Mark Cramer is one of America's most respected writers on horse-racing handicapping. He's a rebel when it comes to handicapping, and likes to fly in the face of accepted theories. His books Kinky Handicapping and Kinkier Handicapping are worldwide best-sellers. This article, from outlines some of Cramer's thoughts on how to be a winning punter.

I first stumbled on the overload syndrome years ago when analysing my betting records. It behaved like a handicapping virus.

I first feared that it was a personal virus, lodged in my brain. But then I received several letters from handicappers that seemed to isolate the same syndrome. One handi­capper wrote that he’d singled two horses in the Pick 3 (treble) and both won. Going into the third leg, he used five horses, and assumed he’d "bought" the race, for he’d chosen the five horses with clearly the best speed figures. They couldn’t be separated from a handicapping point of view, but surely, one of them would win.

You know the end of the story. None of the five horses won. This guy had picked two winners in three races and got nothing for it.

Back in the early- and mid-1990s, I had found one factor that was producing such a high percentage of profit that I played it exclusively: horses trying the turf for the first or second time, bred to LOVE the grass, facing fields comprised of proven losers on the grass or horses trying the turf for the first time that were bred to hate it.

About the same time, I shared ideas with Ed Bain, a successful player who limited his bets to trainer specialty factors based on layoffs and claims. Ed mentioned to me that when he had three or more trainers qualifying in a single race, he simply passed the race, for he could expect something strange to happen.

Similarly, I had learned that when I had too many "perfect fits" in my turf method, I could expect a bizarre result, like a horse bred to hate the turf somehow winning the race.

We must differentiate between what I call the "overload syndrome" and a lesser-of-evils race. In a lesser-of-evils race, none of the horses figure to win. That’s an easily spotted danger zone. The least of the evils usually doesn’t win, but what do you do, play the "less least of evils"? No, this type of race should be easy to pass up.

But what about a race in which maybe five horses seem to tower above the rest, what I call the overload syndrome? Five horses which have "all systems go" shining all over them. The temptation is to use all five in a leg of the Pick 3.

But my findings state that if there’s no horse among the five that you feel comfortable in keying, then the race should be passed, and not used in a serial bet. The only exception would be if you have standouts in the other legs at 5/1 or up and you can thus afford to use the "all" in this syndrome race.

Can I prove the existence of the overload syndrome?

I suspect that in this scenario, where there’s no standout and four or five should-be favourites, something goes awry in the normal herding instinct of horses. I’ve no proof, but it appears that, in the absence of a real pecking order, four or five well-primed horses, all deserving to be favourites, all wanting to be leaders, go at each other. It’s fierce.

And it’s mentally debilitating for animals that are used to having their authoritative place in the pecking order. This instinctive struggle takes its toll, enabling some lesser horse, one that is not part of the debate, to inherit the win. We're not necessarily talking about a pace duel.

It’s simply the presence of too many chefs in the kitchen, too many would-be superhorses at odds with each other, who are so intent on their rivalry that they ignore the little guy who prances through.

But let’s say you don’t buy this theory. Still, you have to admit that a race with too many live horses but none "key-worthy" is a less efficient investment than another race in which you can identify a horse to key. This may seem obvious. Yet, I’ve seen too many smart handi­cappers drain all their energy on the overload syndrome and have little left when the true key appears.

The guy who wrote me about the two singles winning in his Pick 3 should consider for the next time to parlay those two singles, bet them individually, and pass the treble when one leg is an "overload syndrome" race.

Do you have a 30 per cent hit rate? That’s pretty sharp. If you do, you can expect the longest losing streak to be eight races, with an occasional negative run of as much as 13 races. But most of us, especially if we’re longshot players, do not hit 30 per cent of the time.

If your horse wins 25 per cent of the time, still not bad handicapping, your longest losing streak is projected to be 11 races, with an occasional extended dry spell as long as 17 races!

Exacta, trebles and trifecta players can expect even longer negative runs, since their hit rate must be lower (unless, of course, they’re playing 18 combinations at a time, which will send them to the poor house).

Given these percentages, let me ask the audience, raise your hand if you’ve never had a losing streak? Of course, I can’t see your hands, but I’d guess that there are none raised. Even the phantom plunger, betting 2/5 horses to show (place), could conceivably have a three-race losing streak that would wipe him out.

But alas, these longest-possible-losing-streak projections often become multiplied when the player, in the midst of a dry spell, begins to press. His concentration span descends as the amount of his bet ascends. Something snaps and, within a few races, a whole bankroll can disintegrate.

What follows is a prescription for what to do when confronting a losing streak.

