Tuesday, 15 August 2017


I will be heading out on a road trip – with a bit of luck, that will include observing a spectacular total eclipse in the beautiful state of Oregon, U.S.A..  If all goes well, I will blog about that later.

That will take some time away from blogging, so I am presenting a piece that I wrote quite some time ago (late 1990’s), concerning my attempt to “beat the horse races”, with the applications of computing power, data analysis, intelligence and dogged determination.  I did ok for few years, and learned a lot of statistical techniques (via concurrent courses in multivariate analysis).  I certainly learned plenty about the pluses and minuses of data mining, and the wisdom behind the notion that one should be careful about post-hoc analyses.

Plus, I had some fun – there is nothing quite like a big score on a long odds horse that your system predicted, that hardly anybody thought had a chance.

And some of the photos are old, so the quality isn't great, but they are authentic, so there's that.  The better photos are from google images.

Horse racing Days (2)

II – The World of the Racetrack

Superstition and Conspiracy

Gambling is a strange thing.  Even the most rationally trained mind can be awash in superstition while in the throes of gambling fever.  I was studying mathematics at university at this time, so I should have had some protection from the various fancies and fallacies that gamblers are prey to.  I can only imagine what the mathematically naïve  must go through.

I can recall wandering around the racetrack, searching for the ‘spot’ before the race.  I felt, irrationally, that there was a zone of luck, that if located, would lead to success.  It moved around the real estate of the racetrack, sometimes appearing in the grandstand, other times at the finishing line, often in obscure nooks and crannies of the building.  Other places were absolute dead zones, the habitats of zombies and broken men.  Bars at the track were especially bad for this, and in general, drinking was the kiss of death.  If nothing else, this belief managed to get me a lot of exercise, and kept my alcohol consumption to a minimum.

Of course, one still attempted to handicap the races, applying logical principles of prediction to the problem at hand.  These included past performances, early speed vs. closing speed, jockey and trainer records, blood lines, claiming prices, post bias, weather, and myriad other factors.  But the problem was an immense one, so it was difficult not to lapse into superstition at any given time.

Another favorite delusion was the coincidence of names.  One would see a horse with a name that had personal associations, and be tempted to see a deep meaning in it.  Perhaps it was the name of a woman that one was romantically interested in.  Other times it might be a word or phrase that had a peculiar resonance, for instance “Pain”.  The worst was when your own name appeared in the horse’s name.  These were exceedingly difficult to pass up, regardless of the objective facts of the horse.  The knowledge that your racing mates would look pitifully upon you, if such a horse came in when you had not bet on it, was enough to ensure that you would put at least a couple of bucks on it.  With a name like Dale, I had to face this situation surprisingly frequently.

What might be called the numerological fallacy was always popular.  This is the desire to see deep patterns in a run of numbers, familiar from roulette or dice games.  This might present itself in a simple form, such as the observation that horses numbered six had been winning a disproportionate share of races, therefore one should start betting six.  Conversely, it might be noted that the four horse had not won all day, so it was ‘due’.  In its more advanced form, numbers that were multiples of each other might be favored, or consecutive runs, like a straight in poker.  I once suggested, at least half facetiously,  to some fellow bettors that the day’s races had been easy to pick, as all of the winners had been prime numbers.  They took me quite seriously.

As desperation set in, truly bizarre appeals to the forces of luck might be attempted.  One person of my acquaintance would sometimes poke a pin through the first page of the Daily Racing Form, then bet every horse whose past performances happened to fall on the pinhole in the underlying pages.  Others might read significance into where some beer spilled on the Racing Form, or what street numbers they happened to notice on the way to the track.

Then there were the standard beliefs of the racetrack, some purely superstition, and some, like old wives’ tales, an amalgam of folklore, fact, and fancy.  Never bet against a grey.  Female jockeys are bad luck.  A filly can’t beat a colt.  Blinders mean a horse is wild.  A horse will never win its first time out.  A jockey can’t win two in a row.  Outside speed can’t win a sprint, and inside speed can’t win a route.

And then there were always dark hints of conspiracy, rigged races, and what we referred to as ‘shafts’.  After a time, it is natural for gamblers to think along these lines.  My brother Jim always maintained that this was the counsel of fools, that if you didn’t believe in the fundamental integrity of the game you were doomed to lose.  Another of my brothers, Craig, was a fatalist, who believed that the entire cast of characters involved in racing were cheats.  Every race was fixed, every jockey crooked, every trainer a thief.  He also claimed that each racing card was carefully orchestrated, along the lines of a wrestling card.  A few favorites would be let in, to set up the crowd for an unlikely longshot, that only the insiders would be privy to.  Alternatively, a series of longshots would be allowed to win, to rattle the crowd, so that a favorite in a later race would be allowed to go off at higher odds than it should.  Naturally, only the insiders would be savvy to this fact, allowing them a big score on a racing coup.

I believe that a large part of the fascination with gambling, and racing in particular, is tied up with these beliefs.  There is something liberating about tossing in one’s lot with blind luck.  A winning streak makes one feel transcendent, as if the powers of the universe are yours to command.  A bad losing streak has its own perverse attraction, making one feel that he has been singled out by the gods, like Oedipus, for special pain and punishment, for sins he may be unaware of, but he has certainly committed.

The conspiracy theories have their allure, too.  They give an extra intellectual dimension to the game, with one always attempting to second guess the inside money.  As with all conspiracy theories, elaborate conspiracies within conspiracies could be projected.  They, the powerful inside forces, may have wanted us to catch the fix in the eighth race, so that we would bet the likely fix in the ninth.  Then, they would let the ninth race come in true, which would, of course, not be true at all.  Before long, the conversation would resemble dialogue from the X-Files – or better yet, a Damon Runyon story like The Lemon Drop Kid.


Real life is pretty interesting, at the track, but fiction can be almost as good.  So, here’s a short story that I wrote in those early years, about a horse-player and the devil (probably).

A Dark Horse

Just what might a gambler give up, to go on the winning streak of his life? Even he can't know for sure. Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus legend is given a Damon Runyon spin, in this short story.  For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Faustus legend is about someone who sells his soul to you know who, for fame and fortune.  Things are not nearly so simple for the character in the story, though.

This is a short story of about 6500 words, or about 35 to 45 minutes reading time, for typical readers.


No comments:

Post a Comment