Sunday, June 16, 2013

Horse Sense

The first time I went to the racetrack I knew only one thing about horses: that they had four legs. My betting scheme was founded on the hope that wit shown in creating a horse’s name from that of its sire and dam might be a precursor of wit employed in its training. Despite my yelling and screaming and jumping up and down, my witty horses displayed no aptitude for winning—until the last race when I was able to cash a five-dollar win ticket. At the end of the day I determined two things: that I had lost a total of nineteen dollars and that I hadn’t had so much fun for ages.

I was hooked.

But before I next visited the track, the realization that I could not once again be flying blind forced me to turn loose the scholar in me to learn all I could about the so-called “Sport of Kings.” After hitting the books and the track with mixed success, I eventually came upon the works of Andy Beyer, and I became, following his teachings, a speed-figure number cruncher. This entailed a good deal of research and record-keeping, collected on ruled index cards, with colored ones for the first of every month to facilitate easy referencing. Since it was necessary to be prepared for battle, I would make a detour before work or get up at the crack of dawn on non-teaching days to hunt down a copy of an advance copy of Daily Racing Form, which would have the next day’s entries. With different colored highlighters and ballpoint pens at hand, I would mark-up the pages with numbers, colors, and strange symbols.

I believe I had success, although I never kept a long-time tally. One parking-lot guard at Monmouth Park would stop me before each Meadowlands simulcast to ask me who I liked. It got to be such a routine that would write down a few selections to hand over to him. After I strongly promoted a horse at a good price in the fifth race the night before, I was eager to learn how much he won. He told me that he didn’t bet on the horse because meeting the trainer coming into the track and asking his usual “Who do you like?” he received an answer from the trainer that omitted the horse of his I had picked. I was not pleased. “Who are you going to listen to—the trainer or me?”

Although I was rapturously absorbed in the world of horseracing, I couldn’t, unfortunately, proselytize others to share the delight. One girlfriend, when invited to accompany me a second time to the track, declared, “I’d rather give birth!”
My own eventual disillusionment with horseracing came in stages. The first was probably the decision by the Racing Form to print Beyer speed figures for the horses. Now anybody without any effort could just open the paper and get quality information that I was sweating to turn out for myself--the loving numbers which had given me an edge over other bettors. As a result, the odds on my good horses began to fall as others caught on, and there was less of a profit to be made on them. 

One dreary June Monday when there was no live racing and no simulcasting of any interest, I had the idea to finally do a long-time tally (at least for the preceding almost-half year) and to see exactly how the new state of affairs had affected me. What I discovered was that for the previous five-and-a-half months of betting I was within ten dollars of breaking even (I don’t recall whether I was ten to the good or ten to the bad). All that time and work and no profit; indeed, a net loss when expenses (gas, tolls, parking, admission, Racing Form, program) were considered. Bad enough—but I was feeling even worse when I realized that on the basis on my selections alone, I should have been a big winner. It was the tracks’ take-out that defeated me. On the basis of handicapping alone, I would have had a profit of between 20 and 25 percent (math freaks, see below*). That would have made all the effort worthwhile. But the realization that I was fighting a headwind, cooled my ardor and I began to disengage from the sport. It was, I determined, a mug’s game.
For the first time in years, this spring I watched all three races of the Triple Crown. On the telecasts I saw recognizable figures from the past: Shug McGaughey, winning trainer of the Kentucky Derby, looking rather short and bent, and sun-glassed D. Wayne Lukas, winning trainer of the Preakness, looking as pin-collared tidy as before but seemingly with new choppers. During none of the races did I yell and scream or jump up and down; neither did I make a bet on any of the horses, whatever the wit behind their names.

It was, after all, a mug’s game.

*For the math freaks:

Out of each betting pool the track deducts a set percentage (as I recall, between 17 and 33 percent, depending upon the type of bet—strangely, the more difficult the bet, the higher the take-out).
Let us assume that, like me for those five or so months, you broke even at the track—you bet a total, just to choose a nice round number, of $1,000 and received back $1,000. Assuming an average track take-out of 20 percent, the equation looks like this:
Your return = .8 of your share of the total pool; that is, $1,000 = .8x (x =your share of the total pool). Your share of the total pool is $1,000 divided by .8.
Your share of the pool = $1,250.
In other words, on pure handicapping alone, you should have earned $250 for your $1,000 in bets—or a return of 25 percent.
A nice profit—that you can’t get.
A mug’s game.   


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