There was a time when a horse player who wanted to learn more about the art of handicapping could get little help from published literature.
How-to-beat-the-races books assumed that their readers were simpletons looking for methods to make a fortune overnight. They offered page after page of simple systems; they presented lists of inflexible rules; they refused to deal with the complexities of the game. They perpetuated myths, such as the importance of weight. And they often ignored some of the most important facets of handicapping: making speed figures, recognizing track biases, learning the methods of trainers.
A current-day racing fan may consider himself relatively fortunate. If he attempts to learn the fundamentals of handicapping from books, he won't necessarily be led down a lot of blind alleys. Some of the literature published on betting in the last three years or so is reasonably sophisticated and thought provoking; much of it is surprisingly literate. Horse players evidently are getting smarter.
Many horse players have wondered whether computers can somehow be employed to pick winners at the track. William Quirin, a professor at Adelphi University, undertook a thorough mathematical study of thousands of races and published the results in "Winning at the Races: Computer Discoveries in Thoroughbred Handicapping" (William Morrow and Co., $19.95). The book provides quantitative answers to almost every handicapping question, and it would make valuable reading for a race track neophyte.
In a few cases, Quirin's research debunks myths: he demonstrates that horses are slightly more likely to win if they are carrying more weight than they did in their last start, not less. But for the most part his conclusions merely confirm long-established maxims of handicapping.
Don Passer's "Winning Big at the Track With Money Management" (Playboy Press, $13.50) sets forth one of the most thought-provoking handicapping ideas I have seen in print. He outlines a fairly standard method for calculating speed figures, then suggests adjusting these figures according to the ground that horses lose on the turn. If a horse runs 25 feet away from the rail around the turn, and finishes 3 1/2 lengths behind a winner who ran six furlongs in 1:12, how fast can he be expected to run in his next start? Passer calculates the answer: 1:10.96.
But after having made such wonderfully precise calculations, Passer proceeds to ruin them, recommending that the reader make crude adjustments to these lovely figures, such as giving a horse credit for 2 1/2 lengths if he is being ridden by a hot jockey. His money-management plan, presumably the focal point of the book, seems laborious, overly restrictive and unrealistic. He devotes a total of four inadequate paragraphs to the thorniest problem in betting strategy: when to bet to win, and when to play exactas.
Passer's book is at least an intelligent, well-intentioned work that sometimes goes astray. William L. Scott went astray when he conceived "Investing at the Racetrack" (Simon and Shuster, $15.50). On the dust jacket, Tom Ainslie--dean of handicapping writers--hails the book as "an absolutely phenomenal achievement," but what is phenomenal is that in this sophisticated era anyone would write and publish such drivel.
When Scott prescribes betting only on one of the three shortest-priced horses in a field (because they win 67 percent of all races) and a reader understands that he is not allowed to bet on a logical horse at 20 to 1, he might toss "Investing at the Racetrack" promptly into the trash can. If he continued to read, he would learn that the key to Scott's method is evaluating horses off the best two final-quarter times in their past performances. In sprints, that is. In route races, Scott has too much trouble calculating the final quarter for odd distances like 1 1/16 miles, so he says to evaluate a horse's ability by the time it takes him to run from the half-mile mark to the six-furlong mark.
Although most modern books emphasize calculations of different sorts--Passer's speed figures or Scott's preposterous "ability times"--James Quinn is an old-fashioned class handicapper. His work, "The Handicapper's Condition Book" (Gambler's Book Club Press, $9.95) focuses on the conditions of eligibility for all different types of races and attempts to generalize about the types of horses who win them.
Critics may properly object that Quinn's answers are a bit too general, and that his examples--drawn almost solely from the tracks in California--are not necessarily relevant to other racing areas. Nevertheless, his book is sound, honest and literate, even if it does seem a little old-fashioned.
In "The Search for the Winning Horse" (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $9.95) Richard Sasuly writes as much about the experience of betting the horses as the actual techniques of doing so and may frustrate some impatient readers who wish he'd hurry up and get to the nitty-gritty. I didn't mind waiting, because Sasuly writes so engagingly.
He describes one of his early handicapping triumphs, the sort that occurs in every horse player's life to persuade him that the game is logical and beatable. And he says: "I had an astonishing sense of having seen the race before it was run. It felt almost as if one held the universe like a ball. And opened a trap door on the side, and looked in, and there was the axle of the universe, turning around in its oil bath, just the way it had to be."
As the literature of handicapping becomes sounder and intellectually more responsible, perhaps more horse players will share this sense of understanding.