Saturday, May 7, 2011

Horse Sense

The mathematical gymnastics involved in picking horses in a race is a bit too much like astrology for me. Some people say it's the horse that matters; others maintain it's all about the jockey. Still others make their decision based on the trainer, while some even place the most stock in the horse's lineage. The data on a racing form is a complicated web of interconnected checks and balances on a horse's viability, and interpreting it can be a headache. Just when you think you've picked a winner, you then notice how poorly it fared in the statistics on its most recent other races.

And in the final analysis, what makes or breaks a winner is often up to factors that aren't even reflected in a handicapper's analysis: the quality of the track, the horse's starting position, and unpredicable elements of chance like whether the jockey or the horse gets a stomach-ache or a muscle cramp just before post time. The way the soil is arranged in one specific spot on the track could result in a slight misstep by a horse that is just enough to make it lose its lead. Nature and physics are filled with almost infinite variables, and you could go mad trying to second-guess them all like Ace Rothstein in Casino.

Sometimes, the best thing to do is just throw up your hands, and throw a random dart at the field. After all, even leaving it to randomity, your odds are far better in a horse race than at, say, poker. There's only a few horses, and no matter what, three of them are going to win, place, and show. I always bet on the underdog and the long shot, because even a stopped clock is right twice a day and if that nag does defy the odds and come in, you're in the money. I also like to pick one that isn't the favorite, but is a close contender. Winning a race with the favorite is a real drag for everyone involved because you don't make any serious money; unless you just like to brag about having won. Me, I like the folding green, the shekels, the scratch, the long dough. (And you're gonna need it after the overpriced mint juleps at Churchill Downs that use Early Times whiskey, which technically isn't even a bourbon.)

But more often than not, I'll select horses just because I find personal relevance in their nomenclature. I like "Decisive Moment" (pictured above) because I feel like the whole world is experiencing one as we speak, plus there have been more than a few story-arc-changing decisive moments in my own personal life in the last several months. Picking a horse for the Downardian symbolism in its name is no sillier than pretending to have done the calculus required to figure all the angles of the mathematical maze presented in any given race. Most guys scoul at their racing form intently with a look of deep cogitation, pretending they know what they're doing, then announce their choice as if it's come about from precision juggling of hundreds of factors in their mind.

They're bluffing.

Just pick a horse and hope you win, Jack. Have some fun with it. This isn't like putting a man on the moon or electing a President. (Then again, many people seem to put more effort and research into their Derby pick than they do their Presidential election pick.) I won the Derby last year and the year before, and I don't even claim to know a thing about handicapping, except basic horse sense.

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