Learning To Bet From The Dolphins

Charles Carroll

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There is a level of play in horse race betting that I’ve never seen.  I keep hearing it exists, but I guess I’ve never moved in those circles.  This level consists of the huge bettors.  The whales of handicapping.  These are the guys who are rumored to make a million or more a year through the windows.  Sometimes there are names attached to the stories, but I won’t mention them here, because maybe they are real and wouldn’t like it and might whack me out.  I don’t know if they’re real guys who are “legendary”—or mythological guys who railbirds made up—but I’m not taking any chances.

There is some plausibility to these guys’ existence because the Las Vegas casino rebates (a percentage of the takeout was returned to major players just to have their action) was so significant that it was outlawed in Nevada a couple of years ago.  Reportedly, some of these heavyweights who had moved in from NYOTB, then moved on to other pastures.  I know it sounds like an urban legend, but the law is real, so I guess we can deduce they existed.  (There’s actually a lot more to it than that, and it’s an interesting story of modern powers in this business of racing/simulcasting/Las Vegas/California/and greed so check it out when you can.)

What I do not get, though, is how these dudes made (or make) the million-plus a year through the windows.  No, seriously!  In order to take back a million, do you know how many millions you have to put through?  Many, many—even at moderate odds—but if you put many millions through, you’re not going to get “moderate” odds—you’re going to get miniscule odds because of the pari-mutuelness of the sport.  My brain gets a little bent when I think about it.  How would you do that?  What are the logistics?  Maybe $25K a pop into big pools at Belmont?  Dropping $2K into a claiming race at Fonner Park is likely to cause a minus pool, so where are you sending your money in order to spread your millions?  I did hear Barry Meadow (reputedly a $500K per annum dolphin, if not whale) mention, in one of his talks at the last Expo, finding a small, virtual sure-thing overlay in a Place proposition somewhere and pounding it hard.  I didn’t catch the amount, but I can buy that (I have a soft spot for Place overlays, and reason to believe that Barry is a straight-shooter), so that’s one area where you might slip some serious cash.  To run even a half-mil through the windows each year, though, you’d need a lot of high-quality shots—and they’d better be high-quality, or you’d be a $2 bettor next year.  Forgedaboutit—if I ever have to spread a million I’ll worry about it then.

In the meantime, have you ever thought about why you seem to be lighter the majority of the time when you come home from the track?  I certainly hope so—not that I hope you’re losing, but that you recognize the reality of “variance” that I wrote about earlier in this column.  According to most of the information you see—by far—most horse race fans are $100-a-day-or-less bettors.  If that’s what you are, you’ll go home lighter more often than not—but there is a very important lesson to be learned from the whales.  I have never met the true, Great Blue Whales of horse race betting, but I have met a significant number of “dolphins.”  Barry Meadow provided his figures in public, so I guess he’s okay with having them out there.  Others I know have not made them public, so I’m not about to; but I will tell you one thing that’s universal among the other moderately-heavy-weight bettors whom I either know or have met: they all readily admit that they do not grind out their living from small steady profits on routine, day-to-day bets.  Every last one reports a very small positive—or even negative—return from routine bets.  Their real profits—their livingscome from occasional major scores.

Smaller players spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about “Return On Investment” (“ROI”).  If you think about the dolphin scenario above, I suppose, theoretically, you could calculate an ROI—but what would it mean?  If a dolphin’s records show dozens or hundreds of $10, $50, and $100 bets, which produce a very slight positive or negative ROI, plus five or six big scores, suppose you take away or add one big score?  Better yet, suppose, as I’ve heard Andy Beyer report a couple of times, it was one huge score at the end of a meet that pulled his butt out of the fire?  Take away that score, your ROI is pathetic; add another one like it, and it’s humongous.  Because these scores are so ephemeral—far more so than routine wins and losses—and because they are central to winning players’ profits, the effort of worrying about day-to-day ROI is one of those stationary bicycle exercises: you build up a terrific sweat but the scenery doesn’t change.

The first lesson, which $100-a-day players with a serious profit motive can learn from the “dolphins” is that the goal is not grinding out a small “ROI” from routine $5, $10, and $20 bets. (Even though, as I pointed out last time, you should keep scrupulous records of bets no matter how small.)  The goal is to use routine bets to stay in the game and stay on top of your game, so that when the opportunity to score appears, you recognize it and pound it.

The second lesson is the hardest of all:  to realize that the “big scores” that you shoot for with a limited daily bankroll—(for the vast majority of handicappers “bankroll” really means “percent-of-pocket”)—must be in proportion to your betting power.  If you are a $100-a-day bettor, and your normal condition is to go home lighter (which is normal, and I’ll talk about that explicitly next time), then a $350 score every now and then should keep you well—and a more rare $600 or $700 score should put you in tall cotton.  These types of figures are far more realistic than trying to swing for the fences with propositions like Pick-Sixes, where vast numbers of small fish tend to be swallowed by the whales.  If you want to build toward Dolphin-level play, the trick is not to do windmill-pirouettes like Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa, but to choke up on the bat and become a solid, placement hitter.


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