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The academics of handicapping
Monday, April 07, 2014 - by Frank Cotolo

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As the years passed and I visited more and more racetracks and played harness racing at more and more venues, it became apparent to me that I was like most people playing pari-mutuels: I spent too much time handicapping.

How I wish someone during that long road would have told me early in my relationship with pari-mutuel racing that wanting to work harder at handicapping was an enormous waste of time. I don’t mean that participating in handicapping and wagering was unavailing, I mean that this, that and the other thing that I was told about the process didn’t matter much, if not at all, and I could survive and thrive at the game without volumes of academic knowledge. Not only would I have saved plenty of hours in my life that I will never get back, I would have probably won more bets.

It is important for a novice to witness and learn from more experienced players. Beyond reading books and articles about handicapping, watching veteran players live and listening to them explain their reasoning for the wagers they make, can be valuable to no end. However, you have to pick and choose which people are giving you worthwhile information. This is where the academics of handicapping can become intimidating.

From experience, I offer a lot of handicapping “teachers” that presented me hands-on lessons. It was years after they gladly presented their theories on handicapping that I realized most of what they professed was negligible.

It’s not that each of them had different approaches; they each looked at the same elements -- class, driver, post position and recent form. That sounded simple enough except none of them knew when to stop evaluating. None of them had any specific measure of importance for each element. When is the driver more important than the class? When does post position matter more than class of the driver? When does the driver mean more to handicapping than the post position, etcetera?

With no clear answers, the teachers made handicapping appear to be a process with questions that beget more questions and that more questions meant learning to cover more aspects. This method of teaching puts a person into a maze of contingent data that human nature does not allow us to reduce to the lowest denominator. So, we delve into meaningless detail and we labor over inharmonious facts that lead us from a solution that makes sense. We seem to think that if we work harder and longer at handicapping we will accomplish more. It is not true.

But no one teaches the simplicity of playing the game, just like no one teaches the money-management methods above the concept of how to pick a winner. Teachers of playing the pari-mutuel game offer a nimiety of information, which often turns off the novice, who can only surmise handicapping is a long and arduous task that takes too long for the desired results.

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