Here's an experiment: For the next 100 races, simply try to pick the winner. Don't worry about price. Just go for the maximum number of winners, but you can't skip any races.

I'll bet that no matter how many winners you pick, the public will pick more.

Why is this? Why does the crowd always select more winners than any single punter? An experiment performed by a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory may help to answer this question.

Using a computer simulation, Norman Johnson built a maze that could be navigated by many paths. He had a group of individuals wander through the maze one by one, trying to find their way out in the fewest number of steps.

On the first try, each person took an average of 34 steps to complete the maze; on the second try, just 13.

Johnson then took all the choices that each person had made at every turn in the maze. If the majority decided to go left at a particular turn, he marked 'left' on his scoresheet. He took all these decisions and called his result the 'collective solution'.

In groups of more than 20, the collective solution turned out to be the best possible solution.

This might be why large organisations prefer to get suggestions from many sources before making big decisions. Sure, the chairman of the board or the president might have a good plan, but maybe the guy in marketing or production just might have a better one.

By asking many people their opinion, you're more likely to come up with useful insights.

Unfortunately, simply picking a high number of winners won't get you profits in the betting game. Despite their gaudy predictive ability, the public still manages to lose the tote's take.

Year in and year out, the public manages to pick 33 per cent winners. Some folks believe that since the public is more often wrong than right, it should be easy to win.

"After all, the public is wrong two-thirds of the time," they say "Simply identify these potential losing favourites, bet against them, and riches can be yours."

If only it were that simple.

If races were non-competitive (say, \$100,000 class horses were matched against \$4000 maidens), then the public's win percentage would doubtlessly rise. Or if the races had only four or five runners, the percentage would rise as well (the crowd picks more than 44 per cent winners in five-horse races).

But, usually, neither is the case. In most races, several horses have a legitimate chance to win. The public's top pick may have slightly more chance than the other horses, but consider the example of socks, used by every teacher of probability.

Put 20 socks in a drawer - 7 black, 5 white, 4 brown, 3 green and 1 blue. The crowd's favourite is black. Now reach in and pick a sock.

Each of the colours has a varying chance of being picked. But if you pick a brown sock, it doesn't mean the crowd's choice of black was wrong. Black simply had a better chance of winning than brown (7 chances in 20 compared with 4 out of 20). Brown did have some legitimate chance.

So, whenever you read that the 'idiot' crowd went for some horrible 6/5 favourite when our brilliant handicapper tabbed the 20/1 winner, be sceptical.

Sometimes, the 20/1 shot is going to win. And just because you picked it doesn't make you a genius, except for that minute.

The test of handicapping ability is a long one, lasting over a lifetime.

A lucky longshot based on a trainer rating or a sire number doesn't mean you've mastered the game. And the reverse is true as well; betting a 7/5 shot who doesn't run a metre doesn't make you a dodo.

Respect the crowd. Nobody ever won a war by underestimating the enemy.

By Barry Meadow

PRACTICAL PUNTING - JULY 2001