Some time ago a friend confessed to me he’d discovered why he kept on losing every year.

“Too many little extra bets…you know, action bets,” he said. “It’s a shock to see how they add up and how much I’ve lost on them. I must be crazy, and I only do it to stop being bored.”

Well, my pal is not the only punter in this world of ours who cannot help himself when it comes to needing action, action and more action throughout the day.

US speed ratings guru Charles Carroll warns that action bets can cripple you.

He says: “One dangerous little piece of folklore that has crept into the horse racing literature is that action bets are perfectly normal parts of a player’s day, to keep Jack from becoming a dull boy. ?

“I know I’m guilty here myself; I’ve contributed to it, both in writing and with my own dollars until a few years ago. We’re gamblers, after all, and we need some “action” to keep our hearts pumping and blood pressure balanced. ?

“Action bets are small, $2, $5, or $10 bets, equivalent to buying a lottery scratcher, which you toss around for fun while you work on the serious business of managing your serious money for serious bets and serious profit.

“Often, action bets are complete flyers; you glance up from your work and notice the post parade for a Maiden, that you didn’t even handicap and would never throw serious money at, but you like a certain prance in an unraced filly’s step and the way she’s holding her ears. A quick look at the breeding and pow! Two bucks. ?

“Or, you notice a spot play that you read about once in a magazine and the author said it returned a flat-bet profit (for two days once). ?

“But one of the biggest reasons for our acceptance of action bets is that handicapping is work, a fun kind of work, but work nonetheless, and often, far more often than we admit, the results of all that hard work tells us to sit firmly on our wallets. ?

“That’s not the answer we want to hear, even when it’s our own brain telling us it’s the rational thing to do. If I take a race apart, I want a stinking bet!

“But the psychology of action bets is not even that simple. Wouldn’t it be great to handicap (doing whatever you do, whether it’s pace, speed, comprehensive dosage factorialising, whatever) and come to a clear, firm decision? Stay out. ?Or, bet with both hands. ?

“But this is a game of probabilities, so that rarely is the outcome. Personally, I end up with an odds line that is my representation of what the probabilities of finish and payout should be. ?

“I work until the last moments of public odds-flucs to determine how to shape the bet. ?The process can be rather exciting…make that ‘freaking stressful’, if it’s a major bet. ?

“You’re sparring with the public. Wondering, down to the last minute if you’ve second-guessed their odds correctly. At that moment, with the clock to post time ticking, it’s sort of like hitting the end of the bungie line to simply throw it all in the air and Pass. ?

“At that point, I want to bet. At that stage of a race, I’m totally immersed in the odds and the reason for passing is that the odds are not correct for my best handicapping results. ?

“This situation screams for a pass, while your brain is screaming ‘Bet!’ And, this can lead to rationalising a ‘value’ bet on a theoretical overlay that wasn’t part of your primary scheme, which translates into one of the most dumb-ass bets you can make, even if it is at low, ‘action’ levels of two or five bucks. ?

“You just saw your correct odds scenarios go up in flames. How do you figure taking a shot outside them constitutes value?”

Carroll is oh-so-right in his description of how a punter can more or less talk himself into a silly action bet on the slightest of pretexts.

The friend I mentioned earlier was adamant that it was only boredom that made him waste money on his so-called action-extra bets.

“An afternoon at the races can be a drag unless you are backing on a lot of races,” he says. “I’m not the only one amongst the people I usually attend the races with; they’re all at it. It’s like smoking or scoffing chocolates; you know it’s not good for you but the doping of it is pleasurable.”

Charles Carroll not so long ago was a supporter of such bets.

He says: ‘‘Back when action bets became acceptable practice among serious players (as opposed to those fellows for whom all bets are action bets), they really weren’t that bad.

“Horse racing used to be a participatory sport. You drove to a track, where there were horses, hay, dirt, and grass, maybe a flamingo or two. You walked over to the paddock to see if any of your picks were walking on three legs, and maybe followed the post parade out along the rail, until they trotted off to warm up, then maybe even glassed them for a while, before finalising your selections and laying down your money. ?

“If you were serious, you selected your shots carefully, and might have only one or two (or none) on an entire day’s card and that day’s card, maybe 10 races, was IT. ?

“If you had picks in the third and eighth races, you were at the track not only to pound those two bets, but to also hone your knowledge and skills, watching all the other races, watching the interplay of the public odds with minor events, maybe developing your own spot plays, watching the rubes and the wise guys; so, if you were there to place two $50 or $100 or larger bets, what was the problem with a little ac-cion? ?Two bucks here, five bucks there, not too often, no big deal.

“It was not a big deal then, and it is probably still not a big deal now, under certain circumstances. The primary one is if you are placing action bets to test ideas.

“I love TV simulcasts from other tracks because I love the availability of numerous races from around the country that fit my style and betting criteria. I get lots of action. ?

“If this is the environment you work in, there is too much action to continue with the folklore of ‘action bets.’

“You no longer have the excuse of being faced with 40 or 80 minutes of ‘downtime’ because there is an unraced field of Maiden Special Weights and a Turf marathon race before the next opportunity to bet. ?

“There are now plenty of opportunities and the job is to decide which is best.

“There is really only one justifiable reason for action bets: ?to learn something for the purpose of improving prime bets later. ?

“It takes at least a buck or two to test ideas. ?Statistics and these ‘paper bets’ are important parts of the learning process, but for me, I have to wince a little to drive points home. ?

“I’ve done a lot of research on horse racing and I know pretty much what the results are, but, maybe it’s because I’m such a skinflint, not many ideas stand out to me like the many where I’ve had a crummy $2, $5, or $10 riding on them, and then whacked my forehead with the heel of my hand when the ‘test’ results were negative. ?

“There are two great lessons about simple money management to be learned from BlackJack, and neither one requires any kind of Kelley-criterion-like formula. First, unlike BlackJack, you do not have to ante up for each race. ?

“No-one is going to ask you to leave if you do not lay money down at every option. The second is, although you don’t have to play every hand in horse racing, you do have to stay on top of your game. ?

“Convert your small, “action” bets to “testing bets,” and record them, just like your prime bets. ?

“That’s one of the really insidious things about the old ‘action bet’ mindset – bettors frequently did not record them, even if they did keep decent records on ‘prime’ bets. ?

“Recording them does two things. First, since you should only be making them to learn something, recording the bet and outcome makes a note for the future. ?

“Secondly, and more importantly if, over the years you have developed a cavalier attitude about ‘action bets’, you’re probably going to have an eye-popper of an awakening when you tally up the cost-over-time.

“If you find that your action bets are taking a greater chunk out of your pocket than the track (or TAB) takeout, then you’ve got a problem. Not that this has ever happened to me, you understand, but I once had a friend….”
Carroll’s advice is worth taking. If you must have action bets then at least have them for a long-term purpose.

** Charles Carroll’s best-selling books on speed ratings are available at Internet book sale outlets. Check out more of his thoughts and books at

By Mark Merrick