01/13/2016 11:29AM

Fornatale: Fisher uses Big Data to get handicapping edge


John Fisher has been a racing fan for three or four decades, ever since he first went to the track at Longacres in Seattle. He loves the sport of racing but the gambling side in particular. “Unlike Vegas, where the odds are relatively fixed, you’re betting against your peers,” he said, “and if you can be a little bit good, you actually can make money.”

Fisher is technically retired, but if you saw his office – complete with four 40-inch screens showing races from around the country – you’d think he was a professional horseplayer. He’s been a contest player since the early days, but he’s stepped up his interest in the last five years. “It’s been a learning process as the players have gotten smarter and better,” he said.

Fisher, 61, who worked as an engineer at Boeing for many years, has been developing his own handicapping software program for the past 30 years – he calls it Merlin – to assist in his study of the races. “The goal was to develop an objective tool that helps me make decisions,” he said. “I change it all the time to improve it. It’s been an incredible challenge over the years trying to program a person’s brain via handicapping.”

It hasn’t been easy. The old expression when it comes to programming is “garbage in, garbage out.” “I’ve spent a lot of time over the years getting my butt kicked because I had a lot of garbage in,” Fisher said.

He describes Merlin as “the summation of a ton of experience.”

“I’ve done a lot of reading about stock-market analysis and options trading to see how the big boys do it,” he said. “There’s a lot of data and weighting of the race with an eye towards picking the winner. I do a ton of analysis of what went right and went wrong, and I try to incorporate all of that.”

Part of the challenge of programming for racing is that not all races are created equal. Merlin can’t be a cookie-cutter tool. “Every race is different, and different factors matter more, so there are a lot of unique algorithms in there,” Fisher said.

The point of Merlin, which he still reprograms weekly, is to get an edge. “Everyone has their own tools,” he said. “I created Merlin because I wanted to do something different than what anybody else is doing.”

Fisher still handicaps, but the program saves him time. “It helps me speed up the process,” he said. “I don’t have to do work on the card the night before. Instead, I can wait until after scratches come in. Scratches can and do significantly alter the complexion of races, and now I can be more limber and agile, and the tool helps me with that.”

When he retired, Fisher became involved in horse ownership as well. He owns horses with West Point Thoroughbreds and Sovereign Stables. “That’s been a great experience, and it’s helped me as a handicapper,” he said. “I’m starting to learn more about how different trainers think. They all have their own style, and now I have a chance to pick their brains.”

In 2015, Fisher decided to play less online and focus more on live-bankroll tournaments. He won five entries into contests at Gulfstream and Santa Anita via DRFQualify.com and qualified for the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge via BCQualify.com. He originally hoped to win his way into the National Handicapping Championship at one of those live-bankroll events but wasn’t able to.

Fisher said he’s played in the NHC four or five times.

“I was happy with the year I’d had and pretty much accepted that the NHC wasn’t going to happen for me this year,” he said.

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Last weekend, he decided to make one final run at the NHC via the DRFBets.com online event. With the help of Merlin, he had a few winners throughout the contest.

“I didn’t look at the leaderboard all day,” Fisher said. “I stayed focused and tried to pick winners.”

With three races to go, Fisher finally peeked at the board to see his two entries in third and fourth place, with the top three earning seats in Las Vegas. Then he saw that his third-place entry was actually in a tie and that the tiebreaker was who signed up first for the event. He didn’t think that would be him because he signed up late.

“I was ecstatic, but I knew I’d need a winner – any winner – to pass Jill [Himes] and claim third place for myself,” he said.

He ended up passing the seventh race, where he liked the even-money winner, and felt a little sick. But he refocused with the help of Merlin and backed the wire-to-wire winner, Lily Pod at 2-1. He checked the board to see that Himes had the same horse, but they were both now in qualifying position. He just needed to pick the winner of the last race.

Merlin pointed to the favorite, Moonie, and the chestnut filly obliged. Fisher was going to the NHC after all. “I was very fortunate,” he said. “If any price horse had come in, everybody below me would have had it and whooshed right by me.”

Fisher has tasted NHC success before. Back in 2006, while playing in partnership with his wife, Cheryl, they were in first place going into the last race when NHC Hall of Famer Ron Rippey passed them with a first-time starter. Still, the experience was positive.

“It was just exciting,” he said, “and it was neat to be in contention. My wife thought it was fun and easy, and I had to explain to her, ‘Not really, it’s a lot of hard work.’ ”

That hard work has been paying off for Fisher, and with the help of Merlin, his name will be appearing on a leaderboard near you in 2016.