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Learning To Bet From The Dolphins

 - By Charles Carroll

There is a level of play in horse race betting that Ive never seen.  I keep hearing it exists, but I guess Ive 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 wont 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.  (Theres actually a lot more to it than that, and its 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 minuscule 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 thats 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 theyd better be high-quality, or youd be a $2 bettor next year.  Forgedaboutitif I ever have to spread a million Ill 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 sonot that I hope youre losing, but that you recognize the reality of variance that I wrote about earlier in this column.  According to most of the information you seeby farmost horse race fans are $100-a-day-or-less bettors.  If thats what you are, youll go home lighter more often than notbut 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 hes okay with having them out there.  Others I know have not made them public, so Im not about to; but I will tell you one thing thats 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 positiveor even negative return from routine bets.  Their real profits their livings come 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 ROIbut what would it mean?  If a dolphins 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 Ive 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 its humongous.  Because these scores are so ephemeralfar more so than routine wins and lossesand 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 doesnt 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 Ill talk about that explicitly next time), then a $350 score every now and then should keep you welland 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.