A Computerized Day at the Races
The dream of winning at the racetrack is heady stuff, even to those of us who don’t know a fetlock from a trifecta. My half-dozen or so lifetime excursions to the track have probably put me in the loss column. I’m the type of racetrack tout (my wife Gladys insists the word is “lout”) who can be seen at the $2-show window far more often than at the cashier’s cage, but I enjoy yelling my lungs out for some nag adopted at random who breaks fast and dies in the stretch. On the way to the parking lot, I am heard to mutter, “Well, $21.60 isn’t bad for an evening’s entertainment.”
Until recently, the complex charts in the Daily Racing Form were as much a mystery to me as atomic fission. I’d bought the paper occasionally, mainly for appearances’ sake, but hadn’t the faintest idea what to do with the row after row of numbers and symbols in six-point type. Anyway, you’d need a computer to figure them out.
Could even a computer change Dave the Duffer to Harry the Horse? That is no longer an idle question. Pocket computers specifically programmed to dope the horses have lately arrived on the market. I sent for two—the $42.95 RaceTrack Computer II from Leisure Time Development Associates, 1931 Mott Ave., Far Rockaway, N.Y. 11691 (“the most exciting calculator ever designed”) and the $99.95 Kel-Co Class Computer from CannellaCorp., P.O. Box 818, Boca Raton. Fla. 33432 (“you’ll come out a winner”). Both are programmed only for thoroughbred racing. For trotters, dogs or jalopies, all bets are off.
The beauty of a horse-race computer is that you can test it at home, without really gambling a penny. So the Lachenbruch Beat-the-Odds Lab was established in the guest room. Right off the bat, I discovered that doping the ponies isn’t a simple proposition, even with a computer. Not only must you still learn to decipher the Racing Form, it’s also best to put in a two-to-three-hour session before setting out for the track.
Both computers are actually modified calculators. RaceTrack Computer II is a standard calculator with a special keyboard overlay. Kel-Co, a somewhat more sophisticated device with 29 keys, can double as a standard calculator.
RaceTrack II makes the more modest claims and is simpler to operate. You simply feed into it certain data from the Racing Form about the horse, such as its median speed rating for its last three races, its median position at the finish of those races, and the weight it will carry in the coming race. From these data, RaceTrack II produces a “performance rating” number. The two-page instruction sheet promises only that the horses with the highest performance ratings are the “true contenders.”
The Kel-Co Class Computer’s detailed 56-page manual is full of horsy theory of interest to veteran horseplayers as well as beginners. Kel-Co, it says, works on “the principle of established class,” which it explains this way: Since races with high stakes attract the best horses, a horse establishes its class not by the number of times recently that it has run in the money but by the size of the purses it has won. A horse that is running in a race below its class is more likely to win than a horse racing above its class.
A dopy evening
In accordance with this principle, you punch into the calculator copious data from the Racing Form on each horse’s previous races, including the tracks where it has raced (you look up a calculator key symbol for each track in the back of the book), the number of wins, places, shows and fourth places at each track, and the nag’s total recent dollar winnings. Out of all this, Kel-Co produces an “established class rating”—such as 24.62 or 13.81. Following rules in the manual, the horseplayer modifies this number by such factors as the horse’s recent activity, performance, winning consistency and other information, some of which is too complicated for me.
On a typical nine-race card, there may be 65 to 90 horses to dope. If you can feed the data for each horse into the computer in 30 seconds (easy with Computer II, more difficult with Kel-Co), that’s at most 45 minutes’ work. But I found an evening’s race doping took more like 2 ½ hours, what with resting my eyes, rechecking suspicious results and taking occasional trips to the refrigerator.
Although the sophisticated Kel-Co is more difficult to use, it’s much more helpful, because it tells exactly how to bet on each race—and when not to bet at all. The Kel-Co system rejects quite a few races as RNQ, for race not qualified: for example, races for two-year-old maidens (horses that have never won a race). Computer II gives you the “real contenders” and then leaves you hanging. For a more expert bettor, I’m sure this is fine, but I want to know exactly when and how to bet how much of my money.
Before setting out for the track, I spent three evenings huddled over Kel-Co and the Racing Form preparing paper bets. For instant gratification (or grief), I bet retroactively, using the preceding day’s Racing Form and the latest sports pages—so that I could tell immediately how I was doing.
On my very first retroactive race — the first at Belmont — Kel-Co allowed as how Harry J (rated 106.4) was a Prime Bet and, with the odds at 7 to 2, should be bet $10 across the board—that is, $10 to win, $10 to place and $10 to show. They were off—and Harry J thundered in to an easy win. On my $30 investment, I sauntered up to the imaginary cashier’s cage and picked up $75. I was off to the races, so to speak.
