“It’s been my experience that folks with no vices have very few virtues.”
I never bet.
Well, usually not. I’ll never play craps or other games of chance, but I have bet on one type of sport in the past: UFC fights. And here’s the rub: I’ve never lost.
Late last week I traveled to the Bluegrass capital of the world — Kentucky — to hang out with Drew Curtis, CEO of Fark.com, and decided to test my luck on a different sport: horse racing. The difference here, of course, is that I know a lot about fighting and absolutely nothing about horse racing.
The rub? I won cash on every race I personally put money on. I’ll tell you how I did it, but let’s begin at the beginning of the story…
Last Friday afternoon was perfect weather for seer sucker jackets and sun dresses. As we rolled into what many consider the best high-class racetrack in the world, Keeneland (where all the race scenes from Seabiscuit were filmed), everything was a first. Besides men in plaid pants, drive-through betting, and the best “whatever was left over from last night” stew on the planet, called “Burgoo” (the secret is pepper and bay leaves; I got a chef to spill the beans), there were a few other things that surprised me:
-The horses are implanted with GPS tracking devices in their heads to determine win order — and computerized replays — in close cases.
-The track is actually fake dirt, called PolyTrack, that looks like the emptied contents of a vacuum cleaner bag: synthetic fibers, recycled rubber, and silica, coated with wax and mixed with sand.
-The odds on a horse, and thus the potential return on a bet, are determined solely by what others bet; thus, the worst horse can appear to be the most likely to win if someone places money on it and other follow suit in mob reaction (or if the owner of another horse want to increase the ROI on his own horse by dropping his own horse’s odds).
Just as with anything, there are too many options and there is too much data. For a horse racing virgin — especially one being fed lots of fine bourbon — I was going to have to keep things simple. Here are a few things Drew, a damn smart cookie, taught me:
1. In the program, each race has the horses ranked by “handicapper” (what professional bettors, who watch practices and otherwise obsess on the sport, predict), “speed” (top speed, which is different from the average pace), and “class” (bloodline). If a horse is in all three, it’s a good bet in what’s called an “exactawheel” (explained below).
2. Don’t bet on a race unless there is a clear favorite winner. This keeps the “real” odds somewhat more predictable.
3. Don’t bet on a race if most horses haven’t been in races before, as there is no historical data, and practice stats aren’t reliable. I follow this same rule with fights. Competition changes all the numbers.
4. Some horses, even if they are the speed favorite, prefer to follow a lead horse and will slow down rather than take first place. Look for multiple second-place finishes as an indicator of this habit. Speed horses are also only potent in no-wind conditions.
5. A good jockey counts for a lot. Even though I rode quarterhorses for most of my youth and competed in barrel racing, I still don’t get this in a sprint race. I’m sure it makes a difference for some positioning, but that much? Apparently so. Drew always used to bet on a jockey named Pat Day, regardless of how crappy the horse was, and Pat won about 25% of the time. It was possible to hedge your bets and almost always come out ahead, so Drew was understandably pissed when Pat retired.
6. There are a million and one ways to place bets, but a few seemed better than others, so I focused on them:
a. Bet on number X to win if you have some form of proprietary knowledge: self-explanatory
b. Bet on a “follower” horse (explained above) for 2nd-place if it is the clear speed favorite with no wind.
b. Bet on number X to win and then “exactabox” number Y to place 2nd (“to place”) and number Z to place 3rd (“to show”), which means that you win if Y and Z come in in either order.
c. “Box” three horses for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place. This means that if your chosen horses come in in any order in the top three positions, you win.
d. Place small bets on “trifectas” and “superfectas,” which are predicting the exact order of 1st-3rd place and 1st-4th place, respectively. Some math whizzes will place $10-12K in mini-bets on all of the possible superfecta permutations on specific races of the Kentucky Derby.
So what happened? I didn’t win all of my bets, but I won money on all of the races I bet on. Most often, I would lose the “to-win” bet (what do I know?) but win a box or exactawheel for the first three positions. In one case, Drew and I won a superfecta.
On the last race of the day, I decided to strike out on my own and place an odd bet. Looking at race 10, there weren’t any clear favorites, but I had noticed a notation earlier in the day, “(L)”, which meant that it was the first time a horse had used Lasix in a race. From working with pro athletes and bodybuilders, I know that Lasix is a strong diuretic. I hypothesized that horses using it for the first time would either suffer organ failure or have a 15-20% performance improvement from decreased weight. I cross-referenced this “(L)” with the best-performing jockey from that group and placed a $5 bet on “Markdale” to win: a 27-to-1 underdog. I also placed three other $5 bets based on recommendations from handicappers and bookies.
Markdale won! I ended up pocketing slightly more than odds, so near $150, and that left me with a race profit of $130.
It isn’t my next career, but with a few glasses of world-class bourbon and great weather, it was one hell of a weekend.
Posted on: April 17, 2007.
Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.