Monday, July 28, 2008

Handicapping Monday: The Sphere

It's time to step back for a moment. After all, we are all horseplayers. We are not all consumed with ADW fights, takeout gripes or all the rest all the time. Sometimes we just need to talk shop and hopefully become better players. Just like low takeout can help more people win, so does 'capping and money management skill.

Jeff Platt, a HANA member and software creator ( has allowed us to reprint some of his handicapping columns. That's great, because quite honestly they are darn good. Here is what I think might be his best piece, The Sphere.

Articles like this not only are good for us to read as players, they might have some effect on the people we are trying to speak to, as well. It shows what handicappers must go through to try and win. It is a tough game. We are not all there just to watch the horses go around in a circle and take in the atmosphere, and making our game more attractive to play like Jeff does will certainly help it. I hope tracks and horseman groups take something out of this piece. Education is important.

I spent a little free time these past few weeks organizing my thoughts. My intent in doing so was to be able to do a write up of the mental process I go through on a daily basis when I’m in the act of playing horses. I think this stuff is important. While I’m playing, there are certain processes I do each day as I attempt to beat the takeout. I tend to think of the sum of these processes in terms of them forming a game plan or roadmap that leads to success. I know from my own personal experience that when I follow this roadmap the very act of overcoming the takeout becomes a much easier thing to do than if I attempt to go outside its boundaries. What you will find in this write up are things that I do to help me achieve my goal of being a winning horseplayer. My hope in committing these thoughts to writing is twofold. First, I hope that the act of writing this piece will serve to reinforce my own clarity about these ideas and help me to remember them on race day. Second, I hope that someone else out there somewhere finds them to be of benefit after reading what I have to say.

Most of what I am going to present here is basic philosophy. Much of it reaches well beyond the subject of handicapping. In fact, if you give it some thought, you just might realize that this can be applied to just about every area of human endeavor you see fit to undertake.

A Little History and a Profound Realization
In February, 1999 I left a pretty cozy accounting job in the 9 to 5 world that I had held for 12 years. At the time I decided I needed a career change. I loved programming but had no formal training as a programmer. I had already written a very early version of the program that would later evolve into JCapper. I had the ability to run database queries and had crafted a handful of CPace and BasicFitness UDMs that had shown reasonable enough profits over a pair of 3,000 race samples. I decided to take a shot at playing horses for a living.

My rough game plan was to use some of my savings as a bankroll. I hoped my winnings would be enough to cover my monthly expenses. I would also devote 20-30 hours each week towards getting enough formal training to make it as a programmer in case things didn't work out as planned.

I knew from the database tests I had run that success was one possible outcome. I also knew that failure was another very real possible outcome. In the end I made my decision more as a leap of faith than anything else. I believed I could fly. Therefore I jumped.

Please understand that I am in no way trying to convince any of you to jump in the event that jumping is something you happen to be thinking about. It should be obvious. Failure to fly under such circumstances can have very severe negative consequences. Attempting to fly was the right decision for me at that time in my life. In no way does my own decision make it the right decision for you.

In February of 1999 I was living in Tempe, Arizona. I had never heard of offshore wagering accounts or rebates. Back then, I had to drive 35 miles across town each day and show up at Turf Paradise to enjoy full card simulcasting. Arizona's OTB locations, and there was one barely a half mile from my house, offered the local Turf Paradise card but only a tiny number of out of state simulcast races each day. Stranger still, Arizona's OTB network did not commingle wagers made into the pools of the simulcast host tracks. Instead, they created their own separate pools which tended to run on the smallish side. That point was painfully driven home one afternoon. I nailed a $130.00 winner in a Maiden race at Hollywood Park - only to see my own $30.00 win bet in the local pool (which was barely $1500.00) knock the price down to $58.00.

At the time my workday would start around 7:00 am. Using a dial up modem, I would download data files from Bris. Then I would manually unzip them. I loaded them one at a time into my program, and spit my reports out onto perforated computer paper using a very loud (and slow) dot matrix printer. On most days I would have 4 or 5 tracks printed out by 8:00 am. After some breakfast I would drive across town and arrive at Turf Paradise sometime around 9:30 am. That would give me 30 minutes or so to start handicapping the early races at the east coast tracks. In those days I had to comb through my printouts and manually identify my own plays. I carried around a set of index cards with rules written on them - one index card for each spot play (UDM) that I had. The simple concept of programming a computer to find my own plays wouldn’t even occur to me for another three years.

