The Illusion of Control

Ellen Langer

Ellen Langer (photo via

Psychologist Ellen Langer coined the term “illusion of control” for events that we think we have more influence over than we actually do.  As horseplayers, we feel we have some sort of control of the events of every horse race that we play.  Even with the intense training in optimal blackjack strategy and counting cards from my Uncle Dutch, I could never control the value of the next card.  I could only make an educated decision based on the information on hand.  This begs the question: how much of our destiny or profit do we actually control when playing the races?

The Amount Wagered

We are in control of the dollar volume that we push through the windows based on our available bankroll.  No one but ourselves is responsible for the money that we play on each race.  No outside source is dictating whether we bet $2 or $200 on a play.

The Type of Wager

We are in control of the type of wager that we are playing.  As a winning horseplayer, you should know what works for you and what doesn’t, which can be learned via record-keeping.

The Type of Races You Wager On

As I have discussed before, you should know what type of races you excel at.  Some horseplayers do better with turf races than with dirt races.  Other horseplayers excel with maidens while others do their best with graded stakes events.  Only you know what kind of races you are most comfortable and profitable playing.  By keeping records, you will be able to see where your strengths lie.

There are a lot of things that you can’t control.

No matter how diligent you are in determining potential pace scenarios, there is always an allotted percentage for chaos.  In a previous article How Identifying Multiple Pace Scenarios Made Me a Better Horseplayer, I discussed how I always allow a probability of 10-15 percent to be “chaos,” or an indefinable pace scenario.  This may include the horse unseating the rider early, an incident as a result of horses breaking down during the course of a race or a troubled trip that impedes your critical pace horse from creating or impacting the pace as you predicted.

Did the jockey on your presumed front runner hold the horse back and not let it get the lead?  Did the jockey on your presumed closer or presser take the horse to the lead?   Is the trainer using today’s race as a public workout or a prep race for a future race?  Is that horse that has shown nothing in any of its running lines running like Secretariat today right out of the gate?  Does the horse feel like running today?  Has your high profile horse been sick?   There are too many intangibles to quantify that can disrupt how you see the pace of a race playing out.

Regardless of how diligent you are in your handicapping, horses are people too.  Past performances are not a guarantee of future performance.  This is a fact that we, as horseplayers, have to be mindful of as we apply spot plays and angles to our daily handicapping. At best we can only control how we react to the data presented to us for each race that we choose to play.

Ray Wallin
Ray Wallin is a licensed civil engineer and part-time handicapper who has had a presence on the Web since 2000 for various sports and horse racing websites and through his personal blog. Introduced to the sport over the course of a misspent teenage summer at Monmouth Park by his Uncle Dutch, a professional gambler, he quickly fell in love with racing and has been handicapping for over 25 years.

Ray’s background in engineering, along with his meticulous nature and fascination with numbers, parlay into his ability to analyze data; keep records; notice emerging trends; and find new handicapping angles and figures. While specializing in thoroughbred racing, Ray also handicaps harness racing, Quarter Horse racing, baseball, football, hockey, and has been rumored to have calculated the speed and pace ratings on two squirrels running through his backyard.

Ray likes focusing on pace and angle plays while finding the middle ground between the art and science of handicapping. When he is not crunching numbers, Ray enjoys spending time with his family, cheering on his alma mater (Rutgers University), fishing, and playing golf.

Ray’s blog, which focuses on his quest to make it to the NHC Finals while trying to improve his handicapping abilities can be found at Ray can also be found on Twitter (@rayw76) and can be reached via email at

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