My steed in the second race was scratched — so no bet. In the third, KelCo told me to bet only to win and place, but my nag came in third. The fourth race was an RNQ (too many unknown factors and disqualified horses under Kel- Co’s rating system), so I sat that one out. I hit pay dirt again in the fifth with Dr. Ali Pup, who pranced in second, returning $33 on a $30 bet. But it was in the eighth that I made my fortune. Smart Aggie, Kel-Co’s prime horse, finished half a length in front at 8 to 1, and I pocketed $117.50 in imaginary winnings. When the ninth and last race was run, I was a neat $95.50 ahead on bets totaling $130, a return of 73.46% on my investment. Not bad for a night’s work.
The paper results at the Meadowlands were exciting too — three wins and one place — but because of the odds my net was only $32.40 on $130 bet. At Aqueduct I had three wins and one show in six races (the other three were RNQs). I walked away with $123.60 profit on bets of $174, a 71.03% return.
In one evening’s racing at three tracks (but spread over three nights of doping), my paper winnings came to $340.50 on bets totaling $348, which, as we professional gamblers are wont to say, is very nearly doubling your money. This was like shooting horses in a barrel, I thought at 3 a.m., shrugging off my headache. I then spent a sleepless night trying to decide whether or not to quit my job, treat the Kel-Co to new batteries and follow the ponies for the rest of my days.
How I would have done with the other computer is hard to tell, but if I had known anything about betting, it might have won me just as much. Analyzing RaceTrack II’s three top picks for each of 18 races, I found that these 54 horses included 23 that finished in the money, seven of them in the winner’s circle. In only three of the 18 races did none of the top three picks end up first, second or third.
I was ready for the true test — at a real racetrack with real money. Having pre-doped the race card the night before, I put on my checkered pants and it was off to New Jersey and the Meadowlands for Gladys, me and an attaché case full of Racing Forms, Kel-Co and heavy-duty nine-volt batteries.
Since I was using real money, I decided to limit my stake to $100, on the off chance that it would be an off night for Kel-Co. Gladys, not one of your bigtime gamblers, was to bet as she chose — using her own money — but she wasn’t to peek at any of my bets in advance. She chose, for instance, to bet on all horses ridden by female jockeys — “mounted by a Ms.,” as she put it. She set a $2 limit on her losses.
Seated comfortably in the clubhouse restaurant with an unobstructed view of the track at a table for four, Gladys, the Racing Form, Kel-Co and I planned our evening’s investments over a Perfect Manhattan and a club steak. Kel-Co told me the first race was a no-no (a maiden race for two-year-olds), so I just had to wait it out, while Gladys put her $2 on Foolish Spoon to show (she liked the name). The beast came in second and Gladys was $3 ahead. I sat out the second race too (another RNQ), while Gladys did her $2 thing on Bubba’s Luck, which finished third; she was now $4.60 in the profit column. Before I’d even placed a bet.
The third race was my big chance. There, staring me straight in the face, was Diane’s Jewel, a Prime Bet at 24.2, racing well below her class. Following Kel-Co’s orders, I nervously edged to the betting window and put up $30 — $10 across the board on horse No. 2. She came in second, and I strode proudly to the cashier and collected my $49.80, while Gladys bitterly macerated her $2 show ticket on Rash Dance.
In the fourth, it was Timmy Terrific for me ($10 win and place), not a Prime Bet but terrific enough to come in second and pay me $32 on a $20 bet. Gladys, recalling our trip to India, had put her two bucks on Merry Taj, the winner, and proudly collected her $2.80. The fifth was an RNQ for me and a $2.40 winner for Gladys — but that was destined to be her last trip to the cashier.
Kel-Co let me bet on only three more races. I finished in the money on each. Gladys depleted her $2 original stake after the eighth race and sat out the ninth. I visited the cashier as many times as the betting window. In none of my five races did I have a first-place winner. Three of my horses came in second, two came in third. But on total bets of $124, thanks to the across-the-board betting ordered by Kel-Co, my profit came to $24.20—a return of 19.5%. Not up to my usual level but well above the prime rate and for only one night’s work. This didn’t include the $1 for parking, $6 admission or $42 for dinner.
“Well,” I said on the way to the parking lot after a quick calculation on Kel- Co, “subtracting my winnings, that only cost us $24.80—not bad for an evening’s entertainment and dinner.” I was kind enough not to mention the $2 Gladys had squandered on unscientific bets.
At home later that night, I did some more doping. Total winnings, paper and real, on four race cards: $364.70. Total time spent doping, in transit and at the track: 21 hours. Kel-Co told me that amounted to $ 17.37 an hour. Well, maybe — but what if my bets had been $100 instead of $10?
An accountant’s wage
I didn’t quit my job. For one thing, doping nags is tough, close work. If I really wanted to become an accountant, I could probably make more than $17.37 an hour. And as thrilling as it is to cheer home a winner, it’s the computer that gets the ultimate credit, not me.
There’s no question that either Kel- Co or RaceTrack II can help a lout like me (or even an experienced bettor) to invest more scientifically, at the expense of poor suckers like Gladys who bet on hunches. But in the back of my mind I carried the nagging thought that maybe my killings were just luck. And of course, the clincher, which really kept me from taking up a new career: suppose everyone buys a computer?