Let's All Go to the Horse Track

Brett Whitehead
November 4, 2011

T
he business of making predictions is difficult. Despite vast historical precedent of mankind’s inability to predict the future, people continue to try to successfully predict future events for self-motivated purposes. Consequently, the results of making predictions vary from (1) an irrelevant way to look to stupid to (2) mean-spirited life-wasting nonsense. For example, a few years ago, I knew a girl who told me with a straight face that Panic at the Disco was the next Radiohead [see http://www.myspace.com/panicatthedisco]. Everything about that link is archaic. With the exception that I still remember this comment seven years later, there have been no consequences resulting from this prediction. Radiohead and Panic at the Disco continue to make records, the sun still shines, the world still turns, (and they both still stink –ed.). On the other hand, in 2011, the E-Bible Fellowship posted countless billboards across Interstate 95 and wasted lots of people’s time and money predicting the end of the world on May 21, 2011, which was conveniently the same day of my bachelor party. As we now know, and could have easily guessed, they failed miserably. Unfortunately, the Fellowship continues to repeat their judgment day predictions by playing the same cards that failed prophets have played for centuries before and will probably play for centuries to come [see http://www.ebiblefellowship.com/…/may21/ and http://judgementday2011.com/ (judgment spelled with an e)].

Somewhere between liking crappy music and predicting the end of humanity is the world of sports betting. Legal betting on sporting events is a multi-billion dollar industry predicated on the idea that we can predict the future, just as long as we have the right information and make the right analysis with that information. I only saw the first half of Two for the Money, which was a movie with Matthew McConnehey and Al Pacino about football handicapper Brandon Lang, but I gather from that one hour of entertainment that this movie represents the dream of the football bettor. The information allowing us to make perfect predictions is out there, and that information just needs to be harnessed to make a profit and sleep with hot blonde women.

In 2009, the State of Delaware legalized football betting in a way that would allow a bettor to play parlays, meaning that a bettor would have to pick at least three games a week against three different options for the spread in order to win the bet [see http://www.usatoday.com/…-delaware-sports-betting_N.htm]. As a Delaware resident, I thought this was so totally amazingly awesome, scientifically speaking. I watch SportsCenter every day and I saw the first half of Two for the Money, so on my first trip to Delaware Park, I was less concerned with if I was going to win money, but instead how much money I was going to make. As it turned out, I was totally right. I regularly net around $1,000.00 a season and win most of my bets. It’s been a great supplement to my income and I love the fact that I live in a progressive state that isn’t bogged down with puritanical values.*

*None of this true. I have played approximately 10-15 bets over the last two years and I have never cashed in even one bet. As it turns out, predicting three or more football games is impossible, especially if you bet on the stupid Falcons [see, begrudgingly http://www.nfl.com/…/falcons@cowboys]. Delaware Park even has an option where you get 14 points on top of the spread called a “super-teaser”, and even with those training wheels on, I cannot pick three straight games. I don’t even care about money anymore. I’m just angry at the system.

In the middle of this money-waster, I discovered the wonderful world of horse racing. Delaware Park, the closest place to my house that allows sports betting, is also a horse track. Like boxing, baseball, and cigar smoking, horse racing is old-time game populated with its own language, an intimidating learning curve, and fat, bald men with mustaches. I have found, however, that horse racing provides the easiest and most fun way to gamble on predictions without facing either spectrum of prediction consequences, in that (1) you won’t feel like an idiot if you’re wrong, and (2) it’s easy to play without falling into the usual pitfalls that come from excessive gambling. Making matters even better, I would further argue that the horse races are perfect for people of all shapes, sizes, and gambling proclivities. In support of this hypothesis, I submit the following.

Preface – Horse Racing Primer

Horse racing is easy to learn and difficult to master. It’s like playing the drums, only being a master at horse racing is impossible because it’s gambling and maybe like 25% fixed. There are three basic bets at the horse track. The “win” bet is picking a horse to come in first, the “place” bet is for the horse to come in second or first place, and the “show” bet is for the horse to come in third, second, or first. Each bet is made under a parimutuel system, which groups all similar bets together and splits the proceeds among the winning bets [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parimutuel_betting]. These bets are the great ways to (1) get yourself interested in horse racing, (2) to get people who are not interested in gambling interested in horse racing and (3) to lose your money. Betting on single races only pays off when you hit a horse at good odds, and the favorite horse in any given race wins, on average, 30% of the time. This means that unless you are improbably lucky, you are either going to be spending a lot of money chasing bad odds, or grinding small winnings on low odds, which brings me to my next point.

