Telegraph, and later in Daily Racing Form, how exactly did one go about the business of becoming an expert horseplayer?
Truth be told, by the end of the 1970s, at the ripe old age of 21, I was already well on my way to becoming an expert—at least compared to most of the other horseplayers in that cigar-smoke-filled OTB between Broadway and West End Avenue. After spending my formative years utterly enthralled by the likes of Secretariat, Ruffian, Affirmed and Alydar, Forego, and Spectacular Bid, I knew just enough to be dangerous. When Christmas rolled around and I needed fast cash, a session or two of intensive handicapping usually produced the desired results; back in the day, logical winners paid astounding prices.
Unlike my older but unwiser competition, who were set in their misguided ways, I had no bad habits to unlearn; and it was my supreme good fortune to come of age just as the handicapping information revolution dawned. I had a working knowledge of all 77 selected systems in Ainslie’s Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing, the book that ushered in a new era of erudite handicapping literature by Andrew Beyer, Steve Davidowitz, James Quinn, and William L. Quirin, and the others that followed.
“The skills of the expert handicapper are, in fact, closely comparable to those of the good bridge, poker or chess player,” wrote Ainslie in his landmark tome that started it all. “In any such competition, the player who depends on instinct, trial-and-error, inexpert advice, superstition or reckless guesses is at a disadvantage. He cannot hope to hold his own against persons who have acquired an understanding of the game as a whole.”
After Ainslie, I read Beyer’s Picking Winners backward, forward, and upside down until I was proficient at making speed figures; I memorized Quirin’s impact values from Winning at the Races and learned to be prejudiced in favor of horses with early speed on dirt; I knew the offspring of sires like Stage Door Johnny and Little Current were virtual automatic bets when they switched to turf; I kept files of winning past performances arranged by trainer, as Davidowitz had advised in Betting Thoroughbreds, so I knew sharp Allen Jerkens-trained sprinters stretching out were money in the bank, and I had the skinny on dozens of other trainers in growing stacks of marble composition notebooks.
As Ainslie had instructed, I was acquiring an understanding of the game as a whole.
Slowly but surely, others with a similar passion were doing the same thing. Horseplayers can read, contrary to popular belief, and John Q. Punter was steadily sharpening his skills. Once the Beyer Speed Figures were published, first in The Racing Times and then in Daily Racing Form in the early 1990s, a lot of bad horseplayers became average horseplayers, and a lot of average horseplayers became break-even or winning players.
“Suddenly you couldn’t get overlays on figure horses. You had to find other ways to win—you had to make a betting line or bet Pick Threes,” said Bob the Brain in Ted McClelland’s wonderful novel Horseplayers (Chicago Review Press, 2005).
The crowd—what was left of it—had become quite sophisticated by the time Expert Handicapping was originally published in 1995. But it’s positively amazing to think how much things have changed since then. This book was first written on a word processor with no Internet capability, and printed on a dot-matrix printer that was only slightly faster than a monk transcribing the pages by hand. Funny, but it seemed like