Friday, February 29, 2008

Guest Post Friday: The Sphere

Jeff Platt from, a horseplayer and software developer wrote a super-interesting and bang-on post about handicapping. It is entitled "The Sphere". I liked it so much that I asked him if I could post it up for Guest Post Friday's at the blog. He said "sure".

This is a great post. And if you are a horseplayer, or want to be one, it is worth reading, and rereading, and rereading. I read a good deal of handicapping books and articles. I find that I agree with some, disagree with some, but rarely agree 100% with any. This post is an exception. When I feel myself making boneheaded moves, or getting mad at a lost photo, or bad drive/ride, I usually read an article like this, or look at some of my old results, just to get the head back in the game.

I encourage everyone who wants to try to win at racing to read this post. It's good. Perhaps at the end we can get some comments about how you may lose focus, or how you have gone on "tilt" in the past. I am sure I can come up with a story or two. Or fifty.

I mentioned once before, this game is fun when you have your plan set up, and you know you are doing the right thing. You don't get mad when a loss comes, because you know it is just part of the game and a winner will come, just like it always does.

This is the greatest gambling game with the toughest intellectual challenge in the World. Jeff gives readers advice on how to maximize your fun while trying to win at it. I hope everyone likes it.

If you are a thoroughbred player and are serious about the game, Jeff's software is pretty damn amazing. It does not spit out "winners", or promise to. If you work at it, however, it can be profitable, in my opinion. Please visit his site at to learn more. I am a user, and I love it.

Thanks for this Jeff. I appreciate it.

Note: When Jeff says "UDM" in this piece, it is the equivalent to a spot play, or angle.

The Sphere


I spent a little free time these past few weeks organizing my thoughts. My intent in doing so was to be able to do a write up of the mental process I go through on a daily basis when I’m in the act of playing horses. I think this stuff is important. While I’m playing, there are certain processes I do each day as I attempt to beat the takeout. I tend to think of the sum of these processes in terms of them forming a game plan or roadmap that leads to success. I know from my own personal experience that when I follow this roadmap the very act of overcoming the takeout becomes a much easier thing to do than if I attempt to go outside its boundaries. What you will find in this write up are things that I do to help me achieve my goal of being a winning horseplayer. My hope in committing these thoughts to writing is twofold. First, I hope that the act of writing this piece will serve to reinforce my own clarity about these ideas and help me to remember them on race day. Second, I hope that someone else out there somewhere finds them to be of benefit after reading what I have to say.

Most of what I am going to present here is basic philosophy. Much of it reaches well beyond the subject of handicapping. In fact, if you give it some thought, you just might realize that this can be applied to just about every area of human endeavor you see fit to undertake.

A Little History and a Profound Realization

In February, 1999 I left a pretty cozy accounting job in the 9 to 5 world that I had held for 12 years. At the time I decided I needed a career change. I loved programming but had no formal training as a programmer. I had already written a very early version of the program that would later evolve into JCapper. I had the ability to run database queries and had crafted a handful of crude CPace and BF based UDMs that had shown a reasonable enough profit over a pair of 3,000 race samples. My rough game plan was to use some of my savings as a bankroll and pay the bills through my handicapping. I would also devote 20-30 hours each week towards getting enough formal training to make it as a programmer once I felt I was ready. I knew from the database tests I had run that success was one possible outcome. I also knew that failure was another very real possible outcome. In the end I made my decision more as a leap of faith than anything else. I believed I could fly. Therefore I jumped.

Please understand that I am in no way attempting to convince any of you to jump in the event that jumping is something you happen to be thinking about. It should be obvious. Failure to fly under such circumstances can have some very severe negative consequences. Attempting to fly was the right decision for me at that time in my life. In no way does my own decision make it the right decision for you.

In February of 1999 I was living in Arizona. I had never heard of offshore wagering accounts or rebates. At the time, in Arizona, you had to actually show up at Turf Paradise to bet their full simulcast menu. Their OTB locations, and there was one barely a half mile from my house, offered the entire TUP card but only a limited number of handpicked out of state simulcast races each day. Stranger still, Turf Paradise did not commingle wagers made into their system into the pools of the simulcast host tracks. Instead, they created their own separate pools which tended to run on the smallish side. That point was driven home to me one afternoon when my own $30.00 win bet cut the win price of an overlay Maiden winner that paid over $130.00 to win at HOL all the way down to $58.00 in the local win pool which was only about $1500.00.