The best way approach horse betting is the axiom that you should be betting a little amount of money to win a lot of money. To accomplish this goal, the horse track allows for exotic bets, which tie either multiple horses or multiple races together under one bet. To make matters easier to explain, I will generalize from the two types of primary wagers, the trifecta and the pick 3. You can increase the risk and payoff by adding additional denominations (meaning horses or races) to both of these bets. With the trifecta, you must pick in order the horses finishing in first, second and third place. You can “box” this bet, meaning that you get your three horses in any order, but you must pay your ticket value for each permutation of horses, essentially six bets in total (three factorial). An exacta is the same as a trifecta, but only two horses must be chosen and a superfecta requires four horses. The pick 3 requires the winners of three straight races be chosen. You cannot “box” the pick like the trifecta, but you can pick multiple horses for each race under one bet. Once again you have to pay for each permutation of the ticket, for example, if you choose two horses in each race, that’s eight bets in total, obtained by simply multiplying the number of horses chosen in each race. These tickets cost a little more, but you have a good chance of walking away with $100+ for each ticket.

The best way to prepare for the horse track is to review the past performances of all the horses racing that day, of which the Daily Racing Form is one example [see http://www.drf.com]. The Daily Racing Form, and all past performance books, is a publication that posts the past history of all the horses racing that day, organized chronologically by race. It would take far too long for me to go over what is stated in the past performances, so I would instead suggest reviewing either a website or a book that goes over it in more detail, as those services are better at explaining this complicated set of data [see http://www1.drf.com/…howto.html]. Another good way to learn is to come to the race track with me and buy me a hotdog while I explain it to you. What? You’d love to! Sounds like a date!

Analysis

1. Horse racing has many quick races that keep the unsuccessful reality of gambling in perspective.

The most maddening fact of sports gambling is that you are usually wrong and it takes a lot of time to realize that conclusion. The average football game takes about three hours. The worst part at the end of the losing football bet is the realization that it took an eighth of the day to make you feel horrible about a team you have no emotional investment in. Independent of that awful feeling is the gut punch of feeling like you’re going to win, only to have victory snatched away from you at the last minute [see http://www.nfl.com/…/ravens@vikings…&recap=fullstory].

To the contrary, the horse track allows you to make fast, easily forgettable predictions that won’t make you sad, spiteful or ultimately broke. The average day at the horse track has 10 races and the races start approximately every 35 minutes. Each race is approximately one to two minutes long and has on average eight horses per race. It’s hard to feel too bad about a gambling event that only takes two minutes of your day, even if you lose in the most miserable of fashions. If you picked a wrong horse, you usually know it in about 15 seconds, so you can easily write the race off and move on to the next race, which is conveniently just 35 minutes away. Losing a bet in football, on the other hand, requires you to have to wait seven days before you can bet again. More often than not, you forget that you’re terrible at predicting football games once Thursday comes around and you are finding inspiration in Bill Simmons’ weekly football column.

The quick pace of horse racing also gets you accustomed to losing, which allows the average sane bettor to realize that his picks are less the product of skill and more the product of luck (or recognizing when the fix is on! –ed). I will call this the anti-sitcom-gambling parable. No citation on that one; I just made it up. The parable tells the story of two guys who feel they have a skill with gambling. Let’s take Eddie Winslow and Waldo Faldo from Family Matters, for example [see http://en.wikipedia.org/…Family_Matters_episodes, Episode 101*] In episode 101, Eddie and Waldo pick the winning teams on the unquantifiable theory of picking the cities with the less attractive women. After scoring a few big wins, Eddie and Waldo regress to the mean and lose big. Eddie and Waldo believed they developed a skill with gambling, and their increased reliance on this faulty rationale ended up getting them in deep with menacing lowlifes. Spoiler Alert: Eddie and Waldo utilize the wisdom of Carl Winslow to bail them out from being killed by their bookie. The parable is less likely to occur in horse racing because you get so accustomed to losing that you learn your limitations pretty quickly. I have a friend who, for the first four times we went to the track, won at least $150.00 on each visit, and fortunately, even with that kind of luck, he still knows his limits because on those days he still lost 9 out of 10 races. By teaching you your limitations and not allowing you to get caught up in the belief that you are invincible, the structure of horse racing keeps horse racing fun and won’t ruin your day, week, or life.

