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Horse Racing

Remember you’re unique, just like everybody else

unique or wise guy?

I’ve been musing on a few things lately, and one of them has been the benefit, or otherwise of the wisdom of others, and how best to use it. As is my wont, I’ve remembered snippets of conversations I’ve had, or lines from articles, books and films which have stuck in my mind, and which I’ve tried to revisit to remind myself of why I’ve kept them in my head.

One thing I have found is that although the snippets I’ve remembered are useful to me in the way I recall them, when I dig back through the source material, I often find that my recollection is faulty, and what was said or written is less inspiring than I remembered. And yet the feeling of learning something valuable remains.

What I’ve realised is that I often remember certain words, or a passage in a book, or even a scene from a movie, not because those words, or that scene, was of enormous importance, but something about the moment in which it was experienced triggered a learning experience, or a feeling of certainty about something, or the moment a universal truth clicked, and what you’re left with is an indelible marker of that moment.

An epiphany at the cinema

I’ll given an example – I once had an epiphany while watching An American Werewolf In London, and it didn’t involve Jenny Agutter. I know. I’m not sure why I had an epiphany while watching An American Werewolf In London, but I can still remember the exhilaration I experienced, and the feeling of absolute certainty I had that I needed to make an immediate and drastic change in my life (still not Jenny Agutter – please pay attention).

The point is not that AAWIL has any gratuitous careers advice contained within the script, or that a life-changing decision was made entirely randomly while watching it. The two are related, but obliquely, and in a way I can’t quite put my finger on.

“How does this relate to betting”, I hear you ask. “I’m five paragraphs in, and nobody’s mentioned 10-year trends”. I feel your pain, but by definition, this is a circuitous journey. I went searching for a gem of wisdom written by my old Timeform Radio colleague Dave Farrar about the folly of backing what he termed ‘wise guy horses’.

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Looking to refresh my memory, I picked up a copy of Dave’s book The Perfect Punter, which details his quest to turn himself from an impulsive, emotional losing punter into a logical, hard-headed winner. It’s really about girls. Most books are about girls when push comes to shove, even the ones about betting, or Arsenal.

Invoking Seinfeld’s ‘His father was a mudder’

I found when I eventually found the section that dealt with the concept of the wise guy horse that my recollection of what I’d read and what was on the page were very different, but that I’d unconsciously combined it with another nugget in the same chapter to find a truth that worked for me, but which I’ve let lapse. It occurred to me afterwards that the thing I remembered wasn’t genius, but that it was merely a marker for me to remember something slightly different. It involved his visit to the 2011 Belmont Stakes.

Dave defines a wise guy horse as the kind of horse who creates a buzz simply because a plausible tipster passes on the name of the horse to someone who recognises the plausibility, and passes it off as his own tip to others who will do the same; there has to be some angle to explain in order to justify the selection, and the popularity is due to the angle. The angle makes the tipster seem clued up, and in a world of bluffers, that’s the aim. Type “His father was a mudder” into the search bar on YouTube, and you’ll see what I mean. Or simply play the embedded video here:

The idea of the wise guy horse, and why you should avoid it is obvious enough, although flawed. Dave characterises the wise guys as bluffers, who are only interested in looking clever, rather than trying to find real value, and the story works as the wise guy horse in the book is well beaten, but it’s worth pointing out that the horse in question ended up as the best horse in the field, and at least some of the wise guys end up looking pretty smart after all.

Are we sometimes too clever for our own good?

What I’d forgotten was that the point of the chapter wasn’t that you should be smarter than the bluffers, but that by setting yourself against them, you are creating an illusion that you are different, that the way you think is unique, and that you will rise above others because of your belief in this individuality. This truth is something Dave reads in a book called The Art of Choosing, a book he picked up because he’d decided at the last minute to change his selections for the big race, thereby missing out on a big-priced winner.

The book he chose included a section called “I Am Unique, Just Like Everybody Else”, and began with a description of the reader, which uncannily identified all those positive traits we believe we possess that other people just can’t see. The realisation is that almost all of us recognise in ourselves positive characteristics that we think are underestimated by others, while simultaneously ignoring the same characteristics in them. In short, most of us are too clever for our own good, or at least we think we are.

Rather than being the guy who knowingly shakes his head at the wise guys, chasing diminishing returns on hyped-up horses, I find that more and more, I AM that wise guy, able to spot that the 2/1 paper favourite for the Class 7 handicap who has won once in its last 25 starts and is drawn in stall 16 of 16 might be vulnerable, while the 11/1 shot who was seventh last time, but was actually pretty unlucky in running and has dropped below its last winning mark, might just get the run of things.

Following the crowd by accident

That’s very clever, unless of course you wake up to discover that the 2/1 favourite is now 13/2, and your 11/1 shot has been backed into 9/4. That is an example when being clever is not at all unique, and in a pursuit where value is of absolute importance, stumbling along with the crowd is not going to pay.

Believing the lie that connecting some blindingly obvious dots makes you smarter than someone who can see the same dots is a dangerous delusion, and getting to the obvious answer on your own does not mean you are alone in finding that answer.

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Most of us are smart enough to know that following favourites blind is not going to lead us to profit, but too many smart punters are happy to construct a narrative for backing a horse whose chance is not obvious, only to take much shorter odds than they should because other smart punters are making the same arguments. What matters isn’t that you think you’re being clever but whether you are actually getting over the odds.

If you have found a 20/1 shot on the tissue who is written off in the Racing Post Spotlight, but opens up at 6/1, congratulations – you’re smarter that the bloke who got paid £9 to write that analysis, but you’re not smarter than the market. If you insist on backing it at 6/1 anyway, then you’re no longer as smart as the guy with the £9 in his pocket.

Can you see something nobody else can see?

If you do rate yourself as a shrewd punter, then you either need to get on these wise guy gambles at the best price, or you need to regularly come up with horses who win despite starting bigger than the morning line odds would suggest. That is the definition of going against the crowd, and if you can do so and make a profit, you are doing something important right. If your reaction to your fancy drifting from 10/1 to twice those odds is to double your stake, and you’re still turning a profit, then you are close to true enlightenment.

We should strive to be unique in our analysis if possible, but we need to ensure that this is not a false construct. Seeing something that others don’t see is a big advantage, but if we believe we can see something that others don’t, the proof is first in the market. If we are genuinely insightful, then we must be happy to bet at big prices, and the fact that the crowd are betting against us should not be a concern.

The crowd lasts longer than the wise guy

Otherwise we are merely part of that crowd, and doomed to failure at a rate determined by the speed of our reactions, or we are chancers, bluffers, wise guys, doomed to failure by the mistaken belief that we are smarter than the crowd. The crowd lasts longer.

The last word on this topic is best left to the excellent Lydia Hislop, who sums up the zen-like attitude of the mature bettor. Talking about backing a horse who was being roundly written off, she wrote recently:

“I’m never more comfortable than when holding an outlying position in horseracing. It calms me.”


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