The Punting Confessional – Wednesday, May 15th – The Power of the Negative
Probably the best book I’ve read in the past few years had nothing to do with gambling. In ‘The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’, The Guardian’s psychology correspondent Oliver Burkeman dissects what he calls the ‘cult of optimism’ and puts forward the idea that many popular ideas about happiness, success and goals are flawed and indeed aiming for such things can lead to anything but.
For Burkeman, positive thinking is wildly overvalued by modern society, much as things like reputation and jockeys are overrated in betting markets. In place of all this optimism, Burkeman argues in favour of the negative with many fascinating ideas such as awareness of mortality, acceptance of failure, the dangers of goal-setting, non-attachment, imagining worst-case scenarios, stoicism, living in the now and allowing for uncertainty and fear. Some, if not all, of these ideas apply to gambling and this week and next I’ll look at them as well as some of my own thoughts on the power of the negative.
Let’s begin with what my idea of negativity isn’t. It is most certainly not the acceptance by the mug punter (or society at large for that matter) that the bookies always win and there is no such thing as a winning gambler. These are the sentiments of the betting shop loser, the punters who fall into all the stereotypical traps available: they punt only with one bookmaker, having brand loyalty despite a bigger price being available across the road or on another website; they follow stupid systems in the hope of getting rich quick; they believe the hype when a jockey or trainer or some other insider says ‘it’s the best horse I’ve ever ridden or trained’; they love the thrill of inside information and eschew the formbook over the head of it.
Instead, my idea of negative is more like healthy scepticism, perhaps even edging towards cynicism, the cliché about believing little of what you hear and judging with your own eyes has truth in it. I suspect the good punter is the negative punter, the one who sees the glass as half-empty rather than half-full. An outsider might think that racing would be filled with pessimism; most horses never make it to the racetrack, never mind win a race; injuries and setbacks are a feature of the game; at a most basic level, there can only be one winner in a race so most connections leave the track disappointed.
Yet, like the rest of the modern world, the cult of optimism reigns in racing; punters always think the big payday is just around the corner and it’s the same with owners, trainers and jockeys. Perhaps it is living on this dream that sustains them but as a gambler it might be best to think otherwise.
I acknowledge that is it not easy to be a pessimist in racing as optimism is everywhere. One need only open the trade paper or the racing pages of any of the dailies to see that the coverage of the sport is particularly toothless though there are some exceptions. The Monday Jury, where the Racing Post poses questions to jockeys, trainers and analysts in light of what unfolded on track over the previous seven days is a good example; the questions are invariably met with positive responses, with nary a semblance of doubt never mind criticism.
A negative (or perhaps realistic would be a better word) opinion is rarely ventured in racing journalism, and it is easy to see why; the racing correspondent relies on the co-operation of jockeys and trainers for their copy and to criticise would be seen as spitting in the soup. It is similar with jockeys criticising trainers or horses as it is the former upon whom he relies on for employment. All this is understandable – the dole queue is an unpleasant place – but as punters who want to turn a profit or at least grasp what is going on properly, we need to work against it.
Perhaps the best example where optimism overcomes pessimism in a disadvantageous way for punters is the ungenuine horse or, put it succinctly, the dog. Charitable types will say that such an animal doesn’t exist or at worst they are suffering from some sort of physical issue – I hope these forgiving kinds are the same with the people in their lives – but for me there are simply some horses that don’t win as frequently as their form entitles them to.
This is not to say that they don’t win as even a broken clock is right twice a day and sometimes circumstances conspire that a dodge cannot but win; the opposition is useless, they find themselves in front before they know it, the pace collapses. But keeping an eye out for those that show temperament, be it awkward head carriage, tail swishing, hanging, finishing weakly or even a poor win/run ratio is one of the best applications of the value of negativity in racing; such horses invariably run well without winning and take up too much of the market on their starts.
One of the central cogs in Burkeman’s wheel of negativity is certainty, or more accurately, our excessive desire for certainty and security. So much do we long for both these things that we are willing to accept even the illusion of such; his example of airport security as a glorified piece of theatre that is unlikely to protect us from a determined terrorist attack is a master-class in logic. I suspect a similar mind-set is at play when punters love backing horses at short prices; even the language is the same, such runners often described as a ‘certainty.’ This applies across the gambling board from the myth of the Cheltenham banker to putting short-priced runners together in accumulators despite much of the evidence about successful punting suggesting that playing away from the head of the market is the way to go.
Two most successful tipping services around are Pricewise and Hugh Taylor and both excel at the back-end of the market and there is nothing surer that if you back every favourite over time, you will lose in the long-term. No more than in life, there is no security or certainty in gambling and instead of looking for it, we should turn away from it and be willing to take a risk. Fear of failure is something that troubles us all but by acknowledging it and taking the chance anyway we may make a success of it, whatever success may be.
The Punting Confessional – Wednesday, May 22nd – The Power of the Negative (part 2)
If asked who my favourite horse is, I wouldn’t reply Frankel, Sea The Stars or even Wrekin Rock (a Jim Gorman-trained handicapper who landed me a nice few quid at a Curragh May Bank Holiday meeting a few years back; you had to be there). Instead, my all-time great horse is the bad favourite.
