In 1983 a gentleman brought a statue to a museum that he said was from 600 B.C. Of course, the museum took this claim with skepticism. The asking price was 10 million, and not one of these statues had surfaced in years. It was thought by experts and historians alike that they were all discovered. So, the science began. 14 months later, after a battery of scientific testing, the museum said the statue was real.
After it was purchased, when it was placed on display for experts to see, one watcher took one look at it and blurted out “I hope you didn’t pay much.” Another said, “there is something wrong here. I don’t know what it is, but there is something wrong.” All reported a subconscious, visceral reaction to the statue. They thought it was a fake, but they could not tell you why.
What did these historical experts see that 14 months of science didn’t? That is something Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Blink” discusses.His thesis states that, if you are unconsciously competent in something, it takes no more than 2 seconds for you to come up with an opinion – and much of the time, that opinion is 100% correct.
When you or I saw many champions as young horses in harness racing, we knew we were looking at a potential stakes horse. Why? He only went 1:56, he looked ok, but a 40 claimer might have beaten him – yes all true. But somewhow we just knew. It is something we do in handicapping often, but I think we do not follow through enough on this in our betting, giving it the respect it deserves. We get too bogged down in past performances, or other handicapping, just like the scientists did with the statue. I think we need our initial feelings validated, so as handicappers we look for ways to discredit these 'feelings' But we have to remember: We know what a race looks like and how they are usually run. We know how a horse tends to respond to adversity. We know how a race sets up, develops, how horses act and finish a race. We know how they are supposed to act based on their trip, pace or action. We know what is supposed to happen, because we are unconscious competent in racing, from many years of experience. When something sticks out, it has a wow factor and it should be paid attention to.
I remember a handicapping friend and I having a conversation with a trainer awhile back. It was after a stunning, somewhat unbelievable performance of a different trainer’s horse off the claim (something that had happened more than once). The trainer was like the scientists at the museum – he argued, rationalized and spoke about vet work, breathing help, shoeing, etcetera. That was all perfectly rational, of course. The handicapper on the other hand couldn’t really verbalize or relay what it is he saw; he just knew “something was not right with this trainer’s horses.” A year later the trainer was out of racing. He was suspended 10 years for using performance enhancing drugs.
As handicappers we are conditioned to see things as they are. When they are artificially different than reality, our subconscious gives us one heck of a 'blink'.
While gambling on our sport here is how I now handle my blink situations: When I see a horse do something he/she should not do, it is an automatic bet back.They should be bets next time no matter what class, what post, or who is against him. They are auto-bets and I don’t even think about why.
I tested this some time ago for a period and I found 36 “blink” horses. Out of those, 19 came back to win. It is something I am now aware of and have added to my handicapping, as it has been ROI positive for a long time for me. My bet size now goes up appreciably when I see one of these horses. Years ago I might play 2% on these horses, but now it is 5%. If I have a 15% edge, I should not be treading lightly with 2% bets, and neither should anyone. At the end of the year this added bet size can be the difference between and winning a losing season.
So the next time you say to yourself “how in the heck did that horse hang around?” Or, “how did that horse do that?”, think of how much your subconscious knows from years of experience and how you can capitalize on that.
I almost forgot, back to our 3000 year old statue: Yes, it was a fake. Upon further review because of expert skepticism, the curators went back and found numerous holes in the seller’s documents, as well as scientific evidence proving it was a sham. After the episode the Curator who made the mistake said “I always found scientific opinion more objective than esthetic judgments, but I was clearly wrong.”
Malcolm Gladwell’s book is available at Amazon.com here. It’s a decent read.