In the history of thoroughbred racing there have been two great revolutions in the way horse players bet.
One occurred around the turn of the century, when oncourse bookmakers began to be displaced by mutuel machines, necessitating changes in the strategy of every gambler. The other began in the 1960s, when race tracks introduced what are called exotic or multiple or gimmick bets -- wagers that involve more than one horse. The modern-day proliferation of bets like the exacta and the triple has fundamentally altered the nature of the game.
In every revolution, there is an old guard which cannot adapt to the changes and therefore denounces them. When New York belatedly abolished legal bookies, journalist Toney Betts wrote, "I thought the professionals would swear off and start an organization named Horse Players Anonymous."
Many modern experts similarly decried the coming of exotic bets. Author Tom Ainslie, whose handicapping books have educated a generation of American horse players, denounces them in all their forms. "The daily double, exacta, perfecta, quinella, trifecta and similar pari-mutuel attractions are gambling, impure and simple," he wrote. "Moreover, they are forms of gambling without the slightest incentive for a competent player of horses. They are strictly sucker bait."
Even horseplayers who find the exotics irresistible share Ainslie's view in principle, believing that there is something impure and unprofessional about playing exactas and triples.
This opposition to the exotics is based on the assumption that the only way to play a race is to find the superior horse and bet him to win. It's hardly a crazy assumption; men have been betting thoroughbreds in this fashion since the middle of the 18th century. And that is why the exotics are truly revolutionary.
How, I wonder, would Ainslie and his brethren handle the following situations?
A 3-to-5 shot looks unbeatable in a particular race, but his chief competition may come from a 30-to-1 shot with well-concealed virtues. Betting the long shot to win probably will be futile. Betting the favorite to win or the long shot to place won't produce adequate rewards. What do you do?
A 3-to-5 shot comes onto the track dead lame. He is not going to win, or even finish in the money, but unfortunately there is no clear-cut second choice. Any of three or four evenly matched contenders could win the race. What do you do?
A horse player who lived 20 years ago, or who attends one of the few tracks that still offer no exotic wagering, or who rejects the exotics on principle would be forced to pass these races. But even though neither of them fits the traditional definition of a good win bet, the existence of exacts now makes them very desirable betting situations. Any man who rejects such profitable opportunities is a fool.
But along with these great new opportunities have come new ways for a horse player to go astray. Almost every bettor has had the experience: He goes to the track loving a 2-to-1 shot, but starts to dream of a killing and sinks all his money into various exacta combinations. His horse wins, the exactas lose and he goes home feeling like an idiot.
The next day the bettor loves a 2-to-1 shot again and, chastened, bets only to win. This time a plausible 30-to-1 shot runs second, the exacta pays $200 and the bettor again goes home feeling like an idiot.
For a competent handicapper, such mistakes can make the difference between long-term success and failure at the race track. They point out the need for a horse player to have a rational, coherent betting strategy. But few horse players have one; few even think about the subject.
Ask a typical race tracker how he handicaps and he will unhesitatingly reel off the factors that he emphasizes primarily and secondarily. Ask him how he makes his betting decisions and he'll look at you blankly.
Most handicapping books deal with betting strategy in the same way: by ignoring it. Ainslie's 470-page "Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing" includes 469 1/2 pages on handicapping and a half page on betting. The emphasis on the two subjects ought to be 50-50.
Even if a racing fan has become an expert handicapper, he is not going to succeed if he doesn't manage his money intelligently. He can't do that if he ties on hand behind his back and fails to take advantage of the new opportunities created by the exotic revolution.