A rising tide lifts all boats and having a runner that is too short at the head of the betting can make a number of its rivals overpriced. Punters have to differentiate between a bad favourite in an absolute sense, i.e. one that almost cannot win the race and would need to be a massive price for one to even consider backing it, or one that you have to be against at the price.
We saw a good example of the latter in the shape of Declaration Of War in the Lockinge at the weekend where he was simply too short at 5/4 for what he had achieved on the track; had the same horse been 8/1 off the back of a good reappearance win and quality connections then he likely would have been a strong bet. In terms of absolute bad favourites, one stands out from recent years and that is Wonder Of Wonders in the 2011 Irish Oaks.
Here was a filly that finished second in the Epsom Oaks but had shown attitude in her previous starts and to my eyes there was little chance of her winning as he was going to throw victory in no matter the circumstances, a trait she further revealed next time in the Yorkshire Oaks.
As punters, we need to be careful about becoming too attached to horses and a version of the Buddhist belief of non-attachment is worth applying here; this concept, according to Wikipedia, is ‘a state in which a person overcomes his or her attachment to desire for things, people or concepts of the world and thus attains a heightened perspective.’
If we become overly attached to a horse we can follow it off a cliff and hardly allow it run without a bet; instead a preferable situation would be to attach ourselves to the idea of a good bet rather than a good horse.
Having a negative view as a way into a race is a good place to start, whether it is a doubt about a fancied horse’s stamina, ability to handle the ground, form or whatever. We hear trainers – Paul Nicholls being one – talk about silencing the doubters but in truth it is doubt that makes in the odds. Of course, positive angles into races work well too – there are few better approaches than finding a well-handicapped horse as they must go close, all things being equal – but doubting a horse or a form line can provide an edge.
Just because a handicap has been strong down the years does not mean it will be the same this and not all group races are equal; there is a logic to race standardisation where one expects a certain level of performance will be needed for victory but there are times when a race is much worse than it should be. A good recent example of this would be the Tetrarch Stakes at the Curragh won by Sruthan in a Racing Post Rating of 108 whereas in reality he probably had to run to little better than 95 to win; it was a listed race in name only.
Another area where punters can utilise the power of the negative is in imagining worst-case scenarios. Again, Burkeman’s The Antidote (as mentioned last week) is informative and his quotation from JK Rowling’s speech on receiving an honorary doctorate from Harvard in June 2008 is illuminating; in it she speaks of benefits of failure and what it can teach us. For her, prior to the success of the Harry Potter books, she was the biggest failure she knew yet she was still alive, in many ways living out the worst-case scenario she had imagined in her youth. The point here is that the worst had happened, all her horrible imaginings realised, but failure hadn’t killed her.
Such an approach needs to be modified for punting – I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to take this as advice to punt you brains out, find yourself in massive debt yet realise you’re still alive – but when gambling it is probably worth realising what one can lose should everything go wrong. A punter doesn’t have to be comfortable with this (no one likes losing) but it should be bearable and if it isn’t then it is time for a rethink. Planning stakes and realising all that can go wrong rather than just pottering along hoping for the best could be a worthwhile exercise.
In terms of the ideal punting mentality, I often think a sort of stoicism, where life’s slings and arrows produce a somewhat indifferent response, comes close to what is needed. This is best exemplified by someone like Hugh Taylor who whenever he is interviewed about the quality or otherwise of his selections The Form Factor, seems never to be excited one way or the other.
If things are going well, he will remind the presenter of the bunch of donkeys he tipped the previous month whereas if results have swung against him, he will talk about sticking to the process that has worked for him in the past. The game is filled with highs and lows and if one allows themselves to get too drawn into one or the other, it can end badly.
The very nature of racing seems concentrated on the future; barely is one race over than everyone wants to know where the horse is going next. So it was with Dawn Approach’s Derby bid after the Guineas and we can spend our lives wishing away the jumps season by giving too much emphasis to the Cheltenham Festival. All anyone has at any time is the moment they are in and this living in the now is certainly an idea that can be applied to racing; perhaps we should enjoy our punting wins as they are and live with the failures rather than trying to move on quickly to the next race.
The now of racing is invariably made up of more mundane racing and instead of spending so much time focussing on the bigger meetings we could be better served by trying to find an edge on the much less analysed day-to-day racing.
Finally, and bizarrely, let’s finish with goals. Modern society is obsessed with goals, with the general tenor of much of ideology behind it preaching that a person cannot get anywhere without goals. The most famous of all studies on the subject is the Harvard Goal Study where a group of students were surveyed about goals they had before leaving college and the small percentage that had written aims ended up achieving much more than the rest of the students put together.
The results of the study are often wheeled out as proof of the benefit of goals but no proof of it was ever found and it likely never happened.
Punters have to be careful with goals, particularly where the goal becomes the only thing; I’m thinking particularly here of profit targets. One has to be wary of achieving a pyrrhic victory in that profits may be realised but the expense may be too great; like a marathon runner who is so dogged in lasting the distance but injures themselves in the process, the punter has to watch the personal cost of aiming for (too much) profit.
Sometimes focussing on the process rather than the outcome is the way to go.