Thursday, March 31, 2011

Chaos Theory

Think about it. Your job, your passion as handicapper, bettor, gambler - whatever you call yourself - is to sort through innumerable data, figure both human and equine motivations, peer into the future based upon the past, play the odds, disregard the odds and make a few choices on who to bet, in what combination and for how much. Chaos for sure.

For a better take on this from a far more accomplished writer, I give you Bill Barich, from the New Yorker, writing about the beginning of a racing day at Golden Gate Park:
"About eleven-thirty, fans began arriving in steady streams, and as I watched them come in I had the sense of form evolving, something entirely apart from horses and jockeys. It was modeled on symmetry and coherence. The electronic devices around the track reinforced the fiction in the warmup patterns they flashed: The infield tote board showed four rows of zeros balanced on top of another, the closed-circuit TVs featured tiny dots boxed at perfect intervals within a neatly squared grid. The gift-shop lady displayed her horsehead bookends in a horseshoe-shaped arc, the popcorn lady, her striped smock in harmony with the trim of her booth, checked to see that the empty cardboard boxes she would later fill were distributed in evenly matched stacks. The fiction was carefully, if unconsciously, projected, and didn't begin to dissipate until the national anthem had been played and the horses came sauntering up from the barns in single file for the first race. Then order gave way to chaos.
The moment when horses enter the paddock before a race can be a bad one. Statistics that earlier seemed so definitive are translated peremptorily into flesh, and flesh is heir to miseries - bandaged legs, a limp, a nervous froth bubbling on a filly's neck. Many times, I've heard people groan when they saw what their figures had led them to - some poor creature with downcast eyes."
Yikes! While many among us don't make daily or weekly trips to the track - the fiction, the reality still plays itself out even from our couches and computers. When you're going good, well, you think that just maybe you've figured it all out - the master of the Thoroughbred betting universe. More than likely your betting tendencies are matching the races played out in front of you (or vice versa) and sure enough that fantasy of personal manifest destiny will crumble away...and hopefully you'll have a few bucks left in your pocket to tell about it.

Of course one of the largest stages of Thoroughbred racing chaos is the Kentucky Derby. Variables, always many, even in maiden claimers running six furlongs in a field of eight, compound themselves for the Derby. Among the new and dynamic betting conundrums that show up on Derby Day:
  • A new distance - 10 furlongs - that a majority of these colts will never run again
  • The cavalry charge of a 20-horse field and the major post position problems and traffic that come with it
  • 150,000 cheering...loudly
  • An almost always contested pace
  • A gigantic betting pool in which odds become nonsensical - 25-1 shots that should be 125-1 and exotics that pay handsomely even when two 5-1 shots finish in the money
  • Experience or lack there of by human connections
  • A souped up racing surface
And these are only a few of the many, many arbitrary winds that can blow through your handicapping mind. Which begs the question, how do cut through the white-noise, especially on the First Saturday in May to calmly, mathematically or esoterically find your winner?


  1. Great post Tony! I love the "Derby Chaos" every year, it makes it so fun to try and discover a winner (or even place runner) through your own methods of handicapping madness.
    I'm still working on a working system! :)


  2. Brian,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. The past two years, I've gone simply for a $1 tri and super part wheel - picking a winner and four underneath to box. That's at least my betting strategy...

  3. Enjoyed this post! Chaos is a good way to describe Derby Day. For me, as the Day goes on and it gets closer to Post Time, the excitement builds and I am NEVER calm. So I usually try to prepare extra early, but that doesn't mean I won't make some last minute changes after I see the post parade.

  4. Nice post Tony. As you noted the KY Derby is inherently chaotic for all the reasons you mentioned. Plus, you have relatively young horses that are still growing and putting on muscle - their form seems more prone to fluctuations than older horses. Always a tough nut to crack, but the most exciting race of the year.

    Btw, "chaos theory" is a handicapping framework I've used in the past and can lead to huge payoffs in the exotic pools.

  5. Susan,

    I have an event to attend on Derby Day - really who schedules anything on the first Saturday in May??? So I'll be making my plays well in advance...


    Anything like the "Chaos Theory" they study at MIT?????