03/23/2016 11:39AM

Fornatale: UBC champ finds his game


Brian Gross is on top of the handicapping contest world at the moment. Last weekend he won the Stronach Group's inaugural Ultimate Betting Challenge and walked away with a total haul worth more than $65,000. Despite that recent success, he appreciates that racing is really a game of ups and downs.

"Horse racing is such a frustrating and challenging sport," said the 52-year old mergers-and-acquisitions adviser." You start your Saturday morning with this almost childlike optimism for what the afternoon could hold, and yet, most of the time, you wind up mad at yourself for all the poor choices you made, vowing to never make them again."

More than once, Gross has even considered "retiring" from the game. But like a wrestler who loses a loser-leaves-town match, the idea never seems to stick. "After a few good nights of sleep, I feel a bit more refreshed," he explained, "and by Friday, I am ready to come out of retirement once again... just in time for Saturday’s races."

Gross waxes philosophical when he talks about his handicapping process. "If you think about it, the typical handicapper can be likened to a rich and colorful tapestry," he said. "The key is that you can’t forget that you are the artist. This is a constant struggle for me as a handicapper. It’s easy to blame the horses, jockeys, trainers, and trips, but most of the time we create our own problems."

Some of these problems can be solved by simple self-analysis -- or help from a close source. In Gross's case, that source was his brother Kevin, also a handicapper. "He once casually observed that I tend to burn through my bankroll early in a racing card, almost as a necessary step before I can gather myself enough to go on and hit my most lucrative wagers," he said.

The theory was that Gross didn’t find it interesting enough just to win, he had to create a “rags-to-riches” component to it, a hero’s journey for all the Joseph Campbell fans out there. Sound far-fetched? "Well, at first I thought it was a ridiculous critique," Gross said, "but I have grown to learn that he was absolutely right, and I’ve tried to adjust my wagering behavior as a result. He pointed out a weak thread in my tapestry, but it was up to the artist in me to fix it."

Handicapping horses is important, but the best players will learn to handicap themselves. To elucidate this, Gross made an analogy between financial markets and horse racing. "A handicapper is very similar to a successful, privately held business," he explained.  "Most businesses do only two or three thing exceptionally well, and have another two or three things they do very poorly, and in everything else, they are very average.  The key to maximizing value for the business is very simply knowing how to highlight your strengths, accept your average skills, and lessen the 'land-mine' risks of your weaknesses."

The racing applications here should be obvious. Through record keeping, you can find the areas where you excel and avoid the ones where you don't. This comes into play all the time in any contest where there are optional races, but can also factor in your decision about which contests with mandatory races you should choose to play.

Your self-analysis should also extend to the mental side of the game, according to Gross. "Your own personal biases and beliefs are the lens through which all handicapping and wagering decision are made," he said, "Take a personal assessment as to how those biases and beliefs are impacting your decision-making process, positively and negatively. If you see something you don’t like, make a note of it, and consciously be aware of it as you work through your handicapping and wagering decisions."

One mistake he sees all the time is a player who thinks he can solve all the various complexities of the game all at once. Instead, he recommends working to achieve small, sustainable improvements. "In their desire to achieve success quickly, players wind up making no sustainable improvements at all," Gross said. "Rather than trying to solve everything all at once, try to make a tiny, yet sustainable improvement in your approach. It won’t seem like much at the time, but the compounding benefit will be huge."

That's pretty good advice when it comes to how one can master the science -- and the art -- of handicapping.