At that time my workday would start about 7:00 am. I would download data files from Bris, manually unzip them, load them one at a time into my program, and spit my reports onto perforated computer paper using a very loud (and slow) dot matrix printer. On most days I would have 4 or 5 tracks printed out by 8:00 am. After some breakfast I would drive across town and arrive at Turf Paradise sometime around 9:30 am. That would give me 30 minutes or so to start handicapping the early races at the east coast tracks. In those days I had to comb through my printouts and identify my own plays. I carried around a handwritten set of rules for each play type that I wanted to make on index cards. The simple concept of programming a computer to find my own plays wouldn’t even occur to me for another three years.

I would see the same faces at Turf Paradise each day. People got to know me. And I got to know some of them. One of the most memorable events that ever happened to me at a racetrack happened within the first 30 days of me setting out to see whether or not I could fly. An elderly man – I only remember him as Jim – asked me a question. Jim knew that I had quit a pretty good job to play horses full time. Understandably he thought I was nuts. And he made no bones about hiding it.

It turned out to be a loaded question. I didn’t realize it at the time but the answer Jim gave me to his own question turned out to be one of the most profound things anyone has ever said to me.

The exchange went something like this:

Jim: “Jeff. In your opinion, what is the single most important factor in horse racing?”

Me: “That’s easy. Early speed is the most important factor.”

Jim: “You sure about that?”

Me: “Yes. Why?”

Jim: “Are you really sure?”

Me: “Um... Ok. Early speed with enough form and class for a horse to stay in front all the way to the wire. That’s the most important thing.”

Jim: “You’ll never make it as a handicapper.”

Me: “Um... Ok. I’ll bite. What do you think the single most important factor in horse racing is?”

Jim: “Discipline. That's the single most important thing. Without it you have no chance as a horse player. Never forget that.”

Unfortunately for me, I dismissed this conversation at the time. It wasn't until nearly two full years later that I realized the profoundness of what Jim had actually said to me. In the end it turns out Jim was 100 percent correct. Discipline is the single most important thing in betting on horses profitably.

What follows are my own thoughts on making discipline work for me.

The Sphere

When I play horses the first thing I do is form the image of a glowing electric blue sphere in my mind. Try not to laugh. My sphere is my reality. Here are the rules for my reality. Anything with the ability to affect me, in either a positive or a negative way, is important and belongs in my sphere. Everything inside of my sphere, because it has importance, deserves and receives my intense focus.

Everything outside of my sphere has no ability to affect me and is therefore completely irrelevant to me. Anything existing outside of my sphere is completely ignored by me. I refuse to waste my time and energy by focusing in the least on things that are irrelevant to me.

So what belongs inside my sphere? What belongs outside my sphere?

In my opinion, the most powerful single thing found in JCapper (I’m the program’s author remember?) is the concept of the UDM. Hopefully I can get my point across in such a way that it won’t be lost on you.

Suppose for a second that you have one and only one UDM. Let’s also suppose for the sake of argument that your one UDM has a very remarkable trait: As you bet its plays over the course of time you get back more money from the cashier than you pay out for the tickets you buy as you make the bets. In other words your UDM is profitable.

Suppose for a second that you create a sphere of your own.

Now, given the above scenario, let me ask you a question. What happens if you place just one thing inside of your sphere? What happens if you place your one UDM inside of your sphere?

Now let me ask you a second question.

What happens if your sphere is your only reality when you play horses?

The answer should be obvious. If the only thing inside of your sphere is a profitable UDM and the only reality you have when you play horses is your sphere… you just became a winning horseplayer.

Go back and read that last paragraph again. Let it sink in. It’s what really separates the tiny percentage of winning horseplayers from the vast majority of players who lose money.

Here’s a list of the things that have a place in my own Sphere:

1. Profitable UDMs. Just because a UDM is profitable across many samples doesn’t mean it has a place in my Sphere. One area that I often see with new users is that they try to do too much. I’m talking about a question of workload. In my opinion it’s far better to play a single UDM at a single track and do it accurately while following scratches and changes and making the bets in accordance with an overall bankroll money management plan than to try to make the plays for dozens of UDMs at multiple tracks each day if trying to make all those plays means that you have to do it haphazardly. By haphazardly I mean that you are missing scratches and changes here and there and you are possibly even getting shut out of races because there are too many plays coming up simultaneously.

2. A Bankroll/Money Management Plan. I’ve made no secret of the fact that my game is based around backing UDM plays to win their races and that I play to a bankroll. One of the primary goals I have when I play is growing a small bankroll into a large one. Unless you are just extremely lucky the task of actually doing this takes an incredible amount of willpower. The reality is that without discipline the act of growing a small bankroll into a large one over an extended period of time is nearly impossible. Along these lines I suggest that the inexperienced player start out by going through the exercise of simply flat betting UDM plays just to get experience. After proving to yourself that you have the ability to bet UDM plays while betting nothing else, and do it profitably - then and only then try making each bet within the context of each bet being part of a bankroll. Trust me, there is no other way. Until you try you simply won’t believe how hard it can be sometimes to play a perfectly clean race day – a day where the only bets you make are UDM plays and where each bet is made at your intended percentage of bankroll.

