Like all horseplayers, I pick up my copy of the Daily Racing Form every morning. Before turning to the past performances that are the tools of the horseplayer's trade, I look at the ads, and if I did not know better, I would drool.
For a mere $40 a fellow named Frederick S. Davis promises to confide in me how he has "achieved the first truly scientific study of performance patterns." Beautiful! For an unspecified fee I can learn how to pick long shots from an institution that sounds as if it is sponsored by Harvard, an organization awesomely known as the National Academy of Thoroughbred Handicapping.
For $30—what a bargain!—a man named Tom Ainslie will tell me how to determine if a horse is spotted at the right distance, whether his jockey suits him and whether he can run in the mud. Indeed he will give me his "private method," guaranteed to help me "handicap more successfully." I happen to know this man and his real name isn't Tom Ainslie, but never mind. If I were in his business, I wouldn't use my real name either.
To all these great teachers of handicapping, offering me these sure routes to picking winners and becoming rich beyond my wildest dreams, I can only say thank you, but I think I will keep the $30 or the $40 or the unspecified fee and let you make your money at the races—since you're so good at it—rather than off me.
Gentlemen of the Racing Form ads, I have been going to the races for almost half a century, very likely longer than any of you. I almost certainly have been to more racetracks (about 60) and seen more races (about 20,000) than any of you. I happen to have a lifetime profit on the horses, something I doubt that any of you can truly claim. But if anybody offered me $30 or $40 or an unspecified fee to show him how to make money betting the horses, I would say:
Forget it. Anybody who tries to get rich handicapping is crazy. It can't be done. There are no systems. Playing the horses is an entertainment, like going to the movies, and you have to pay the admission fees. What's great about betting on horses is not that you can make money at it but that it's more fun and cheaper in the long run than many pleasures. Like owning a boat. Or traveling in Europe.
One reason you can't find a surefire system for handicapping was demonstrated by a horse I once owned named Dr. Dubious. As a 2-year-old, this was one of the worst horses in racing history. In sprints, he showed no speed. In distance races, he showed no closing kick. What can you do with a horse that starts slow and quits in the stretch?
I gave up on him. I was making arrangements to give him away to a friend who had just bought a farm and wanted a slow-going saddle horse. Then, the day he turned three, Dr. Dubious ran against a pretty good field down in Florida, stayed close to a fast pace, finished gamely, won and paid $164.40. My chagrin at not having a nickel on him was mitigated by the knowledge that he had proved himself a good horse that would win the same kind of race again.
He never did. In subsequent years he won some races for a $2,000 claiming price around New England, but he never again ran as well as he did on that one unexpected and amazing day. Why?
Who knows? Horses are like that. They will lose by a city block in race after race, then suddenly will run 20 lengths faster than they ever ran before, after which they may just as suddenly lapse into their losing ways.