The Psychology of Thoroughbred Handicapping

by Thomas Wilson

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ISBN-10: 0-9798837-0-9

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About the Author. . .
      Prof. Tom Wilson is a research psychologist and college teacher of cognitive and experimental psychology in Louisville, Kentucky.  He received his PhD in 1991 from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has spent over 20 years publishing research on the natural operation of the normal mind.  Known to experts around the track as Professor, the author has performed over a decade's worth of formal studies of the thought patterns of expert and novice horseplayers as well as numerous statistical analyses of performance data and the predictability of basic racing factors.
      Dr. Wilson has been a finalist in the Churchill Downs handicapping contest and teaches a leisure course in Basic Handicapping every spring prior to the running of the Kentucky Derby.  Recently he was heard on local radio on Kentucky Oaks day as Louisville's "Hometown Handicapper" on
WFPL's State of Affairs.

Hear the Author select Barbaro (1st) and Steppenwolfer (3rd) for the 2006 Kentucky Derby!

The Author reunites with Lauren Stich to pick Street Sense and Hard Spun in the 2007 Derby!

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      "There are no guarantees in thoroughbred handicapping except the horseplayer's mental skill to beat the crowd at their own game."    -- Prof. Wilson

"Other books are about the predictive handicapping factors.  This book is about how we think about the factors and what to do with them for successful wagers."
-- Online Review

"To me, the book conveys thought processes and how our mind works based on past experiences.  But is it always accurate? Many of the examples the author brings up I was able to relate to.  He talks about our memories, our perceptions, and the influence of context.  Try this: Tomorrow try starting at the bottom of the list of horses as laid out in the racing form or computer printouts.  See if maybe a horse from the bottom of the list becomes the one you compare all others to. . . Looking forward to my second read of this book!"
-- A Student of the Game

"There were pages that I thought did not offer much useful content. They were all absolutely enjoyable to read though. But this slow start was more than made up for by the many pages and whole sections that were rich in content that intelligent and knowledgeable horseplayers could benefit from. The slow pace and the repetition of ideas I appreciated because the psychological concepts the author presents are complex - they take a while to sink in. The book promotes the understanding of the cognitive biases and self-destructive emotions some horseplayers are trapped up in. The understanding of these pitfalls might make these players better at their game. It might take a while, however, for this new knowledge to become part of the gambler's psyche. Cognitive restructuring is a slow process.

In these days when over 65 percent of the money bet is in the exotic pools, the lure of making reckless, undisciplined wagers is overwhelming. Sound methods of selection and rational betting strategies are essential if the player is to stay afloat. Thomas Wilson's book gives clear guidance here with examples from his years at the track and from his experience in teaching handicapping classes. An added enjoyment of the book is its look and feel. This is an easy-to-use spiral-bound job with high quality paper. The cover design and page layout is also fine.  Offers sharp insights into the game that many of us will be in for a lifetime - a game that if well-played might even produce some nice profit along the way."
                                                -- Thomas V. Hagerty

PSYCHOLOGY goes on behind the scenes of every race and is a sensible part of the game of every horseplayer.  The application of basic human psychology to the activity of thoroughbred handicapping can go a long way to develop expert skill and earn consistent profits at the track.
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The Psychology of Thoroughbred Handicapping presents fresh insights and habits of thought with entertaining lessons and compiled results from a decade's worth of behavioral data collected at the track, handicapping contest, and betting parlor.
       One Louisville professor's
          journey into better habits of thought
             for skilled and profitable handicapping.


The Psychology of ThoroughbredFront and Back Covers
Lessons and Valuable Insights
by Thomas Wilson "If you're like me, you consider yourself a student of the game of handicapping..."

Copyright 2009 - pbk., 240 pgs.
         ISBN: 0-9798837-0-9

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It was an easy read, which is what I was afraid it was not going to be.  The reader must go into it with an open mind, I feel.  I was hesitant to post because some may call it hogwash....but that is the problem with shifting thought paradigms.  Most are set in their way of assessing the races and this has become learned behavior.  Many times incorrect as it may be.  What hit home to me is the way we "stack" factors about a horse to come to our selection, instead of "indexing" the factors.  This, to me, explains why the "unexplainable" horse wins some times.  Also why the favorite loses more times than they win.
          -- Pace Advantage Blog
Click here for Table of Contents                                                            Click here to look inside Book 