I saw the same faces at Turf Paradise each day. People got to know me. And I got to know some of them. One of the most memorable events that ever happened to me at a racetrack happened within the first 30 days of me setting out to see whether or not I could fly. An elderly man – I only remember him as Jim – asked me a question. Jim knew that I had quit a pretty good day job to play horses full time. Understandably he thought I was nuts. And he made no bones about hiding it.

It turned out to be a loaded question. I didn’t realize it at the time but the answer Jim gave me to his own question turned out to be one of the most profound things anyone has ever said to me.

The exchange went something like this:

Jim: “Jeff. In your opinion, what is the single most important factor in horse racing?”

Me: “That’s easy. Early speed is the most important factor.”

Jim: “You sure about that?”

Me: “Yes. Why?”

Jim: “Are you really sure?”

Me: “Um... Ok. Early speed with enough form and class for a horse to stay in front all the way to the wire. That’s the most important thing.”

Jim: “You’ll never make it as a handicapper.”

Me: “Um... Ok. I’ll bite. What do you think the single most important factor in horse racing is?”

Jim: “Discipline. That's the single most important thing. Without it you have no chance as a horse player. Never forget that.”

Unfortunately, I dismissed this conversation at the time. It took nearly two full years for me to realize the profoundness of what Jim had actually said to me. In the end it turns out Jim was 100 percent correct. Discipline is the single most important thing in betting horses profitably.

What follows are my own thoughts on making discipline work for me.

The Sphere
When I play horses the first thing I do is form the image of a glowing electric blue sphere in my mind. Try not to laugh. My sphere is my reality. I have rules for my reality. Anything with the ability to affect me, in either a positive or a negative way, is important and belongs in my sphere. Everything inside of my sphere, because it has importance, deserves and receives my intense focus.

Everything outside of my sphere has no ability to affect me and is therefore irrelevant. I completely ignore everything that exists outside of my sphere. I refuse to waste my time and energy by focusing in the least on things that do not matter.

So what belongs inside my sphere? What belongs outside?

In my opinion, the most powerful single thing found in JCapper (I’m the program’s author remember?) is the concept of the UDM (ed note: it is simply Jeff's spot play that has shown it is ROI positive and worth considering as a bet). Hopefully I can get my point across in such a way that it won’t be lost on you.

Suppose for a second that you have one and only one UDM. Let’s also suppose for the sake of argument that your lone UDM has one very remarkable trait:

As you bet its plays over the course of time you get back more money from the cashier than you fork over for the tickets you buy as you make the bets. In other words your UDM is profitable.

Suppose for a second that you create a sphere of your own.

Now, given the above scenario, let me ask you a question. What happens if you place just one thing inside of your sphere? What happens if you place your one UDM inside of your sphere and nothing else?

Now let me ask you a second question.

What happens if your sphere is your only reality when you play horses?

The answer should be obvious. If the only thing inside of your sphere is a profitable UDM and the only reality you have when you play horses is your sphere… you just became a winning horseplayer.

Go back and read that last paragraph again. Let it sink in. It’s what really separates the tiny percentage of winning horseplayers from the vast majority of players who lose money.

Here’s a list of the things that are important to me and have a place in my Sphere:

1. Profitable UDMs/Spot Plays. Just because a UDM is profitable across many samples doesn’t mean it has a place in my Sphere. One area that I often see with new users is that they try to do too much. I’m talking about a question of workload. In my opinion it’s far better to play a single UDM at a single track and do it accurately while following scratches and changes and making the bets in accordance with an overall bankroll money management plan than to try to make the plays for dozens of UDMs at multiple tracks each day if trying to make all those plays means that you have to do it haphazardly. By haphazardly I mean that you are missing scratches and changes here and there and you are possibly even getting shut out of races because there are too many plays coming up simultaneously.

