Taking Your Professional Skills to the Racetrack
It’s not often that you will find my wife, Peggy, and me jumping up and down in front of the TV set, pumping our fists and screaming, “Go girl! Go!”
Such was the case last Saturday during the thrilling stretch dual between Rags to Riches and Curlin in the Belmont Stakes.
As sometime devotees of improving the breed, Peggy and I are above-average horse-pickers. The four secrets of success: (1) Know when not to bet; (2) Never bet the favorite to win; (3) Expect to bet only on one or two races a day—maybe three if you’re lucky; (4) Know the rules and slavishly follow them.
One rule that is inviolate: girl horses never beat boy horses.
Well, hardly ever.
After a heart-stopping stumble out of the gate on the punishing mile-and-a-half Belmont oval, this exquisitely beautiful filly gutted it out with Preakness winner Curlin and beat him by a head in the toughest thoroughbred race in America.
A $20 wager on the nose would have brought you $106—not a bad return on your money in two minutes and 28 seconds.
A number of years ago, I was invited to give a talk to a magazine circulation group in Chicago that was having its summer outing at Arlington Park, one of America’s premier race tracks.
In a lovely glassed-in, air-conditioned suite overlooking the track, I delivered the screwiest luncheon talk of my life: “If You Can Make Money in Direct Marketing, You Can Make Money Betting the Horses.”
Could a direct marketing professional who knows all the rules and foibles of the business—or a professional handicapper—have picked Rags to Riches to win the Belmont?
A Publisher’s Dream
Once or twice a year, my first boss, children’s book publisher Franklin Watts, would declare a racing holiday and take the entire office out to Aqueduct Racetrack in New York City.
Frank, a large man with a florid face and curly hair—and a serious penchant for not leaving the cork too long in a bottle lest the contents spoil—would walk into the vast main betting room of the Aqueduct clubhouse and survey the scene.
“What a wonderful thing for a publisher to see,” he would exclaim. “Look at all these readers!”
The Making of a Handicapper
In the 1970s, when I was working for a living, every one of my insecure bosses threatened to fire me if they found me moonlighting. “We expect 110% of your time,” one told me.
Fishing bores me. I found early on that, with golf, my eyes are so bad every ball was a lost ball, no matter where I hit it. So I took up horse racing.
I bought “Ainslie’s Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing,” hit the typewriter, reduced his 352 dense pages of information to 28 pages of notes and memorized them.
Then I started buying The Daily Racing Form every Saturday to study the past performance data for the cards at Belmont, Aqueduct or Saratoga. This was not for serious betting, but rather a mental exercise to try and make sense out of myriad facts and numbers—much the same as crossword or Sudoku aficionados.
The bottom line: In one or two races a day, the winning horse with attractive odds would pop up through the vast clutter of data and whinny rudely, “Bet me! Bet me!”
Sometimes I would spring for $2 on the phone; mostly it was just fun to see the next day how I did.
Direct Marketing and Horse Racing—A Few of the Common Rules
• Choose Horses the Way You Choose Prospects: R-F-M.
Always think R-F-M: Recency, Frequency, Monetary value. Horses need workouts and races to get into winning condition. For example, in claiming races (where anyone can walk up and buy the horse before the race at the claiming price), Ainslie says:
-Be wary of any claimer with no race or workout within 12 days.
-Should have two races or two workouts or one each within 17 days.
-Any horse with two races in the past two-and-a-half weeks need not work out.
In direct marketing, beware of any list that has not been updated within six months. Beware of any list that has not been NCOA’d and CASS-certified.
In terms of monetary value, a horse that has won $200,000 this year should probably be given serious consideration over a horse that has won just $20,000. This is the “M” equivalent of direct marketing.
Getting Inside Heads
To make an acceptable offer in direct marketing you must get inside the head and under the skin of your prospects. Think how they think, feel what they feel and become those people.
• In horse racing, you must get inside a group of heads:
- The Crowd. In horse races, the favorite is not necessarily the best horse. The odds are determined by the amount bet, which means the horse that has the most money bet on it is the favorite. In handicapping, it is imperative to always bet against the crowd and never bet on a favorite. In a horse race, you have 1,200 pounds of animal thundering along at an average of 35 miles an hour on legs with ankles as tiny as your wrist. With that potential for disaster, it is folly to make an even-money bet. Think Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness.
Instead, you have to study the past performance and figure out what the crowd did not see in another horse and bet that one. If the data on all the other horses get jumbled in your head, take a pass on that race. A corollary to the rule of never betting on the favorite was articulated by gambling expert John Scarne, who said, “Bet the favorite to show [come in third]. Forget about win and place bets. I don’t say this advice will win you any money, but it will cut down your losses.”
