Think Small, Win Big!

by Ray Wallin

We are always told to “think big” or “think of the big picture” in our approaches to most things in life. What if I told you the secret to success is actually thinking small?

When I mentioned this to my youngest son, he was quick to tell me that I was wrong since his teacher tells them to think big all the time. He went on to tell me that she says they can all be astronauts, doctors, lawyers, the next Rail Guy — or whatever they want to be — by thinking big.

I disagree.

In a prior article I discussed how you shouldn’t set goals, but rather focus on the system of achieving those goals. Likewise, to achieve big things you need to think small to make it happen.

In the book, Think Like a Freak, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner dedicate a chapter to this concept. They offer four solid reasons why you should be thinking small — and they all can be related to your handicapping.

Small Questions Are Not Often Asked or Investigated

As horseplayers, we tcake a lot of information for granted. For example, are Beyer speed figures representative of the horse’s speed?

Several years ago while at the Meadowlands for an evening of simulcasting with one of my good friends, Chris the Cop, we stumbled across an interesting maiden claiming race at Penn National. My friend looked at the Beyer figures of all the horses and was quick to point out the huge advantage the favorite appeared to have. The favorite boasted a last-race Beyer — under the same conditions — that was more than double the next best career Beyer of any other entrant.

The horse I locked in on showed a Daily Racing Form speed rating that was higher than the favorite’s. While considered a more “old school” type of figure, it was fascinating to see the great disparity between the Beyer speed figures based on two horses that had run similar DRF speed ratings under similar conditions. The favorite was beaten by the better DRF speed figure horse and left my friend Chris scratching his head.

This example was enough for me to start thinking about, and developing, my own speed figures based on the pace of the race.

Big Problems Are Comprised of Many Smaller Problems

Handicapping any horse race is one large problem made up of many small problems. More progress can be made by addressing the small problems.

As handicappers, we need to evaluate speed, form, pace, pedigree and class. How often have you tried to analyze the pace scenarios of a race only to be more confused than when you started?

Consider breaking the pace down further. Identify your Critical Pace Horse. Isolate the frontrunners. Does this race set up for them as either strong or weak early speed? Can you toss any of them from consideration? How do your pressers or stalkers stack up?

Change Is Difficult, but Easier to Make on a Smaller Problem Than a Larger One

As most books about habits will tell you, it is easier to make small changes than a larger one.

For instance, if you want to lose weight, you will likely have better results by incorporating small changes over the course of several weeks — like taking the stairs at work instead of the elevator, not consuming any food after 8 p.m. or replacing your lunchtime beverage with a glass of water. People that go through their kitchen and purge everything and try to start an intense workout routine without building up to it will likely fail.

Try to develop a routine that will become automatic over time. Once you have your pace routine down cold, you can start to develop a routine to assess class or another factor.

Thinking Big Is an ‘Exercise in Imprecision’

When you think big, you do a lot of speculation. You can’t be an expert on everything, but, by thinking small, you can know exactly what you are talking about on a specific factor.

Looking back at the horseplayer I was over 20 years ago, I had a more global view of handicapping. No matter how good the figures or stats looked, I was still scratching my head as to why I kept getting beat. The day that I decided to drill down and become a student of pace was the day it all changed. I reviewed race replays, analyzed charts and revisited countless races after the fact.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers asserts that if you do anything for 10,000 hours, you will be an expert. While there is much debate over the validity of that statement, the truth is that, if nothing else, having dedicated that much time and effort to anything will at least make you aware of details that the novice would not pick up on. For me, the result from all those years of analysis was being able to assign probable pace scenarios to each race. Some races set up better than others, but after that many years and that many races, you do get a “feel” for how they are going to turn out.

There are a ton of adages that apply: “Rome wasn’t built in a day” or “take it one step at a time”. You should not be afraid of the obvious. By thinking small, you can improve specific areas of your handicapping one at a time.

Not only will you gain a deeper understanding of what compromises that particular item, but you will also accumulate enough small victories that you can make a living playing the races!

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