3. Mental State. When I play horses I want to be in the best mental state possible. The right mental state for me is one of detached involvement. When I play I’m not concerned with outcomes. I’m concerned with being able to execute my game plan. Past history tells me that if I can do that then the outcome takes care of itself. There’s one question that I ask myself over and over each race day that helps get me in that right mental state. That question was taught to me by a professional poker player. That question is “What should I be doing next?” I find myself asking myself that same question over and over hundreds of times each race day.

When I’m in the right mental state my decisions become instantly clear to me. I’m on autopilot and my game plan seems to self execute. I check each race for fresh scratches before I bet it. I see a play and I make it. I move on to the next race. The game seems incredibly easy at such times. Everything flows and time ceases to exist. The only things I see are those things I’ve allowed inside of my Sphere.

Here’s a list of some things I refuse to allow inside of my own Sphere:

1. Emotion. In my opinion emotion has no place in horse race betting. I could tell you a thousand horror stories of how I’ve let emotion cloud my own judgment – how I’ve let it cause me to make action bets that bled profits from my UDM plays and bankroll – how I’ve let emotion cloud my judgment so that I missed making plays on overlay UDM winners that I had every intention of playing, etc. The bottom line is that emotion, good or bad, can cloud your judgment and prevent you from executing your game plan. Because of this emotion has no place in my Sphere.

2. Action Bets. I define an action bet as any wager made on a non UDM horse, a UDM horse outside of the prescribed odds ranges indicated by your own research, or any bet made on a UDM horse outside of your own Money Management/Percentage of Bankroll Plan. I used to have a real problem with action bets. I’ve mentioned this before but it bears repeating here. It’s easy for action bets to get out of hand. My own initial foray into playing professionally back in 1999 came to an end about 18 months later because I lacked true discipline and I let my own action bets get the better of me. I ended up having to go back to work and took a job as a programmer. Don’t get me wrong. I landed a very nice job. But imagine the self reflection that comes from realizing that you were able to make UDM plays profitably enough to pay the bills and then some for 18 months but in the end you gave nearly two thirds of that away in the form of action bets because you couldn’t control yourself. Trust me. I know of what I speak. Action bets have no place at all in my Sphere. Hopefully you’ll never find them in yours.

3. Distractions and Annoyances. These also have no place in my Sphere. I say this because they have the ability to invoke an emotional reaction from me. Hopefully I’ve already gotten the point across that emotion has the ability to lower your mental state to the point to where it can interrupt the execution of your game plan. With that understanding in mind I’ll list a few of the things I consider to fall within the Distractions and Annoyances category:

a. Lost Photos
b. Disqualifications
c. Troubled Trips
d. Poor Starts
e. Bad Rides
f. Late Money Odds Drops
g. High Paying Mutuels from non UDM horses
h. Not noticing scratches and changes
i. Not focusing on the task at hand resulting in getting shut out of a nice winner

You can probably think up a few more. But hopefully you get the idea. If items h and i from the above list are happening to me with any frequency at all I take it as a very strong hint that I'm letting something interfere with my desired mental state. I immediately flush my emotional reaction away by telling myself "Ok. That's in the past and I can't change that. Now what should I be doing next?"


I’ve found success with this approach: I create my own Sphere each and every race day. I only allow certain things into my Sphere. I deny certain other things entrance into my Sphere. When I play horses my Sphere is my only reality. Everything inside of my Sphere merits my intense focus. Everything outside of my Sphere is worth none of my focus at all.

Create a Sphere of your own and let me know what happens.

1 comment:

Pull the Pocket said...

A story I just thought of.

About four or five years ago at the Meadowlands, in race 6, I lost about $10,000 on a (what I thought) was a terrible call by the judges. I went on about it, like an idiot, for about a week. Whoa is me.

Then a funny thing happened.

About two months after that, the EXACT same thing happened...... not to me, but to the poor saps who bet the horse I didn't bet. This time I was on the right side and cashed a pile of money.

I always knew that bad drives, bad rides, bad calls, sickness of the horse you bet, whatever are pure luck and are purely random. One day you will get bit by it; the next day you will benefit. But sometimes you have to get hit in the head with it like that to realize it. I can honestly say I have not gotten "mad" about bad beats. I have a little fun with them with my friends, or maybe here on the blog, but I am never mad or seeking pity. Not anymore.

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