Updated on 09/16/2011 7:41AM

A moment of parimutuel truth


ARCADIA, Calif. - A well-meaning handicapper offered advice to a slumping colleague.

"Bet twice as much to place as you do to win," he said, "that way, you will be able to stay in action a lot longer."

The recommendation makes sense. For losers.

You see, there are two ways to play this game. One can play to "stay in action," which is how most people approach parimutuel wagering. Or one can play to win.

Despite their best intentions, most horseplayers play it safe. The higher the odds, the less they bet. The goal, it seems, is bankroll preservation. The goal is to stay in action, to play as long as possible before tapping out. This is a mentality of horseplayers destined to a lifetime of losing. How sad.

One young horseplayer believed he could generate a stream of wagering profit through bold, creative handicapping. But over time, a terrible thing happened. The once-innovative handicapper went soft.

He began to play it safe by seeking refuge in low-odds overlays. He thought he could grind out a profit by wagering on 3-1 shots who should be 2-1. He believed he could find value in 8-1 shots who should be 6-1. He came to believe he could consistently outsmart the betting public.

It was an arrogant belief, for no individual handicapper is smarter than the masses. No handicapper is able to consistently pick more winners than the public, which identifies the winner 33 percent of the time. Short-price overlays may allow a bettor to cash a high number of tickets, but long-range profits cannot be achieved at low odds.

The handicapper treaded water. Winning seasons were random, typically the result of an unusual streak of hot handicapping, or a major score on an exotic wager. It was more of the latter, and less of the former. Losing seasons outnumbered winning years.

Eventually, it became clear that "grinding it out" on short-priced overlays might keep a bettor in action, but it was not a path to profit. It was not playing to win. It was playing merely for the sake of playing. Over time, it became clear that parimutuel profit depended on occasionally hitting one out of the park.

The handicapper, realizing old habits die hard, determined to change. He would forsake 3-1 shots that lead to breaking even. Instead, he would try finding longshot nuggets. He knew he could not outsmart the betting public in the low-odds range, but he also knew the public does make mistakes. Sometimes, the public overlooks a borderline contender, and allows a horse that should be 8-1, to drift to 30-1. Those were the horses the handicapper would seek.

Trouble was, half the parimutuel battle takes place inside a horseplayer's mind. This is a game of mental anguish, obligatory discipline, cold-hearted decision-making. It all sounds good, but putting plans into action is easier said than done.

A moment of truth arrived last summer at Hollywood Park. The handicapper was keen to wager on a longshot first-time starter in a maiden sprint, the fourth race July 1. The horse was bred to win early (by Carson City), and had trained well. He was the handicapper's second preference, but his top choice offered no value at odds-on.

It was Hollywood Gold Cup day, and the handicapper was late getting to the track. There were five minutes to post for race 4 as he rushed inside, glanced at a program, and did a double-take at the tote board. He thought the first-time starter on which he planned to wager was 3-1. The maiden was an open secret, a public snowball.

Despite preplanned strategy to wager only on longshot overlays, the resigned handicapper wagered anyway. Short price and all. As the horses approached the starting gate, he looked again at the program. Stunned, he realized he had made a horrible mistake.

The horse he planned to wager was a different number - he had wagered on the wrong horse. He looked at the tote board again, and was stunned again. The first-time starter - the object of his fancy - was hanging up there at 30-1.

There was time to cancel his $50 win bet on the 3-1 shot, the wrong horse. He cancelled.

Suddenly, the question turned. Was the handicapper brave enough to wager the same $50 on 30-1 longshot Ran D Scott? Most bettors, faced with higher odds, reduce the size of their wager.

It was a moment of truth that would forever change how the handicapper played the game. What would you have done?

Ran D Scott, off at 29-1 paid $60.20.