Fuggedaboutit: How Unlearning Makes You a Better Handicapper

By Ray Wallin

I know a lot of handicappers. Some are small winners, some are big winners, and others are not as lucky. My observations are that what holds the small winners back from making their living playing the races or the losing player from turning a profit is not their ability to learn new things. Rather it is their inability to unlearn what they already know.

Many of the handicappers I know had been successful to a point, but their selections and bets no longer created any value or returned a profit. While you will hear me tell every handicapper to be a sponge and learn as much as they can about this game, the same holds true in unlearning what you know when your approach isn’t producing the results you desire.

Why would you want to unlearn what you know about handicapping?

The game is constantly changing

There are new jockeys at your favorite meet. Trainers try new methods of training. Racing secretaries are finding new and creative ways to write the conditions of a race to fill the fields. Pedigree changes with new sires and paring up with mares.

Successful handicappers are experimenters

The handicapper that puts all his focus into speed figures will win until he doesn’t. Even Beyer Speed Figures were once profitable until the betting public caught on and devalued the importance of that new information. Successful handicappers need to stay one step ahead of the rest of us to exploit any edge they can find. That may be through finding a new factor or figure to use or even creating your own.

Your expertise is your own biggest obstacle

Knowledge used to last a lifetime, but not anymore. Believing that your method or approach is always correct or that you know more than everyone else because you have been handicapping since the exacta was invented does not mean that you are going to win. You need to listen to what your results are telling you and acknowledge when you need to act.

So how exactly do you unlearn what you know about handicapping?

Let go of past success

Monmouth Park Horse Racing Fans

Monmouth Park – Photo Courtesy of www.MonmouthPark.com

We’ve all heard the expression, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” This may be the hardest pill to swallow for most handicappers. We all relish in that monster Pick 6 that made our year and we’ve all heard Rail Guy talk endlessly down at Monmouth Park about “dat 99-1 shot dat won on da fifth off da layoff angle” and how he had it in every wager the track offered that day.

Back in my twenties I developed a probability-based point system for selecting contenders. It worked great for several years, until it didn’t. I had formulated and won so many Pick 3’s and daily doubles with this method it was hard for me to think of playing the races any other way, yet if I didn’t change the way I was playing my bankroll would be going in the wrong direction. I had to let go of the past successes I had with this approach.

I had to identify what I wanted to change and come up with a new goal. For me, it was that I wanted to change the selection criteria for my contenders in each race. My goal was to maintain the same level of having a contender win the races I was handicapping as my previous approach had achieved.

I had to visualize my ideal outcome of a consistent win rate of my contenders and ROI for my bankroll. It forced me to rethink my approach, careful to avoid the temptation of making quick decisions or resort back to my old ways and to take the time to experiment with new angles and approaches.

Create smaller, specific goals

Unlearning what you know and learning something new can seem like an overwhelming task. Yet, if you break the problem down into manageable chunks and set SMART goals, it is achievable.

In my case, I wanted to maintain the same win rate and profitability of my contenders as my original system. My first smaller goal was to better understand the characteristics of winning horses. I broke this analysis down even further. How did speed figures, class ratings, pace, surface, relationships of key factors to other horses, etc. perform for the winning horses?

Another way to think of this process is that if you want to be able to run a 5K and are currently a couch potato, you are going to start your training small. You are going to walk, then walk further, adding some running, until you have built up to your goal of running the 5k in incremental steps.


Now you have gained new information and data by taking the small incremental steps towards your specific goals. Challenge and question yourself on the validity of your results. Are you allowing any personal biases to creep in or are you remaining objective? Identify any actions or behavior that you are taking to support your goals as you meet them. Reward these good behaviors and work to incorporate them into your new “learned” handicapping approach.

In my case as I found new angles and figures that were proving to be reliable and profitable, I added them to the checklist I had as I analyzed each race. Even if the race conditions didn’t apply to the angle or figure I was using, it was still acknowledged during my analysis so that I would learn to repeat the behavior on every race.

The good news is that you don’t need to unlearn everything, only what isn’t working the way it used to or how you expect it to.

Be open to new ideas and let go of that outdated thinking. Overcome the obstacles to unlearning by becoming aware of them. Break down your SMART goals into smaller manageable pieces that you can address in an easier fashion. Don’t make rash decisions before your work towards your new goals has been vetted. All these things will take your handicapping to the next level and keep your bankroll in the black.

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