A week ago I wrote an article titled, Why Do You Lose? I offered a few reasons relating mainly to betting skill. What I didn’t do is blame bad jockeys, cheating trainers, short fields and a high take. After monitoring the public media for a while, my perception is too many people use these reasons as excuses for losing rather than focusing on the number one reason people lose – poor handicapping and betting. As a result they spend far more time complaining than enjoying the best betting game on earth.
I’ve been playing the races over 40 years. Have I gotten bad rides? Absolutely. I don’t have an empirically derived number, but for me the number of horses I bet that were obviously best in a race and were stymied by a bad ride is minimal, most certainly no more than a fraction of 1%. That wouldn’t expain long term loss.
I’m also not buying the cheating trainer theory for losing. Good handicappers will tell you that trainers with “suspicious” patterns are fairly easy to identify and they can adjust their handicapping accordingly. If those trainers are doing anything, they are producing a lot of low priced winners. Even so, the Association of Racing Commissioners International produces statistics that suggest less than one-half of one percent of all horses tested are violating a medication or drug standard, and the vast majority of the violations are for legal therapeutic drugs.
There are those who believe ultra-high percentage trainers are using substances that are undetectable, but I’d make the same argument I made above. Trainers like Kirk Ziadie win at high percentages, but the percentages are there for everyone to see and incorporate into their handicapping decisions. His horses may go off at low odds, but it seems like having a free square may offset some of that. Cheating trainers or not, the percentage of winning favorites has gone up since I started playing, a clear indication that handicappers have gotten better at identifying the favorite.
Even if you are a believer in the widespread cheating conspiracy, you’d still have to concede it’s a small number of trainers and a small number of races. The vast majority of races are solvable without having to worry about incompetent jockeys or drug-happy trainers.
The short field issue is an interesting one. Five and six horse fields can make some races unbettable, but conversely they can make some races more bettable. If you have two horses heads and shoulders above the other three runners, and the high probability exacta is paying $10, it may not be a bad race to bet. In general, though, uncompetitive races are not a good thing for bettors, and 5-6 horse fields are far more likely to be uncompetitive.
Many of the full-field proponents rightly point out the increased probability of higher prices. The more combinations there are, the fewer combinations an average bettor can cover, and thus the potential for high prices shoots up. A good example are the Breeder’s Cup races with a lot of 14 horse fields and some mega prices. Of course at the same time that comes with the potential for more bad rides and orders of magnitude greater difficulty for bettors. It’s a bit of a two edged sword. Five and six horse fields are not good, but eight to ten horse fields would provide plenty of value while keeping chaos to a minimum. Frankly, in most 12 horse fields, 3-4 horses are quick pitches anyway. Field size needs improvement, but it is not a primary explanation of why players lose.
The fact is that most people who lose at the races have some flaws in their handicapping or betting. Believe me, I know because in 44 years of betting horses I’ve made all of them. I can tell you I’ve missed solid plays and made horrible bets, and it was 100% my fault. And that is the first step to winning. Focus on the things that are within your power to excel at, and excel at them. You are never going to keep jockeys from messing up a ride, so don’t spend much time brooding about it. Remember the old saying, fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. If a certain jockey seems to throw in more than his share of bad rides, adjust your handicapping.
But I also know that it is possible to beat the races even with the current levels of take. It wasn’t like Andrew Beyer had his $50,000 year at the races when the take was miniscule. In my article, The Magic Number, I pointed out that by doing nothing more than betting favorites to win you could reduce the 17% take to 8-9%, so by eliminating 9 out of 100 false favorites, the bettor is at break-even. And this doesn’t require outrageous amounts of handicapping skill and time. After all, 65 of 100 favorites lose, and you only have to find nine to not lose any money. If you can eliminate15 favorites, you’re a pretty profitable winner. It may be more boring than rooting home some higher priced horses, but because horseracing has an inherent skill component, good handicapping makes it totally possible to identify enough false favorites to create the profit outcome. Don’t miss the point of the example – you can overcome the take with superior handicapping and betting.
The rest of The Magic Number discusses how to become a value win bettor. Again, if you become skilled at assessing the probability of a respective horse winning and limiting your bets to those that are overlays, in the long run you have to win. Clearly, developing the necessary skill takes a great amount of time and effort, and perhaps harder than that is developing the discipline to follow the winning formula.
If you believe that the races cannot be beaten because of the takeout level you need to first convince me you are not making the mistakes I listed in Why Do You Lose? No question the take makes the hill you are trying to climb steeper, but it’s not Everest. If you are handicapping skillfully and betting optimally and still losing, I’d be shocked. I know a winning season/year can be done from personal experience.
Don’t get me wrong. The takeout rate is a huge problem in horseracing, and unfortunately there is no effective solution available as long as tracks have to pay what amounts to tribute to the state and local jurisdictions. As long as tracks cannot function like other businesses, accounting for the operating and capital expenses and paying taxes only on the profit they make, it is nearly impossible to reduce the take below 15%. Still, that does not mean tracks could not reduce the take to 15% on every bet. Anyone who plays trifectas at tracks like Parx or Penn National is either self-destructive or not paying any attention at all. Tracks have been gouging bettors on every combination or exotic bet and they feel not the slightest bit of guilt about it. Our response is too often to complain and keep betting.
Pretty much every study shows that reducing the take increases betting volume, and ultimately may increase revenues. What is stunning is how few of the major tracks have tried to outcompete other tracks by lowering the take. Sort of like what Wal Mart does – lower prices and either force everyone else to lower theirs or drive them out of business.
I’m working on a new book that will go into much greater detail on both the issues racing faces and what players need to do to beat the game given the hills they have to climb. But in the meantime I’ll remain steadfast that while it is hard, you can beat the game with the right plan.