*Holy crap, Family Matters was a strange show. Spending five minutes looking through the Family Matters chronology is a weird trip through memory lane. These are real episode descriptions.

  1. Episode 4 – Widowed Rachel is anxious about her first date since the death of her husband. (Setting the stage for a multi-camera family sitcom that deals with serious issues.)
  2. Episode 53 – Carl kills Urkel’s prized Peruvian beetle. (Or not.)
  3. Episode 57 – Eddie wants to date an “easy” girl, named Vonda but Urkel decides to counsel her on her ways before their first date.
  4. Episode 71 – Despite Laura’s admonition that the show is sexist, Urkel, Eddie and Waldo are contestants on the local teen dating show Dudes.
  5. Episode 73 – Carl and Urkel get into a feud, and decide the only way to settle their grievances is to compete on American Gladiators, thanks to Waldo’s cousin American Gladiator Sabre. (Season Four was big on game show tie-ins.)
  6. Episode 136 – In one of the series’ most serious episodes, gang member Toni Procopio and her friends brutally beat Laura up over her jacket. After being arrested and let out on bail, Toni and her gang tell Laura that she can expect to get shot if she testifies against them again. Laura, scared for her life, decides she needs to buy a gun for self-defense, even though Urkel begs her to reconsider. But then, just moments before Laura can go through with the gun purchase, Toni shoots her other best friend Josie because she refused to give Toni her shoes. Fortunately, the Winslows and Steve start “Save a Life, Turn In Your Gun” and Steve does a rap about saving your life by turning in a gun or other weapons (emphasis added).
  7. Episode 163 – Steve becomes a Big Brother to a smart-talking, streetwise nine-year-old named 3J. However, 3J’s bravado is the cover for an embarrassing secret: The boy cannot read. (Plays the new child card and the illiteracy card.)
  8. Episode 176 – A ventriloquist’s dummy, which looks exactly like Urkel, comes to life and terrorizes the Winslows, and Steve must stop it. (The train starts coming off the tracks.)
  9. Episode 188 – Eddie gets into the transformation chamber to transform Eddie Winslow into Eddie Urkel to gain Steve’s smarts, then hopes to clean up on a game show. (This was culmination of the Stephan Urkel story arc.)
  10. Episode 193 – Urkel and Carl go back in time on board a 1700s pirate vessel, where they are made to walk the plank after Urkel accidentally drops his time travel watch overboard. Can they escape back to their present time before they become sharkbait? (The series finale.)

Wow. That really runs the gambit of human experience. Gang violence, time travel and early 90’s game shows. Anyway, what was I talking about again?

2. Horse racing is fun for you and a fun field trip for you and your friends.

Right, horse racing. The problem with gambling is that it is very fun but also very expensive if you are not winning see, duh. In a perfect world, craps is a ton of fun. You roll dice among 10 strangers who are rooting for your success. Everyone yells. Someone, possibly baby, needs a new pair of shoes. The dealer calls out a number and you and all your new friends win. The problem is that every turn of the dice costs $12, and unless you are winning at unusually high odds, you need around $1,000.00 to play for over an hour. As someone who hates losing money more than likes winning money, this poses a problem.

This last paragraph is also an understatement for the truly terrible vice that is problem gambling. All jokes aside, gambling problems allow the user to fall deep in addiction with no outward signs until the problem is far out of control. If you have an alcohol problem, chances are the people around you are going to know it. You smell like alcohol and appear drunk. If you have a drug problem, there are physical attributes people will be able to notice that may alert them to your problem before it is too late. You have haggard teeth and you don’t make a lot of sense when you talk to people. Gambling, on the other hand, is a solitary activity that leaves no noticeable side effects to the casual friend or family member. Sitting at a slot machine for hours on end is an abyss that is usually only noticed when it is too late to reverse the negative effects it has caused. So while I joke about the benefits of betting on horse racing, I do not want to make light of what I recognize is a serious issue [see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQw4w9WgXcQ].