Excerpts from
The Psychology of Thoroughbred Handicapping
by Thomas Wilson
Copyright 2009, 2007

from Chapter 1 . . .
     Opening the pages, there before my eyes were columns of win and in-the-money percentages, listed for each trainer with horses at the Saratoga meeting, for all kinds of racing situations: percent wins for maiden and allowance races in the last three years, percent wins for movements up in class, down in class, surface moves, and for races first time off the layoff.  It was every conceivable angle and included all trainer-jockey combination percentages.  For example, the data showed which jockeys a given trainer would go to over three years for the most winners.  Today useful trainer performance statistics are printed at the bottom of each horse’s past performances in the racing form, although they are not specific to one track like these data.  Back when I met Bob, however, this sort of detailed information was meet-specific and only available to those who kept the records themselves or paid for it.  Bob had a little of both.
     Blue chip trainer angles?  Could there be such a thing?  The way these categories of racing situations combined to reveal “live” horses in every race was extremely appealing.  Not only did the percentages reveal the winning habits of trainers, they shed light on the poor percentage situations to avoid, or at least consider to avoid.  But detailed trainer statistics are not easy to obtain or maintain and, like all racing data, trainer stats are not to be bet automatically.  My new friend told me that thoroughbred trainers are creatures of habit and tend to win under specific circumstances that can be known.  It did not matter why one trainer tended to win later in the meet while another showed 45% wins for horses' first starts of the meet, what mattered was that the information was a window on the behavior of the trainers and what the handicapper can expect from the training of the horse for today’s race.  I took this new knowledge as my first encounter with the psychology behind the scenes of racing–in this case behind and around the barns!
                                                                                                              Back to Top      Table of Contents

from Chapter 2
     . . . If you play the game and listen to horseplayers enough, eventually you will hear all kinds of betting angles and wild reasons for backing horses.  Horses with a hop in their step as they near the gate are good bets–they are ready to jump out in the lead.  Have you ever heard that one? Maybe you have been told that the turf-turf-dirt move is hard to beat, or the sprint-to-route move while dropping in class.  Many look for combinations of things.  Some focus on horses that have been “freshened” and others on horses with a strong finish in their last race.  An old gambler once told me that you can turn an easy profit by just betting the number 1, 2, and 3 horse in an exacta box in every race.  Apparently he was more interested in numbers than horses.  And what about the common idea that gray horses win a disproportionate number of races?  Bet the gray, right?
     Whether the basis for a wager appears to be something reasonable, such as the best speed figure of the field at the distance, or something preposterous like which horse’s bowels moved last before loading in the gate (Yes, I read about this one in a magazine!), successful players must have an opinion to make a bet.  Many survey results show that every handicapper looks for some unique combination of information, but nearly all adapt their method to special circumstances.  Regular players are not automatic, they change the weight they give to their favorite factors depending on race conditions.  Most will tell you it is not a good idea to bet like a machine.  In the long run rigid play does not pay.  Imagine a chess player making the same moves in every game no matter what the opponent does!
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Chapter 3
     . . .This is why I did some formal investigations into the mind of the horseplayer.  I wanted to know my opponent better than my opponent knew me.  I wanted to know if there were common traps in thinking and whether I could escape them.  Most of all, I wanted to know if better thinking would bring greater profits.  As I will report in this chapter and the rest, my investigations have led me to some valuable insights about ourselves as judgment and decision makers in this all-too-human mental game.  What I found was an entirely new component to thoroughbred handicapping that most players never consider.  Taking into account the mind of the horseplayer, of you and me and all the people making wagers on every race, quickly led me to more consistent earnings and increased my enjoyment of the game.

