Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Horse racing Days - Part 3

 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 (3)

 II – The World of the Racetrack

 The Culture of the Racetrack

 An important element of the track was its sociable nature.  One usually didn’t sit alone, as some regulars could almost always be counted on to be present.  Once this happy band of warriors was located, an inside conversation would develop.  Much of the talk was about handicapping, some related to the above mentioned conspiracies of jockeys, trainers, and racetrack officials.  Great significance was read into a sudden drop in a horse’s odds; inside money was obviously at work.  A jockey change or claiming drop was also grist for speculation.  Occasional references were made to the outside world of jobs, family, and world events.  However, these were kept within respectable bounds, as it wasn’t considered to be good form to take too keen an interest in the world beyond the track.  This was the province of  ‘citizens’, not those who were in the self selected gambling elect.

As horse players, we were marginal figures in society and we knew it.  At times this outsider status was regretted, but mostly it was savored.  We were thumbing our noses at society’s conventions.  Hard work was a necessary evil, required at times to get enough  money to bet with, but cash from a big racing score was much to be preferred.  A career was something one tolerated, but it was widely recognized to get in the way of the important business of following the races.  Certain scruples, such as not betting the baby’s milk money, were expected when it came to family.  After all, there was a fine line between being a player and a degenerate.  However, this couldn’t be taken to an extreme.  Moaning about how the wife would kill you for losing money was considered to be fairly contemptible  behaviour.

As with any sociable activity with a continuing cast of characters, the interpersonal relationships could take on a soap opera quality.  Interlopers were suspect, until they had established their bona fides by gambling often enough and in sufficient quantity.  A weekend bettor who wagered ‘chump change’ was tolerated, but not taken very seriously.  The true steel of a man (and they were mostly men) was measured in how well he could take a loss; whether he could stand the pain.  Wins were also expected to be taken in their stride.  While a certain level of exuberance was expected, excessive gloating was considered to be going beyond the pale.  After all, one man’s good fortune was invariably another man’s pain.


Rivalries could emerge, some petty and transient, some serious and longstanding.  Frequently these revolved around debts, other times  personal betting styles, on occasion people just didn’t like each other.  This presented difficulties, as the limited real estate of the racetrack meant it was nearly impossible to stay away from people who rubbed you the wrong way, or brought on bad luck.  On the other hand, great friendships could spring up at the track, which frequently carried over into ‘real life’.

People exhibited a range of behaviours while a race was being run.  Some were steely eyed observers, so called trip handicappers, who watched the entire race to note subtle events that escaped the scrutiny of the average fan.  Perhaps a horse broke badly from the gate, but otherwise ran a superior race.  Perhaps it got boxed in, or had a bad ride from the jockey, or suffered some kind of bad ‘racing luck’.  The smart handicapper tried to keep account of these things, to use to his advantage when this horse went off at good odds on another race.

Other bettors allowed themselves to get swept up in the moment, with eyes for their horse only.  These tended to be the screamers and shouters, urging their horse on with word and gesture, foul means or fair.  This could get tricky; my brother Russ swore that a friend of his could affect the outcome of a race just by shouting.  When I doubted the likelihood of that he would say, “Don’t you think the jockeys can’t hear Cliff.  That man’s voice can carry a long way, and he can rattle people.”  I think Russ thought Cliff had some kind of voodoo, but within the context of the racetrack the idea didn’t seem totally impossible. 

I tried to fit in somewhere between these extremes, being neither a betting machine nor a crazed fanatic.  That wasn’t easy, and I am afraid I lost it on many occasions.

Money was the ostensible reason that we were there, so its presence, or more likely its absence, was keenly felt.  There was an expectation that someone who had scored any kind of a reasonably sized win would be generous.  A round of beer perhaps, or a small loan to someone who had already blew his racing wad.  It would not do to get the reputation of a piker.  This made it doubly difficult to maintain a profit at the track.  Usually, one bet real money (i.e. money you had worked for), and won play money (i.e. gambling money that one was not expected to be tight with).  However, it was expected that over the long run a rough parity would emerge, as long as everyone kept to the unspoken rules.

Gambling debts were ubiquitous, and could be hard to keep track of.  Small loans weren’t really expected to be paid back.  Again, over time it was expected that the principle of reciprocity would apply, and everyone would come out even.  However, anyone who was thought to be taking advantage of this rule was considered deeply suspect.  Larger loans were expected to be repaid.  This was easier said than done, so it could create friction when one was dealing with someone who was badly in the grip of a losing streak.


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.

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