Monday, 2 March 2009

Skill vs Luck vs Instinct in the world of the horse racing gambler

The almost universally accepted standard mix Gin and Juice contains 2 oz. Gin, 2 oz. Grapefruit Juice, 3 oz. Orange Juice and 1 slice of Lime.

The gin and the grapefruit in equal measure, just a little more orange, the crescent of lime like a martian sunset, its a mix which has its undeniable symmetries and asymmetries. While its symmetries lend themselves to wilful, haphazard construction at the barbeque, the public house, the park or the club its asymmetries remind the mixer of the need for constant vigilance: to read and take note of the signs that the helpful night provides.

Whether the gambler can rely on such benevolence from the heady cocktail sloshing around somewhere southward of their own breast is another matter entirely. The measures are more arbitrary, the receptacle more unforgiving and most crucially there is only one single chance to get it right. Fortune itself is the hard liquor in this cocktail and its powerful intoxicating qualities are mixed with knowledge and instinct to taste. A corrosive concoction, it may lead to a gnawing feeling in the pit of of your stomach which, unlike in the case of more conventional beverages, cannot be relieved by vomiting into the nearest flowerpot. Instead you place your bet, take your odds and wait...


If its skill you want simply watch the finesse of touch and hair-trigger timing of Choc Thornton when bringing an out and out stayer through to beat a classier horse (as he did with Medermit against Dee Ee Williams not so long ago

Turn not to the punter, for there is little bewitching skill involved in horse selection, only an accumulation of knowledge and its application.

Much in the same way as a plumber or electrician is considered to be skilled by the layman, a knowledgeable punter maybe convey an aura of "skill" to the mug or the favourite backer when giving reasons for his selections. Upon closer examination one must agree that our tradesman friends and punters both use knowledge filtered through logic to find the solution to the question that presents itself and that this is something essential to how human beings survived in the world rather than a craft beyond most ordinary mortals.

Learn all that you can of form: jockeys, courses, trainers, trainers at courses, jockeys with trainers for it will stand you in good stead. Above all respect C&D (course and distance) stats as these are the holy grail in form terms (which is why after last year's capitualtion on the famous hill this punter will not be steaming into Binocular for this year's Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham) .

"What about the intricate systems of the professional gamblers and spread bettors" you say? "surely there must be skill involved there?" You've got this all wrong - for these people are businessmen not gamblers and as such should be seen only as the penny pinching cowards that they are.

Though it may seem that talking of studying the form as a practice devoid of skill denigrates the nobility of the gambler and the gamble this is far from the case, for there is skill aplenty required to gain mastery of the whirlwind of competing variables, nagging paranoia and crippling fear of financial ruin and still finally reach the transcendent level of emotional equilibrium required to deposit £20 on the nose.


An elusive beast in gambling as in everyday life, luck is most often seen covetously, knocking around with other, less deserving people. A beautiful girl inexplicably entangled with someone no less if not slightly more of a fool than yourself for instance, or the enduring popularity of Razorlight. Luck cannot be relied upon to make itself known when it is present, to ease you up when you’re poor or to cheer you up when you’re down. In your favour its manifestations will often provide only very relative comforts like being told you are "cute" by someone you want to have sex with or not being flattened by a tram when lost in Croydon.

'They say I shot a man named Gray and took
his wife to Italy/She inherited a million bucks
and when she died it came to me/I can't help it
if I'm lucky.'

From 'Idiot Wind' by Bob Dylan ('Blood on the Tracks' LP)

It may interest those who are not particularly well versed on the life and times of the great man that 'Blood on the Tracks' dealt with the heart-rending break-up from Dylan's then wife, Sara Lownds. Try to imagine the taste of bitter irony contorting his mouth into a wry smile as he sings 'I can't help it if I'm lucky' now have a good grasp of the gambler's relationship with the concept of luck. Every joyful explosion of good fortune is sharpened by the memory of past despairs, for every great win there will always be times that you are down, when the shoo-ins came nowhere or when the great horses pushed their/your luck one race to far.

As luck can only be seen to be evident in hindsight or from outside a situation the more scientifically minded of you might be tempted to say that it doesn't exist.

Having said this if my (seemingly now hopeless) pre-christmas, ante-post Cheltenham four timer with Kalahari King, Ballyfitz, Starluck and Simarian cops then the whim of a benevolent universe will be the only possible explanation.


Instincts, those primal forces that surge up from our loins, course through our veins and crackle across what may be left our screen sozzled, booze boggled brains. They can be held up as all that is natural, unmitigated and animal in man but in we, the modern humanity, they are massaged, subverted, perverted and exploited by the endless streams of words and pictures that swim like schools of fish on retainers past our ears and around our eyes.

While I would not advocate a return to the bad old days of cock or dog fighting, the violence, noise and oppressive atmosphere made it a gamble you could not consider without gut feelings aflame and as such a situation whereby your punting instincts were more plausibly and viscerally interwoven with reality.

In the modern gambling sphere the average punter is divorced from the action, watching it beamed through a screen via satellite from another part of the world. When viewed this way the relevance of instinct must be doubted. It is a bodily reaction, a stirring in the gut that is robbed (unless one is in attendance of the race or game) of any physical bond with the events about to unfold. You cannot sense the mood, taste the air or really definitively tell if the horse has a sweaty arse hole* unless you are right there! Any instincts which you feel across across the telewaves must surely be relatively spurious?

I can offer from recent punting memory an inditement of instinct as a gambling tool. It came when I settled down with a young lady friend of mine to watch the Henessey Gold Cup at Newbury earlier this season. I had long fancied two horses for the race. One was (what now seems completely inexplicably) Nicky Henderson's Oedipe on the nose and the other was an each way punt on David Pipe's Madison Du Berlais. Pipe's horse had come fourth the previous year in the race won by the subsequent Gold Cup winner Denman and in comparison this year's race was not a vintage renewal. I went down to Angel's cafe for my traditional gambling breakfast of liver, bacon and fried onions and disastrously failed to take the 50/1 about MDB in favour of some other no hoper who had entered suddenly into my thoughts as I polished off the yoke with what was left of a fried slice. Of course Madison romped it, leaving Oedipe abosolutely nowhere to be seen and me over three ton out of pocket. Being someone not prone to outwardly manifest outbursts of rage the anger which I turned in upon myself had nothing in common with the noble instincts of other members of the animal kingdom. Gambling can hit you like a drug and in this case the drug was most probably crack.

Untrammelled instincts hastened the fall of Rome and if they are allowed too free a rein in gambling life they will have no trouble in bringing down empires far less glorious. Nevertheless it is instinct that leads us to gamble in the first place and so gamble we shall.

In Conclusion

Some may say the gambler can take comfort from the fact that in his card for the next race, which contains a pre-agreed number of options (subject to non-runners) the world with its maddeningly infinite highways and byways is subdued, simplified and digestible. Yet we know gambling to be just as much about what Pete Doherty in a moment of clarity reminded us was the 'rapture of vertigo, and letting go'.

From this short examination of the relative merits of skill, luck and instinct we can conclude two things: firstly that the aid proffered by the three varies from non-existent to mildly helpful or extremely useful/useless with hindsight; and furthermore that regardless we shall continue to gamble lured back time and again by a profound feeling for our medium, for fate and for romance.

* This is a genuine tip for telling if a horse is not going to be up for it from my Aunt Teresa, an avid racegoer for many a year.

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