2. A Bankroll/Money Management Plan. I’ve made no secret of the fact that my game is based around backing UDM plays to win their races and that I play to a bankroll. One of the primary goals I have when I play is growing a small bankroll into a large one. Unless you are just extremely lucky the task of actually doing this takes an incredible amount of willpower. The reality is that without discipline the act of growing a small bankroll into a large one over an extended period of time is nearly impossible. Along these lines I suggest that the inexperienced player start out by going through the exercise of simply flat betting UDM plays just to get experience. After proving to yourself that you have the ability to bet UDM plays while betting nothing else, and do it profitably - then and only then try making each bet within the context of each bet being part of a bankroll. Trust me, there is no other way. Until you try you simply won’t believe how hard it can be sometimes to play a perfectly clean race day – a day where the only bets you make are UDM plays and where each bet is made at your intended percentage of bankroll.

3. Mental State. When I play horses I want to be in the best mental state possible. The right mental state for me is one of detached involvement. When I play I’m not concerned with outcomes. I’m concerned with being able to execute my game plan. Past history tells me that if I can do that then the outcome takes care of itself. There’s one question that I ask myself over and over each race day that helps get me in that right mental state. That question was taught to me by a professional poker player. That question is “What should I be doing next?” I find myself asking myself that same question over and over hundreds of times each race day.

When I’m in the right mental state my decisions become instantly clear to me. I’m on autopilot and my game plan seems to self execute. I check each race for fresh scratches before I bet it. I see a play and I make it. I move on to the next race. The game seems incredibly easy at such times. Everything flows and time ceases to exist. The only things I see are those things I’ve allowed inside of my Sphere.

Here’s a list of some things I refuse to allow inside of my own Sphere:

1. Emotion. In my opinion emotion has no place in horse race betting. I could tell you a thousand horror stories of how I’ve let emotion cloud my own judgment – how I’ve let it cause me to make action bets that bled profits from my UDM plays and bankroll – how I’ve let emotion cloud my judgment so that I missed making plays on overlay UDM winners that I had every intention of playing, etc. The bottom line is that emotion, good or bad, can cloud your judgment and prevent you from executing your game plan. Because of this emotion has no place in my Sphere.

2. Action Bets. I’ve mentioned this before but it bears repeating here. It’s easy for action bets to get out of hand.

I define an action bet as any wager:
  1. Made on a non UDM horse.
  2. Made on a UDM horse outside of predefined odds or odds ratio value ranges indicated by my own research.
  3. Made on a UDM horse that is sized incorrectly. I employ a Bankroll Money Management Plan based on hard research. Each bet is a percentage of bankroll where the percentage is determined by the strength of play. Betting too much is bad because it increases the player's risk of tapping out. Betting too little is bad because it curtails earnings (provided the player has a positive expectancy.)
My attempt at playing professionally ended after 18 months because I lacked the discipline to make it work. I let action bets get the better of me. I ended up having to go back to work. Don’t get me wrong. I landed a very nice programming job. But imagine the self reflection that comes from realizing I chased a dream and failed because I couldn't control myself.

Looking at my UDM plays in isolation, I realized my betting was profitable enough (without a rebate) for a period of over 18 months to have paid my bills and then some.

Looking at my action bets in isolation told me exactly why my dream would have to wait: The amount of money I had I lost on action bets totalled up to nearly two thirds of the profits made from UDM plays. The profits from UDM Plays less the losses from Action Bets still left me in the black. Technically, that made me a winning player. But I wasn't making enough to cover monthly expenses. So in the end, even though I was a winning player, I decided to bite the bullet and go back to work.

Trust me. I know of what I speak. Action bets have no place at all in my Sphere. Hopefully you’ll never find them in yours.

3. Distractions and Annoyances. These also have no place in my Sphere. I say this because they have the ability to invoke an emotional response from me. Hopefully I’ve already gotten the point across that emotion has the ability to lower your mental state to the point to where it can interrupt the execution of your game plan. With that understanding in mind I’ll list a few of the things I consider to fall within the Distractions and Annoyances category:

a. Lost Photos
b. Disqualifications
c. Troubled Trips
d. Poor Starts
e. Bad Rides
f. Late Money Odds Drops
g. High Paying Mutuels from non UDM horses
h. Not noticing scratches and changes
i. Not focusing on the task at hand resulting in getting shut out of a nice winner

You can probably think up a few more. But hopefully you get the idea. If items h and i from the above list are happening to me with any frequency at all I take it as a very strong hint that I'm letting something interfere with my desired mental state. I immediately flush my emotional reaction away by telling myself "Ok. That's in the past and I can't change that. Now what should I be doing next?"

