In 1983 a collector brought a statue to a museum to be
examined. The statue, purportedly from 600 B.C., was a rare fine indeed. Not one of these statues had surfaced in
years and experts firmly believed all of them had been discovered. The asking price of $10 million was steep,
but certainly in line with such a rare find.
After looking at the statue carefully, the museum curator began to
initiate the battery of tests needed to verify it so he could get clearance to release
such a huge sum of money. After 14
months of scientific study, the verdict was in. The piece was in fact, real.
When it was finally placed on display for the experts to examine,
one historian took a quick look at the piece and told the curator, “I hope you
didn’t pay much.” Another said, “There’s something wrong with this piece.” Time
after time the experts had a subconscious, visceral reaction to the statue.
They thought it was a fake. They could not tell you why or give you hard
evidence why they thought so. They just took one look and knew what they knew.
What did these historical experts see and feel? That is something Malcolm Gladwell delves into in his book Blink
. Part of his thesis states that if you are unconsciously competent in
something (e.g. an expert with knowledge built into your subconscious mind), it
takes no more than two seconds for you to form an opinion, and much of the
time, that opinion is 100 percent correct.
Jeff Gural is currently excluding some horsemen from
entering at the Meadowlands. None of us know who’s on the list, but I’d bet
dollars to donuts at least one or two of them make us, as handicappers, blink.
A handicapper with skill knows that a $20,000 claimer who’s
parked three-high in a 27 second opening quarter, takes a three hole, and makes
a second move first up into a 56 second half and a 1:23.3 three-quarters will
likely come home in a slower time than the others, just like every other $20,000
claimer since the history of horsekind. Those
who’ve been around the game for 40 years have seen it tens of thousands of
times. It’s in their subconscious.
When that particular horse with that trip does not lose the
customary six lengths in the lane like all or many others, but instead he draws
off and wins, sharp bettors and horsemen notice.
As is the case often in our sport with these performances,
we look up and see the horse had a barn change for that inexplicable “blink” start.
In only a week he improved enough to do
something that thousands upon thousands of $20,000 claimers never do, which is
probably fine, if it happens sporadically. But further, as seems the norm in
these cases, we see the same thing happen next week with a different horse who
enters the same new barn. And then another, and then another and then another.
We, in two seconds really, just like the experts with the
statue, blinked. Our subconscious decides there is something going on that we
Nobody can “prove” anything of course, unless maybe you’re
Gil Grissom. There are no positive tests. There’s nothing to go on but internet
and backstretch rumor. We just feel something is not quite right.
This feeling is not just in horse racing, it’s in other
sports too. Several years ago I was amazed by the performance of a cyclist in
the Tour de France and absolutely loved his burst of speed in one particular
mountain stage. It was like he was exponentially better than all the other
riders, and I was a huge fan. I am no expert on cycling, but I called someone
who was, to talk about this particular performance. His response was not quite as
thrilling as mine.
“He probably blood
doped,” he said.
Coincidentally, the very next day this rider was out of the
Tour de France. His team fired him (he was leading the race and a lock for the
overall title, too) for “violating internal rules.” I bought the hype that this
cyclist was somehow that much better than the rest. I simply didn’t know any
Just like cyclists tend to be right about cyclists, history
has shown that handicappers and horsemen tend to be correct about other
horsemen, and it’s all done without a chemistry degree and a fancy machine
giving them their results. It’s a big reason why the argument “so and so
doesn’t have a positive test, so I have to give him the benefit of the doubt”
doesn’t resonate very much with a whole lot of these same people.
For example, when Mighty Mite Morgan was taken from Jim
Campbell after finishing tenth, beaten by nine and a quarter lengths in 1:56
and eighth (placed seventh), beaten ten lengths in 1:58, and moved into a hot
barn where there were whispers in 2006, he remained in the same class and
jogged a couple of weeks later in 1:52.4. My e-mail inbox was filled with
The Drunkard was moved from Doug Arthur off 1:55-1:56 type
lines into a new barn, one that Woodbine Entertainment Group had some doubts
about because the trainer’s horses were already all in retention. He jogged by
eight in 1:51 his first start, setting a new life’s mark. About thirty seconds
after the prices were posted, a topic popped up on a chat board, filled with
posts from people “blinking.”
Judging by the suspensions that followed for those barns not
long after, flummoxed handicappers and horsemen were thought to be prescient,
It is why, in my opinion, we cannot blame participants and
bettors for judging performances like they do in horse racing. Their
subconscious competency has served them pretty well in the past. It solidifies their beliefs.
The question remains regarding exclusion and what to do, or
what not to do with some people in certain situations. I’m a dumb handicapper,
not a smart District Court Judge, so I cannot answer that in any way, shape, or
form. But I do think that in
grandstands, and on backstretches, it’s fair to say that people will continue
to “blink” until our game is much cleaner than it is.
Note: Going back to the
3,000 year old statue: It was a fake. Because of the expert skepticism, the
curators went back and found numerous holes in the seller’s documents. As well,
they uncovered 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
This article was originally published in Harness Racing Update, Bill Finley's Weekend paper. If you want to sign up for Harness Racing Update, for free, you can here.