Steve Byk, the informative host of At the Races on SiriusXM, recently had an on-air discussion with the knowledgeable Andy Serling of NYRA about the long-term process required to get new bettors up to speed on handicapping. They were of the opinion that racetracks should not “dumb down” their offerings to attract beginners, though they did agree that a few simple bets would be acceptable for this purpose.

My view is that it is not an either/or proposition. There is no reason that bets requiring little or no handicapping skill would interfere with the more complicated fare for experienced players.

The 2011 McKinsey & Company study sponsored by the Jockey Club clearly emphasized the fact that handicapping of horse races can be intimidating for neophytes and cited it as a barrier to recruiting and keeping new players. McKinsey’s presentation at the Jockey Club Roundtable in August demonstrated this with a video clip of a flummoxed young man struggling to make a bet with an ADW company.

Learning of complex subject matter requires one to start out with a thorough grounding in the basics. Students quickly get discouraged when they can’t cope with material that is beyond their skill level and are then apt to change their major so to speak.

Horse-racing handicapping is so esoteric to beginners that many people who try it get frustrated and quit. For this reason, racetracks and ADWs need readily understandable luck-laden bets that people can begin with and get the reinforcement of winning occasionally. This is how one lays the groundwork for graduation to higher level handicapping.

I once talked with an attorney who was a devoted player of card games at casinos, and pretty good at it.  He said he tried betting on horse racing on a couple of occasions and gave up because he never cashed a ticket. For learning to take hold, there has to be some positive reinforcement, which was lacking in this case and many others like it.

“Dumbing down” is a relative term. What seems overly simple for a seasoned handicapper may be intriguing to a novice. Racing needs all the new players it can get and the way to encourage this is to formulate bets that allow rank amateurs to crawl before they walk.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business


  1. Nothing is more simple than WPS. Simple already exists.
    What we need to cultivate new players is visible long term winners. Just like poker has. Gamblers will learn if there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
    Unfortunately, horse racing is void right now of long term winners….unless it were to fully embrace rebate players, which would mean admitting that regular takeout is way too high.

  2. Bill Shanklin says


    I agree that WPS betting is simple. However, handicapping WPS betting is not. Deciphering past performances can be frustrating for beginners. The McKinsey & Company study is unequivocal on the point that handicapping and even placing a bet are intimidating for neophytes, and it was a scientifically conducted study by people who know what they are doing when it comes to social research.

  3. Bill,
    I think where you err is your inability to see or except handicapping for what it inherently is…a complex mental challenge. That’s it’s nature and that’s it’s appeal. People who aren’t interested in such a challenge are never going to become handicappers. You really can’t simplify the process….it’s actually counter-productive to do so. I’ve taught many people to handicap, mostly women who I wanted to share the experience with me. Some took to it, some didn’t. It was simply a matter of desire. See, I think there are plenty of people out there who would take to this game. But racing is forever hiding the nature of the endeavor (and of course making it difficult to win through excessive takeout). I think once again you’re suggesting the same.

  4. Waking up the racing world says

    You people are STILL NOT GETTING IT!!!!

    (and the poster child for “NOT getting it” has been and will likely always be “Cangamble”)

    First of all, Bill’s most recent prior post still insists that “parimutuel wagering has an uncompetitive takeout rate”. To utter that statement alone assures all others of your complete indifference to the realities in which the rest of us deal.

    Any idiot knows that “takeout rate” is a 100% variable within “parimutuel wagering”, and, as such, parimutuel wagering CAN NOT be said to have an uncompetitive takeout rate.

    I could go to the neighbor’s house, race caterpillars on a scalding outdoor table in the mid-summer sun, and have parimutuel wagering with the takeout rate of my choosing. How can that be rendered “uncompetitive” merely for it being “parimutuel wagering”??

    Now that we’ve established one iota of common sense where there had been no hint of same before, lets move on…

  5. Waking up the racing world says

    I should mention here that said McKinsey study also pointed out that almost nobody even knows about parimutuel takeout, and it is only a sliver of those who do that have any problem with it.

    You’re barking up the wrong tree.

    I came roaring in here today upon seeing an Equidaily headline which read:

    “Related graph: Too much information? As available info increases – picking winners decreases”

    … as I was inspired to point out that ‘information’ is only increasing for those insiders who are effectively killing their own game. The crevasse between the ‘insiders’ and the novices is ever widening as racing is presented today.

    There has been no increase of information for the novice fan who wanders into Aqueduct in 2011, when compared to the novice fan who wandered into Aqueduct in 1971. There is in fact less newspaper coverage today than was the case in 1971, a time when a novice would cut out the ‘handicap’ in the pages of the Times and go to the races with that in hand. There are also fewer tip sheets sold out front as well. The Form is even more difficult to read than it was back in 1971. (Fractional Times, Beyer figures, etc, etc.)

    So I get here, and I was quite pleased to see some actual prose beginning to touch on what really IS “racing’s biggest problem” in 2011 – which is the effective alienation of the 99% of society which doesn’t give a damn about horse racing.

    These ‘dumbed-down’ bets are absolutely moronic as well as wholly insulting to the very people racing should be attempting to embrace.

    I mean, why endorse the “odd/even” bet (or the head-to-head bet) at a 10% takeout to people who can play something similiarly random as roulette at a considerably lower takeout? That while at the same time pretending to be takeout-sensitive.

    The way racing is presented to those brand new, never-been-to-the-races-before fans needs to be REVOLUTIONIZED.

    The reason everybody ELSE (aside from those newcomers) is so drawn to racing is the extreme detail and mental challenge provided by the wagering end of a day at the races.

    This insane reluctance by all things racing-establishment to go the extra mile and actually DO SOMETHING for the customers once they’ve paid the $6 admission, is a blatant mistake in 2011.

    That the person running Centennial Park in 1978 shouldn’t seem to be giving direct handicapping/betting advice to the racegoers of the time went without saying.

    Things have changed 180 degrees since the onset of full-card simulcasting with comingled pools, and yet exactly nobody in racing has changed their ways at all as a direct result of that giant window of opportunity (which has been open for upward of TWO DECADES now!!!).

    MAKING BRAND NEW FANS ‘competitive’ from moment one is an absolute necessity if racing is to ever rebound from its presently-scheduled demise.

    Stop railing about the perceived-by-you flaws in parimutuel wagering and instead capitalize on THE HUGE ADVANTAGES AND OPPORTUNITIES INHERENT IN PARIMUTUEL WAGERING.

    For it IS PARIMUTUEL WAGERING which long ago opened the window which said any individual outlet could blatantly assist any and all racegoers against the nation-wide crowd as a whole, while serving only to increase its own bottom line in the process, and at no additional risk.

    That you have collectively not shown the common sense to go through that giant window of opportunity simply can not be seen as the fault of parimutuel wagering.

    As has been the case for (more than) TWENTY YEARS now, each and every simo outlet should be making an in-your-face effort to help those on-site know better wagering results as they put more money through the windows while bringing more revenue to the house in the process.

    When the true fun is in the wagering strategies, and the attention to detail before making your wagers, it is counterproductive to seemingly “dumb-down” the betting so as to eliminate or greatly reduce those factors down to little more than guess work.

    The dumbed-down wagers are a sure sign that your track is run by persons among those least inclined to actually assist newcomers and in the process reverse racing’s present (mis)fortunes.