A day at the horse track mitigates this problem because a day at the track can cost the responsible bettor $20 and keep everyone in your party entertained for at least five hours. The standard bet is $2 and there are ten races. Bring twenty dollars for gambling and $5 for hotdogs and you’re good to go. As is true with everything, a lack of willpower can ruin the system—-and this is a system that can also be abused—-but the benefit of horse racing is you can casually bet on horses without being afraid that you will lose all your money in 30 minutes, which is easily the case with poker or casino table games.

This opens horse racing to not only casual gamblers, but also non-gamblers alike, due to the price of the bets and the allowance of social interaction amongst friends. Ray and I regularly have our birthdays at the horse track and invite a big group of people to spend the afternoon at Delaware Park. At all of these birthday parties, everyone has fun and the group stays together at all times. We can talk to each other during the down time and still catch every opportunity to place a bet. It’s win-win. As a comparison, think about every time you have ever been to a bachelor or bachelorette party at Atlantic City. If your friends actually stay together, you’re either playing a poker against each other, which is a colossal waste of money, or you’re all playing table games together and not interacting. At no time playing blackjack, craps, or roulette can you relax together at a table, casually talk to each other and still make wagers. It also regularly results in the sad girlfriend waiting for her boyfriend to finish playing blackjack. Again, I would reiterate that horse racing is not perfect, but it takes less focus to enjoy yourself and the people around you.

3. Horse racing rewards research and preparation.

Horse racing also opens you up to the world of handicapping, which involves you in the betting process without having to actually bet money. The Daily Racing Form is the most unique and interesting supplement to the world of gambling. It has repeatedly been noted in this article that predicting the future is impossible, which it is, but it is still possible to educate yourself to make your wagers more informed. For example, there is a table that shows the best moves for each hand blackjack based on the odds of the cards [see http://cdn.pdcpoker.com/…/blackjack_strategy01.gif]. Memorizing this table won’t guarantee that you will win money at the blackjack table, but it will give you a mathematical system that is preferential to luck alone.

The Daily Racing Form ’s past performances gives you more than just a statement of odds, but instead lists a comprehensive set of factors that allow you to weigh the specific strengths of each horse against each other. The past performances show the overall speed of the horse; how the horse ran each previous race, including post position, place and time at several points in the race, and a fun, pretty vague description; its past training sessions; its jockey, including how good the jockey is in the form of his/her winning percentage; etc. It is the equivalent of Sports Illustrated reporting nothing on the story of football games and instead writing solely on who would win against the spreads. Much like the blackjack tables listed above, the Daily Racing Form won’t guarantee you victories, but it will provide information that will allow you to make educated guesses over picking which ever horse has the coolest/cutest name.

The process of weighing these factors adds a different element to the gambling experience that increases your chance of winning without costing you money. It has often been said that a true handicapper reviews every race and picks the winners before the first race begins. Handicapping keeps idle hands busy and gives even committed horse enthusiasts something better to do than placing other bets. It can be a tedious process, but the extra time put into looking at the races ahead of time makes the track a much more relaxing experience and allows clearer thinking when making wagers, which benefits the previous factors referenced in this article.

Conclusions

Going to the horse track totally rules. The environment is conducive to a social atmosphere and you can gamble reasonably and safely without feeling like an idiot or losing too much money. Gambling is a harmful vice, but horse racing allows you to get your gambling fix amongst friends in a fun and easy day out.

I would also state that we at Brutalhorse.com love going to the horse track and I am writing this article because I like having more people to go with. So if you’re interested in yelling at animals and being the most attractive people in a smoky amphitheatre, please contact us and we can all go together. You, me, Ray, and robot, ultra-smooth, deadly ventriloquist Steven Urkel.

brett.whitehead@brutalhorse.com
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