04/08/2015 2:49PM

Fornatale: Why I will never wish a handicapper good luck


You’re not going to hear me wish you good luck if you’re playing in a handicapping contest. I certainly understand the critical – you could even say paramount – role that luck plays. No rational person could deny that. But somehow, admitting how important luck can be, right before a contest no less, feels like bad form – like telling the leading lady, “Have a great show!” on opening night.

Jonathon Kinchen noticed this quality of mine shortly after meeting me. “I’ve met a lot of people, including you, who don’t say good luck,” the National Handicapping Championship Tour leader said. “I work really hard. I try to spend 30 minutes to an hour on every race. But you still have to be lucky.”

There are all kinds of luck: There’s racing luck, decision-making luck, and there’s the luck that you don’t want your opponents to have. All of these things are out of our control. And yet we see so many of the same players consistently be in a position to win week after week. These players don’t spend their energy worrying about what they can’t control – luck. They spend it controlling the elements that they can – doing the work, being prepared for the task at hand, getting in the right mental state for optimal decision making.

It’s not magic. The best players aren’t wizards, they are card counters in a casino, turning the percentages ever so slightly to their advantage so they can win in the end. In aggregate, they don’t need luck. Maybe they need the absence of bad luck, but that sounds like a hollow thing to say to someone about to enter a competition. Over the years, I’ve come up with a preferred phrase to say to racing friends in all contexts, whether they are owners, trainers, jockeys, agents, or bettors: godspeed.

In the case of the horsemen, the wish is pretty literal: I hope your rider and your horse come back safely. With the gamblers, there’s an element of metaphor, but the message remains the same. Kinchen, for one, appreciated the sentiment. “In the overall scheme of things as a horseplayer, godspeed is appropriate,” he said. “At the end of the day, at the end of the week, at the end of the month, we just want to be ahead. That’s the whole purpose of what it is that we do.”

On any given day, you’re going to need all kinds of luck to win a tournament, but to me, to wish you mere “luck” is to deny the work you’ve done and is vaguely insulting. Even if we know we don’t have a large measure of control when playing in a tournament, I think players are better off – at least in the moment – acting as if they do.

I once spoke with Brian Burke, a statistician and a former Navy F-18 pilot. His website, www.AdvancedNFLStats.com, does for football what Bill James did for baseball. Burke told me something I’ve never forgotten: “Every time a pilot goes on a mission, there is a chance he is not coming back. As a statistician, I know that’s the truth. But the guy actually flying the plane can’t think that way. In his mind, he’s got to know with 100 percent certainty that the mission’s success is completely within his control.”

And that’s why I say godspeed.