Handicapping Or Alchemy? That Is The Question

By Ray Wallin

After 30 plus years of playing the races, I am convinced that handicapping is alchemy.

Alchemy is as old as the ages. In Ancient Greek times the great philosophers like Aristotle and Plato dabbled in the pursuit of creating the perfect proportion of the four elements: air, water, fire, and earth; to create gold and other metals. Even as far back as 1900 B.C. in Ancient Egypt, Hermes Trismegistus is thought of as the founder of the art of alchemy.

Even more interesting is that Sir Isaac Newton dabbled in alchemy. He was trying to discover the elusive “Philosopher’s Stone” which was said to transmute metals into gold. His contemporary, Robert Boyle, who discovered Boyle’s Law which shows the relation of pressure and volume of a gas and is considered the father of modern chemistry even went as far to publish a paper on alchemy.

Even with four millennia of people trying to create gold from lesser materials, no one has succeeded. If they have, it hasn’t been documented, published or handed down from generation to generation.

This is like the handicapper searching for the Holy Grail of handicapping; the system that always wins money and can be used on every race.

Handicappers are modern day alchemists.

How is that possible?

1 Handicappers work alone

When you go to the track do you notice that most, if not all serious handicappers keep to themselves? During my many nights spent on the second floor of the old Meadowlands grandstand you would see the serious handicappers at the high bar top tables by themselves or with one other person. Not that weren’t sociable when you wanted to chat over a beer, but when it came to the methods, they used to pick their contenders, they may tell you a bit about it, but they’d never show you how they arrived at their picks. They would give you general reason like “the pace works for him here” or “he has an edge under these conditions,” but they won’t tell you that the early pace should result in a 44 second half mile or the projected speed figure on the race points to a horse that is deceptively sharp on the drop in class.

While there are some teams that try to beat the races, they are the exception to the rule. Every handicapper that I know that makes their living playing the races handicaps on their own, even if they bet with a partner.

2 Handicappers don’t share

When I would be at the track several of the regulars would ask me what I liked in a race. One individual that graced the old Meadowlands grandstand on weeknights would always try to prod me for any longshots I liked. Persistent Paul would ask nicely, and I would give him some lip service. Occasionally he would show up with a round of beers for me and my track buddy Walt. Knowing that weeknight pools on tracks I was simulcasting were light and he liked to bet heavy I tried not to give him everything I liked at Yonkers Raceway where the win pool was a whopping $5,000.

Would I share with my track buddy Walt? Absolutely. He wasn’t there to win his way to an early retirement. He’d play small and be content to cover a hot dog and a few beers each night but was there to have fun and hang out. His couple of bucks wasn’t going to move the pool.

While some alchemists would work together and compare notes, they didn’t broadcast any of their secrets. They didn’t want someone else to be the first to find the secret recipe for gold based on their work. It is like your Great-Aunt Marie that makes the most amazing cheesecake. She’ll bring it to every party and basks in the glory of all the compliments, but when asked for the recipe leaves out one step or ingredient so you’ll never be able to replicate her perfection no matter how hard you try. In the case of alchemists, if everyone could make gold it would devalue their discovery and cripple the economy.

Handicappers think the same way.

Think back to when Andy Beyer created his Beyer speed figures. By all accounts, they were once profitable when used correctly. Yet when they were published as part of the past performances in the Daily Racing Form, they became over bet. Now they are another figure used in the course of many folk’s handicapping process. Once the public got hold of these figures, they quickly lost their value.

3 Always looking for the secret

I love to play with numbers. I’ll even admit to running all sorts of data through filters to see if there was some magic factor of figure that would result in an automatic bet. While I have found some profitable angles, factors, and figures, I have never found something that works on every race.

I know several handicappers who have access to more data than I do that are also chasing the elusive magic figure too. The dream never goes away despite the frustrations of what seems to show promise ultimately tanking in the long run.

Has someone discovered the magic factor or figure that can win every race? If they did, they didn’t write it down, pass it on to someone else, or share it. That factor or figure may exist, but like alchemists they have stayed silent on it. While alchemists once faced serious prison time or even death for practicing alchemy, there is thankfully no penalty for handicapping other than losing your own money.

The quest to turn past performances into gold will never end as long as there is a track running live races. If you are lucky and smart enough to find the Holy Grail of handicapping, I guarantee that you will keep it to yourself. Do us all a favor though, at least write it down so that someone will luck into finding it and consider you the Newton of handicapping.

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