What's the most important factor in horse racing? Is it speed or pace, pedigree or trainer, the jockey? Nope. The most important factor is luck.

Luck is defined as "good or bad fortune acquired unwittingly, by accident or chance." Luck embraces everything unknown to us, including the unknowable.

In horseracing, the element of the unknown dominates the known. Look at it this way there's a continuum between events which approach certainty (death, taxes, sun rising in the east) and other events which approximate chaos or complete randomness (roulette, dice, politics in the Middle East).

If horse racing sat on the furthermost chaos side of this continuum, the favourite would win 12.5 per cent of the time (based on the random chances of eight horses in a race). If horse racing sat on the furthermost certainty side of this continuum, the favourite would win 100 per cent of the time, pay $2.10 every time, and the tracks would all close tomorrow to avoid bankruptcy.

Enough is known about horse racing that we've collectively been able to push the level of predictability from 12.5 per cent to 33 per cent. That's 20.5/87.5 or roughly 25 per cent of the way from total unpredictability to total predictability. The other 75 per cent represents luck, chance, serendipity, fortune: in short, the unknown, including the unknowable. Horse racing sits near the chaos end of the continuum.

What we don't know about the causal factors in any given race is enormous. Is the jockey on # 1 distracted due to a fight with his wife last night? Does horse #2 have a touch of colic from that batch of feed yesterday? Did #3 gain an unofficial 10 pound weight allowance when he took a dump in the post parade?

Is there a sinkhole in the chute's track surface right in front of #4's position in the starting gate? What will be the decision of jockey # 5 when a gap opens up coming into the stretch? Did the trainer for #6 tell the jock not to ""use the horse" because there's a good spot coming up in two weeks" time? Will # 7's jock decide to go for the lead too soon, thus causing the horse to weaken in the straight? And so on, and on...

The ignorance, error and bias that goes with being human means we work mostly in the dark. Most of what happens at the track is unknown to us. Most of what is unknown to us is unknowable in any practical terms.

As handicappers, we're like kayakers shooting down a river. The overwhelming force of chance shapes our situation, buffets us every which way. The best we can hope for is a paddle and some skill in using it. We can improve our chances, but if we're upstream of Niagara Falls, it,s not going to be a good day.

Say you acknowledge that chance is overwhelmingly the most important factor in handicapping. What can you do to take advantage of that fact?

  1. Concentrate on overlays. In a highly uncertain environment, you've got to make sure you're getting paid generously for taking the chance involved with trading your money for a ticket.
  2. Look for races where the unknown overwhelms the known even more than usual - races where nobody can run to par, races where nobody has run with today's track condition, races full of first-timers at the track, distance or surface. These races tend to be full of longshots with real chances at winning.
  3. Learn to take winning and losing streaks with some equanimity. You may be great, you may be terrible, but chances are that your recent fortunes occurred due to factors mostly out of your sphere of knowledge.

A little humility goes a long way during a winning streak - a little self-confidence goes a long way during a losing streak. Do you get annoyed when the halfwits three rows down shout home a 20/1 shot that just nabs the last leg of your treble or quaddie?

Don't stress. Most of what happens at the racetrack is caused by chance. Impressed by your friend's hot streak? He must be a genius - he can't lose. That's this week - check back next week. He's probably in a lucky streak.

The good news is that, while luck is the dominant factor in the short run, in the long run, luck evens out and the skilled player rises to the top. So, accept your ignorance of the majority of what will happen in a race and concentrate on what you know. Most of all, good luck.

By Gordon Pine