, when we’re not looking, he runs off with large portions of our bankrolls. He makes us think we’re getting value when we’re really just looking to get something for nothing. Through his subtle manipulations, he throws wrenches into a well-reasoned handicapping process, and causes us to lose more money than we would simply by betting the favorite.

Greed shows up all the time in our handicapping, especially in our search for overlays. As horseplayers, we hate short prices. There’s risk in every horse race — a jockey error, a catastrophic injury — and we must be compensated for this risk. But, unfortunately, on many occasions, a disdain for short prices often clouds our judgment. We perceive negative value and move away from a horse solely because of the low anticipated payout.

(2) HOPE: Red, of The Shawshank Redemption, had it right: “Hope is a dangerous thing.” And, much like the classic handicapping quote about time and prison, when it comes to playing the races, hope is best left behind the prison walls. Yes, hope is a wonderful, inspiring feeling that makes you feel happy when things aren’t going well. It’s also something that has absolutely no place in handicapping.

Hope rears its ugly head all throughout the handicapping process, but it’s especially dangerous when you’re dissatisfied with the price you’re going to get on your top selection. You may begin to desperately look for positive things in the other horses. You’ll use words like “maybe…could…possibly.” You know the types of horses, and you’ve seen enough of them come in to convince yourself. But, unfortunately, you’ve come under the spell of hope, and started to let it guide your selections.

Overlays are great theory, but finding one in the heat of the handicapping moment can be an emotional minefield.

(3) FEAR: By far the trickiest of the members of the axis, fear subtly influences our selections in several ways. Aware of the effect of scared money and facing the fear of loss, the horseplayer must fearlessly enter a risky environment and stay brave amid tremendous uncertainty. Yet, despite our bravery, fear is not without a weapon here. For if we feign fearlessness where it is unwarranted, he attacks with the fear of regret, which guides us into situations where the risk does not equal the reward.

The player may seem confident in his selection, but will still be motivated by fear. When making this type of decision, the horseplayer’s phrases are well-known: “I’ll be devastated if I passed on this one”; “This big payday will make my day/week/month; I can’t miss it if it comes in.” (And, believe me. . . I know these phrases all too well. ) Fearful of missing the big payday, you turn a deaf ear to the important cautions in your gut.

Together, greed, hope, and fear constitute a nasty confederation that confounds the reasoning of the value-seeking horseplayer. Overlays are great theory, but finding one in the heat of the handicapping moment can, indeed, be an emotional minefield.