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Tuesday 3rd November 2015
The Life Lessons Taught by Horse Racing

Even though I grew up around horses, I was a latecomer to betting on them. I would occasionally go to the track with friends and make a couple of strategic bets, but never applied the same amount of study to the racing forms as I did to my study of casino games.

That all changed when a business associate was in town and suggested that we have dinner at the race. On the way over, I learned that he had grown up just outside of Pimlico and one of his early jobs had been as a stable boy at the track. This one trip changed my entire view on the sport of kings.

My friend told me the key to winning at the races was study. We would pick our spots and only make a couple of well thought-out bets. Our first bet was in the third race where our £10 win bet paid off £50. The fifth race was the pivotal one. He said we would be making a £4 three-horse exacta box wager. His reading of the form paid off and we both collected a little over £850 at the cage for our £24 wager.

During the course of the evening I received my first lesson in handicapping and the basic tools for winning at the track. I also learned that to be successful at the track required the same work and determination as success at any other endeavour.

There are a huge number of movies where horse racing plays an important role. Just as I can say that my experience at the track reinforced a real-life lesson, being that to succeed you have to work, I find it interesting that this theme seems to be a regular part of movies featuring horse racing.

The Sting

The Sting is one of my all-time favourite films. The plot twists, the characters, and the acting are all perfect. Horse racing plays a key role throughout the film, and past posting is common throughout the movie. Past posting refers to making a bet on a race that has already been run. In the early days of off track betting the race information was sent by wire to gambling houses across the country. The slight delay between the actual running of the race and the information being received gave dishonest players the slight edge needed to make wagers knowing the results. 

The Sting also shows how dishonest players usually lose in the long run. Such is the case when Robert Redford’s character loses a great deal of money on a “straight up” roulette bet, which is a long shot in the world of roulette betting. (Interestingly the number that game up was black 22, the same number that came up at Rick’s in Casablanca, although in that case it was a winner for the bettors.) There is one great real life lesson to be learned from The Sting: what goes around comes around.


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The name Seabiscuit is so readily identified with horse racing that its widespread use in pop culture – including the 2003 hit movie - has obscured the fact that Seabiscuit was indeed a real life racehorse.

Seabiscuit was deemed to be too small, too lacking in form, too injury prone and too fond of sleeping and eating to be a champion. However a down-on-their-luck trio of owner, trainer and jockey helped make Seabiscuit one of the top money winning horses of all time and a hero of the people during The Depression in America. Judging someone’s potential strictly by appearances is seldom the right way to make an appraisal, as Seabiscuit and his trio of humans proved beyond a doubt.

Little Miss Marker

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Little Miss Marker, a comedy that revolves around horse racing, has been released twice; the original version in 1934 with Shirley Temple and in the next in 1980 with Walter Matthau. In the film, bookie Sorrowful Jones is attempting to collect a bet from a losing horse player. The player can’t pay the $10 bet and gives his young daughter to Sorrowful to hold as a marker. Unfortunately the bettor dies, leaving his “marker” in the care of Sorrowful.

Despite its somewhat dark premise, Little Miss Marker is a lighthearted comedy of the type popular during the 1930s, and which has had brief periods of popularity in film since. Without being heavy handed or moralistic, the film does point out one of the key lessons everyone that ever makes a wager of any kind needs to learn: never bet what you cannot afford to lose.

A Day at the Races

To be a successful horse-racing bettor, you need to arm yourself with facts and knowledge. When I first started to take horse racing seriously, I had a tendency to load up on tip sheets and handicapper newsletters. The Marx Brothers were always spot on when they took aim at any person, practice or institution. In A Day at the Races, a punter’s quest for advice results with his carrying a huge stack of books all of which were needed to interpret the “expert’s” daily picks. While I never ended up with a stack of reports that were as tall as I was, I had track friends that came close. Now I use the Daily Racing Form, the track handicapper’s report, and my laptop for notes and fast math calculations. What we can learn from this is: Pick reference material, whether for a day at the track or a home project, based on quality not quantity.

Let It Ride


The underlying principal for any betting situation is mathematics. Whether it is a game of change such as roulette or craps or skill based such as poker or handicapping, the maths is absolute. However, all underlying mathematical principals that apply to wagers are based on the theory of large numbers. That means statistical variations are possible in the short term.

In Let it Ride, Richard Dreyfuss’ character experiences the run of a lifetime at the racetrack. Regardless of the odds, he simply cannot lose. His good fortune allows him to turn a $50 wager into tens of thousands in winnings. He has the sort of run that all gamblers, regardless of how logical they are, dream of. The moral of this film is perhaps one of the most important of any: When you are in the middle of a hot streak, regardless of the form it comes in, enjoy it.

Results like my exacta win don’t happen often, a fact that I knew from the outset. This knowledge freed me from embarking on a quixotic quest. The grandstand floor of every racetrack is littered with losing tickets at the end of the day, and mine are frequently there as well. However, as the movies listed illustrate, the lessons one learns from the track can be used in real life as well. Which, when boxed with the fact you get to watch majestic creatures run and spend the day in the fresh air, is a fine trifecta.

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