    . . . The lessons we learned in the last chapter for the best ways to think about probabilities and chance events only touch the surface of horseplayer psychology. You also may recall from the first chapter how performance records of the other human elements, the trainers and jockeys, provide solid predictive data for selecting winners. We discovered that, even though most of us cannot know the real thoughts and actions of these people, the record of race performance of these long-suffering pro-fessionals is highly useful information for handicapping. Trainer and jockey statistics are highly predictive because of psychology: they are the result of patterned behaviors and habitual thinking, whether we know the story behind the statistics or not.
     Now the other human element, the horseplayer, turns out to be an entirely different matter. Because it is about basic human decision making, about subjective judgments and taking risks, we know much about the thought process of the people making wagers. Horseplayer psychology is more than what we think we know about people just by living among them. There’s human error and illogic in there–in all of us. It is in our human nature to make mental mistakes.
     The good news is that today we know enough about the way people think that much of the error is predictable. In fact, psychology tells us that our logic and judgment are fallible because of the very way the human mind is built. In everyday living our biased and distorted estimates of the chance of things happening actually help us get through life’s mazes. They speed up our judgments and allow us to think about many things at once. But when we try to solve problems of prediction in concocted situations where the most accurate estimates of probability are required, like in horse races, our normally biased thinking gets in the way as we saw with the illogical law of averages. This is how it is for all of us.
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Chapter 4
     Students in my handicapping class always ask:  What is the best wager?  My answer usually takes on the form “one size does not fit all.”  As we have seen, the best practice is to take what we have concluded from our handicapping and frame a wager to fit a variety of possible racing situations.  But survey results show that nine out of 10 bettors have a favorite wager they make.  Many consider the wager their method of play.  “I’m a trifecta man,” one guy told me.  “I box four for 24 bucks in every race.”  Imagine how much their favorite wager constrains their thinking about the contenders in the race. . .
     . . . Problems in optimal wagering crop up when the basis of our wagers becomes illogical. The psychological snare here is the natural way we choose our wagers, our bids, on the basis of payoff value. Too often the payoff becomes the basis of our selections, or gambles, as well. We take the odds too far and the public’s choices on the tote board become the basis for the horses we bet instead of their estimated probability.
     So, you can see how framing wagers is more than just deciding which kind of bet to make. As I said at the start of the chapter, our goal in the wagering game is to maximize the utility of our wagers given the hand we are dealt in each race. Utility is the term economists and behavioral scientists sometimes use to mean the value of one’s actions in light of the risks. It is the so-called risk-return ratio and can be computed easily as the product of an outcome’s probability and the outcome’s payoff.  Risk is the chance of the outcome, great or small, to win or to finish a certain way, and it is best estimated from our own handicapping rather than from the betting public’s choices shown on the tote board. . .

     For example, here’s an interesting psychological snare of wagering that leads us to a best practice approach.  Handicappers often express a need to be consistent in their judgments and wagers.  Most of my friends limit their play to specific wagering formats and sometimes I do too.  It is natural to simplify things to the same framework or a similar one in every race.  I believe it gives horseplayers a sense that they have some control over their choices.  Often bettors will continue to place the same kind of wager race after race, or use the same wagering tactics day after day, taking care to be consistent in every judgment and action.  It is likely that consistency in one’s thinking helps most bettors feel like they are being fair, that they are being objective and more accurate in their decisions.  And it helps to be consistent for record keeping as well.  One cannot draw reliable conclusions from records or test new betting strategies without consistency in one’s wagering, right?
     It may be true that some consistency is useful for learning how and when to make certain bets.  This is why I strongly suggest adapting one’s wagers to the results of good handicapping, backed up with records of each racing situation, the wager frame used, and the result.  With a large sample of results like these, say over a month, the data will be sufficient to find some consistency in there, or at least one’s own track record of several instances of similar plays, from which to build new strategies and further develop skill.
     It is in the best interest of the horseplayer to keep in mind two important drawbacks associated with rigidly consistent wagering behavior.  First, consistency can cause deliberative processes to become automatic.  It can cause carefully thoughtful handicapping decisions to become rote exercises that resemble an assembly-line rather than a strategic game.  It is natural for the human mind to take repetitive operations and turn them into automatic thoughts and behaviors.  Just consider how automatic driving a car is now compared to the first time you got behind the wheel.  As easy as rigid wagering simplifies our decisions at the betting window, it just as easily becomes routine and habitual.  The horseplayer handicaps in terms of the wager without even realizing it, without consideration to the real odds he or she is getting on the play. . .

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The Psychology of Thoroughbred Handicapping presents fresh insights and habits of thought with entertaining lessons and compiled results from a decade's worth of behavioral data collected at the track, handicapping contest, and betting parlor.

Discover how knowing the thought patterns of your opponent, the betting public, brings more opportunities to cash tickets with value!  Let the crowd make the common human mistakes in judgment and the illogical wager while you use the psychology going on in every race to give you the edge you need to take your game to a new level!

Publication date: March 13, 2007
Second printing: 2009
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