The Generic Horseplayer Revisited

I wrote this column back in the summer of 2006.  Back then, I had been playing the races seriously for a few years and was beginning to put some central ideas to paper.  While I don’t agree with every word in it (I hope not after eight more years of playing!), the core message of the challenge of continued contrarianism remains one of the important obstacles facing horseplayers.  Enjoy!

The Generic Horseplayer

Conformity is a curious thing. In many walks of life, it is a pathway to comfort; a means to attain a predetermined level of security. If you play along, do what you’re told, obey the rules, then you’ll be taken care of – an above-average, yet cookie cutter life will exist for you. There’s almost no risk in taking the safe path; while the non-conventional person may attain or acquire more or less, conformity brings safety, although perhaps not deep satisfaction.  However, if you lean towards conformity and its resulting safety, then I’m fairly positive that you shouldn’t be expecting to profit from the horses, whether recreationally or professionally. Because in playing the horses, it’s exactly the opposite of many other aspects of life. Thinking like everyone else will not create even an average level of success. As in any speculative activity, profit can only result from an opinion that is different from the norm, so long as the difference of opinion is based on something tangible, and not merely different for difference sake.

As a devoted horseplayer, I’ve had my own experiences with the pressures of conforming. When I began handicapping, I was wildly successful, despite only using incomplete bits of knowledge based on repeated observation to reach my selections. My first big winner (35-1) was selected on a drop in class combined with a last race decent close — an analysis derived solely from watching several races mixed in with a good dose of common sense. Believing that I was probably just lucky and wishing to perpetually sustain this luck, I embarked on a journey to learn as much as I could about the game. In the following months, I read the classics of Ainsle, Beyer, Brohamer, and Quinn – and a host of other authors who all added something to the equation. In fact, as of this writing, I own and have read 47 books related to handicapping – all catalogued neatly in a veritable library of truth in my office.

After reading all these books, I was armed with an almost complete body of handicapping knowledge. However, after incorporating this information into my handicapping, I noticed a not-so-positive change in my thought processes and in my ultimate selections. I now routinely settled on favorites or other top horses, and I no longer found the less than obvious horse. I routinely supported the horses that met the proven, well-trodden angles learned from the books, such as best last race finish, top speed, top trainer and jockey, best class, and improving form cycle. At the same time, I was chanting to myself the mantras of value at every turn. Although I was acutely aware of the importance of the overlay, I would incorrectly support false overlays repeatedly. And then, one day, I realized what had happened. I had become nothing but an organization man – an unthinking disciple of a dominant ideology. Stripped down of my early individuality, I had become a generic horseplayer.

Aware of my now commonplace handicapping, I began to suspect that the success at the beginning was more than just beginner’s luck and that it contained seeds of an individualized method that I had abandoned to subscribe to the views of the orthodoxy. Determined to recapture some of the methods that had worked so well at the beginning, I began to disregard conclusions based solely on the surface of the form. In an effort not to be swayed, I would make my selections ignorant of the odds, and only bet when the public did not mirror my assessment. I tried to predict how the public would value the horses – using the knowledge that I gained in my exhaustive study of the literature – and tried to find less than obvious reasons why the public might be in error. But, mostly, I tried to unlearn what the books led me to believe – that the past performances completely reflect the possibilities of the race and that an individual race can predicted with accuracy. Indeed, I discovered that, in a speculative endeavor, the illusion of certainty can be fatal. By returning to a view that anything can happen, which I held at the beginning of my horse playing days, I recaptured the looseness of thought necessary to distinguish my thought process from the crowd.

These duel perils of extensive handicapping study – conformity and the illusion of certainty – present traps for the novice and experienced player alike. For the novice player, I would caution against too much early infusion of the technical handicapping techniques of others. Seek only to understand what a past performance means and only approach the technical works when you have the base of knowledge to critically assess them. However, anything dealing with the game that does not involve the technical part of picking winners, i.e. bet structuring, money management, or emotional control, is incredibly useful to the novice (and veteran) horseplayer. And, for the seasoned horseplayer who has read the classics and is familiar with all the established techniques, a consistent check to see if you have entered the realm of the generic is always useful. This game’s ups and downs can push all but the most emotionally disciplined handicapper into moments of doubt and towards more accepted approaches and a vain quest for certainty.

– First published July 16, 2006