I’ve found success with this approach: I create my own Sphere each and every race day. I only allow certain things into my Sphere. I deny certain other things entrance into my Sphere. When I play horses my Sphere is my only reality. Everything inside of my Sphere merits my intense focus. Everything outside of my Sphere is worth none of my focus at all.

Create a Sphere of your own and let me know what happens.


Twindouble said...

Excellent post;

Anyone who doesn't take heed to Mr Platt's advise will have a tough go at it as a gambler. Being a good handicapper and lacking in the proper frame of mind Jeff refers to could mean a ticket to poor house.

The only thing I can add to this is, when a,b,c,d,e along with other events happen, take note because they could very well down the road produce some good payoffs. Not all the time but when they do those scores can set you up for more.

One other thing. Personally, I never put absolute restrictions on my bankroll, under given conditions a player has to be flexible to take advantage of the opportunities available to him or her. That's right her, this isn't just a boys game. The more woman fans racing gets the better it will be for everyone. I'm talking players, not the ones for show. Well, I wouldn't ask them to leave.


Anonymous said...

I've just now read "The Sphere" and agree with Jeff's inclusions wholeheartedly. His "attempt at playing professionally" mirrors mine very closely. The failure, over the long run, to apply the discipline to follow my own set of rules for success left me in the same situation. I was still a profitable player, but couldn't pay the bills.


I recommend his article, as preferred reading, for all players, or potential players, intent upon staying profitable or becoming so.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure why my comment to this post was not approved. Although anonymously, I have probably been one of the most frequent posters to this forum. Each time I attempted to share my opinions, facts, or related information (including relevent links) in an effort to add to the forum and generate additional thought and discussion.

My post on this particular subject was in response to both the article and the subsequent the comments posted and publishd relative to discipline, the absenc of emotion, and money management as being critical elements to success in parimutuel wagering.

The article gave tertiary reference to these topics. The book I referenced and linked is probably one of the best items I have ever seen published on these topics, but as they apply to investing.

I have not seen any specific forum posting rules that would have prohibited this reference or precluded the link included, so I was disappointed it was not included.

I can apprciate the effort to perhaps censor out unsolicited and irrelevant promtion or advertising, but the omitted post was not at all representative of something of that nature, and its contents were indeed germane to the discussion.

Omission of posts like that entered previously signiies to me that what is facilitated here in these forums is not really an open discussion.

HANA said...

anon- I never saw the post in question, but I believe there was some concern about whether a financial interest existed with regards to the linking of that book, as you said guarding against promotion and advertising. If that was not the case then you have our sincere apologies.

Anonymous said...

This is it, the essence of winning at the races. UDM plays ONLY. I have noticed some users of JCAPPER try to develop UDMs for each track, surface, distance, trainer, jockey, sire and so on so forth. These folks have 100+ UDMs. It is misuse of JCAPPER software and is as good (or bad right...!)as betting all races.

According to me there are only 2/3 winning angles that keep working over and over again. To trap these angles, we don't need a software, we need tons of patience, the FORM and a pen...!

Remember PP doesn't stand for past performance(s) but for PRICE and PATIENCE.

Anonymous said...

Exercise, deep breathing, meditation and complete avoidance of alcohol will also help improve handicapping focus.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised this blog doesn't see much activity, I guess, there are not a lot people committed to winning ways....!

Unknown said...

I learned a lot from this different approach to handicapping. Most of us dream of making a living playing the horses. Most of us know that very few are able to succeed. This article will help me. I will print it out. It's got great advice and was written by a fellow handicapper who went after his dream. Mr. Platt, do you still do the nine to five? Or, have you finally made the successful jump to full time horse player? I hope the latter is true. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

Unknown said...

I just posted a few minutes ago, but I just reread the article and have one last confession to make. Lack of discipline has done me in on many occasions. For that reason I plan to open a second account for spot plays only. The balance will be small as will the bet amounts. A two dollar limit on exactas and trifectas; five dollar limit on win bets and daily doubles; along those lines. I am hoping that having a second account to address my "fix" will keep my main account in the black.