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Monday, February 17, 2014
Job description

By Jay Cronley
Special to ESPN.com

I recently took somebody new to horse race wagering to the race track. She was smart, with the most logical definition of intelligence finally having come to mean the application of memory into real world solutions.

An indelible memory might get a person an "A" on a history exam, or a crown at a spelling bee, but it might not get him or her out of an illogical situation. Just how creative could a child savant really be?

Horse race data can be found in the past performances. Horse race intelligence comes in the translation to winners.

With ESPN.com's first Kentucky Derby poll starting this week, and the Triple Crown season gaining focus, I thought that a fresh outlook on the sport and its wagering angles could be beneficial. The person new to the game was aware of the highlights, the three big spring and summer races, of its major stars like Secretariat, and of the problem gambler or shady character images that a picture of a horse race track could foretell in literature or on any screen.

Before going to some races, I went over a set of past performances with the person fresh to the game, line by line, item by item, explaining the obvious angles and vagaries of the sport.

The first thing to poke this newcomer in the eye was something race-goers seem to put out of their minds, the house cut that approaches 20 percent per wagering pool.

The first thing to poke this newcomer in the eye was something race-goers seem to put out of their minds, the house cut that approaches 20 percent per wagering pool. My guest found this financial arrangement to resemble skullduggery pure and simple, a skim off the top of the cash before distributing the remainder to the peasants, the bettors, with the losers paying the winners. My explanation was that no "house" edge existed in horse racing, no roulette or slot machine or blackjack percentage that guaranteed a profit. So the fee charged on every pool was the price to be paid for making a game, for putting the horses and handicappers together in as safe an environment as was possible. True, with the infusion of slot machine or casino riches into horse racing, house cuts have not been lowered. But the stiff fee was something a person endured for the love of the game. Or something like that.

But, I was asked: Straight roulette or blackjack or dice house odds were nowhere near 17 percent, were they?

Um, nope.

If a house blackjack edge was 17 percent, nobody in his or her right mind would ever play a hand, right?

That's possible.

After hearing about all the types of wagers, the person fresh to horse racing said that the only bet that made any sense was the multiple-win investment, the doubles and the pick 3, 4 and 6, as only one house cut per pool was taken. And, given the average bettor's propensity to stick near the obvious, these wagers on a single exotic-type ticket would pay far more than would individual win bets.

As for the horse races themselves, the newcomer found the following to be anywhere from somewhat to completely unbelievable:

Most people at the track bet every race. That would not be like betting on every football game. It would be like betting on what would happen on every play in a football game. Betting every race at every track made available through simulcasting was the definition of irresponsible gambling. Betting most races was confirmation that pure luck was a major component when it came to handicapping a horse race.

Another cautionary sight was the large sums of money being trusted to people with unknown standards, and to animals. The person new to the track said that much more information about the human beings involved in the care and training of a horse would be extremely beneficial, even if it only involved taped interviews of riders and barn workers and owners.

Who would I trust the most with a hundred-dollar bill, somebody with style and reasonable grammar, or somebody jumpy?

What was studied most on this race day was why horses might have just won.

On a pick four sequence, the only smart money, or big money, that mattered was put on a first-time maiden special starter that opened at 4-1 went off at 6-5 and won by a mile. According to my guest, it was reasonable to expect that more would be known about an expensive first-time starter than something more fragile and much less valuable. In another of the pick four contests, in a non-winners of two race, a horse with no speed and two rotten outings in its last couple of efforts showed speed and won at 7-1. The two lousy races were from outside posts at longer distances. So it was theorized by my guest that the horse might have had excuses in its last two races, efforts that could have been thrown out. In another of the pick four races, the favorite in a sprint had the lead but drifted out and bothered two others. The rail opened up and a long shot more or less walked along the rail for the victory. The final Pick 4 race was on the turf and involved a photo finish with one wide and with one in the middle. One was drifting out, one was pulling in. Careful study of the tendencies exhibited before this race showed that both horses had a history of fast closing fractions. As turf courses are more consistent that dirt, one might think that consistent quick closing fractions might mean something. The horse pulling toward the inside won the turf race and paid in double figures.

After a day at the horse races, here's what an intelligent person new to the game thought.

Winning money on a scratch-off lottery card was easier.