- The Owner and Trainer. These are two heads you must get into, along with the crowd’s. “Horses for Courses” is Ainslie’s dictum. Don’t bet on a turf horse that’s running on dirt or vice-versa. Don’t bet on a horse in a mile race that’s only won at six furlongs (3/4 of a mile). Chances are these horses are being raced under alien conditions for training purposes only—to toughen them up for races that they have a chance of winning.
The same is true in direct marketing. You don’t send a lead-gen piece offering a John Deere Lawn tractor to addresses in inner cities.
- The Horse. What kind of shape is the horse in—really? Watch for danger signals. In the past performances data is a “comment line” that describes the performance in every race. Beware of betting on a horse where the comment line for the last race sends a danger signal: “lugged out,” “bled,” “bore in” or “tired.”
In direct marketing, a danger signal is when the seed names did not receive their mailings.
At the same time, if the comment line says, “breezing,” “handily” or “easily,” take that into serious consideration.
The more a horse has raced, the more you know about it. If the past Performances show experience in 10 races, you have a lot more data than for a horse that has raced only once or twice. Same thing in direct marketing: The more test results you have, the more sound your decisions.
Look for very recent fast workouts—12 seconds or less per furlong or five furlongs in 59 seconds and breezing. This means the horse is currently being trained into shape. This directly relates to Martin Gross’s dictum: “Direct marketers who fail to take current news into consideration will be sunk by it.”
Breaking it Down
• Class: “Cheap horses know it.”
Higher class horses:
—Have greater reservoirs of racing energy
—Can maintain speed as long as necessary to discourage a lesser rival
—Run as hard as they have to in order to win
Thus a claiming horse priced at $5,000 that is running in the company of $20,000 claimers is probably a lousy bet.
Class differences in direct marketing:
—Response lists vs. compiled lists
—Neiman Marcus buyers vs. the Carol Wright file
—Sweepstakes buyers are definitely inferior
—Inquiries vs. buyers
A corollary on the subject of class: Seriously consider discarding any list where the unit of sale is four times that of the product you are selling.
• At the track, a poor prior effort is forgivable if:
—Ran against higher class horses
—First race in a month or more
—Comment line: “Blocked,” Impeded,” “Roughed,” etc.
Poor direct mail results are forgivable if:
—Local team in the Super Bowl
—Mail is delayed and it’s Christmas
—The president is shot
• Sucker bets at the track
—”Consistent” horses that run 2nd, 3rd and 4th race after race
Sucker bets in direct marketing
—Mailing to a list that you have been given for free
—Female horses have less strength and stamina than males
—Females retain winning condition for briefer periods. Thus, they are seldom able to win the second of two driving finishes.
—Female horses need sensitive, intelligent jockeying; they react badly to punishments.
—Sexual cycle affects their form.
Direct marketing to women: You do it differently than to men.
Going by the Rules
Could a direct marketer—or experienced handicapper—have picked Rags to Riches, the lone filly in the field?
No, because betting on her would have violated two rules: (1) Never bet on a filly in a field of colts or geldings, especially if she only has raced against fillies and mares in the past (2) The “Horses for Courses” Rule.
The Triple Crown comprises three races:
*Kentucky Derby 1-1⁄4 miles
*Preakness 1-1⁄8 miles - two weeks after the Kentucky Derby
*Belmont Stakes 1-1⁄2 miles - five weeks after the Kentucky Derby
The Triple Crown is a wicked test of endurance.
The Belmont is one of the very few mile-and-a-half races in America and few horses are trained to go that punishing distance. In the case of the 2007 Belmont Stakes, none of the seven horses had ever run that distance, so a serious handicapper would most likely take a pass on the race.
It is simply impossible to know what kind of “kick”—the right stuff at the end—a horse would have at that distance. A bet on the 2007 Belmont would have been a crapshoot.
(If you click on the illustrations below, you can see the past performances—the data that handicappers had to work with—and chart of the results.)
That said, to see Rags to Riches in the paddock and in the post-parade was enough to make your heart leap into your throat. If she were human, she would be Catherine Zeta-Jones. She looked fit, sleek, tough and poised with her ears pricked up. She was ready for action. Being a filly, she carried five pounds less weight than the male contenders. Her last race was a win in the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs way back on May 4, so she was fresher than others. In her four races in 2007, she was never beaten.
Being an ardent feminist who believes women can do most anything a man can do, and if I were at the track, I might have said “What the hell” and gone with my heart rather than my head and put twenty bucks on Rags to Riches to win. (I only place win bets—never place or show.)
A bet on Rags to Riches was a “What the hell” bet, and the lady made a minority of horse players at the track—and around the country—mighty happy.