  1. Go over your recent wagers and ask yourself whether your handicapping has been poor or whether you’ve simply had a long series of good decisions/bad results. Or has it been poor decision-making? Be honest with yourself.
  2. If your handicapping has been poor, you probably need a break. Handicapping and betting according to one’s intense analysis of the past performances is a creative process, even if you’re a numbers cruncher. It’s been learned in numerous interviews with artists and scientists that the creative juices are re-activated following a separation, sometimes extended, from the process.

    Think of horse-betting as a lover. She’s home visiting her family and you’re separated from her. Think of how great it is when you see her again following the separation. If husbands and wives separated from time to time, marriages would be far less likely to go stale. (Women readers, please change the "he" to "she".)

    Horseplayers are married to their avocation, but that doesn’t mean they should be tethered to it.
  3. On the other hand, if your handicapping has been as sharp as ever, you may wish to continue betting but, if so, the standard wisdom is: bet more when winning and less when losing.
  4. But it’s not simply a question of betting less per race. When an army is losing a war, it is often better to retire to the hills and reorganise. Great guerrilla armies have beaten their superiors by attacking only when they have the advantage. The handicapper in the throes of a losing streak should "regroup" his or her betting structure, and concentrate only on the greatest strengths. So you’ll be betting less, but also betting on fewer races, those very few that are especially meaningful in relation to your strengths as a handicapper.
  5. But if the streak has been prolonged, more radical inter­vention may be necessary. You may need a total divorce from what you’ve been doing, and a new direction. One prototypical example nowadays is the formerly proficient handicapper who’s losing money regularly betting at many simulcast venues. He’s spread himself too thin.

The radical solution is to choose one track and become a specialist. If you know this racing circuit inside out, then you’ll have a great edge over those who bet the same races from a far-off simulcast outlet.

Another prototypical losing streak concerns the player who has become buried in a miasma of exotics. A return to the basics, win-and-place, might be the answer, at least temporarily. If he can’t pick 'em to win and place, how does he expect to win at exactas.

There’s one last solution, probably too radical for most players to consider. If you’re losing more than you can afford to lose over a much longer period than the expected losing streak, you could consider giving up the game totally, maybe going to the track once or twice a year recreationally.

This totalitarian solution usually doesn’t work, but a variation of it has functioned well for a couple of people I know. When having confronted a bad streak, they limited themselves to a single bet a week, only when it was "all systems go" from a handicapping pers­pective, and yet the price was still right. So they demand a truly major discovery in order to bet, and then wait until the toteboard gives them the go-ahead.

If you’re capable of such discipline, then it can be assumed that you do not need to give up the game totally, and can weave your way back into things little by little. But if the discipline’s simply not there, if you’ve lost control, you should consider a substitute addiction, only with the approval of your doctor: chess, bridge, chocolate, sex, fishing, golf, etc.

Throughout my career as a racing journalist, I’ve had to confront critics from outside the field who questioned the social value of a lifelong pursuit of racing. My usual answer: anything that provides joy for human beings while challenging the mind has redeeming value.

Back in the mid-1980s, I had been teaching a class in horse-race handicapping at Los Angeles City College. All adult age groups were represented in this ongoing course, but senior citizens played a prominent role. This was the time when we were exposed to the issues surrounding Alzheimer’s disease, and I began to wonder why I never saw a senior citizen horseplayer with Alzheimer’s.

Well aware that my own observations consisted of "anecdotal evidence", in the early '90s I delved into the literature and discovered that a group of French researchers had come up with findings that people who engage in lifelong puzzle-solving are far less likely to come down with degenerative brain disfunctions in old age. The concept was that puzzle solving exercises the neurons in the same way that jogging or other aerobic exercise fortifies the heart.

In attempting to get the medical establishment to use horseplayers in Alzheimer’s research, I received much encouragement from a doctor at John Hopkins in Baltimore. If no research was forthcoming it was more the fault of the horse-racing establishment, for its failure to consider this an important subject.

I never gave up on my idea that serious handicapping on a regular basis is a valid preventive measure against Alzheimer’s disease. However, I’d long ago abandoned my attempt to get the racing establishment to take this seriously.

A few weeks ago, I had a contract as a consultant, working with medical researchers. By chance, the subject of Alzheimer’s came up in one of our meetings. I took advantage of the moment to explain to the doctors the puzzle-solving nature of horse-race handicapping, and asked them whether they thought such an activity could have preventive benefits against Alzheimer’s.

To these four doctors, there was no question. Serious handicapping, if involving an intense analytical process, should definitely serve as a deterrent against Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain conditions that occur in old age. In fact, the earlier in adulthood that one engages in any type of active and regular puzzle-solving activity, the more likely it will serve to fortify the brain’s inner workings against degenerative disease.

How can I apply this to my handicapping?

The doctors warned me that the value of handicapping as a fortifier of the neurons depended on a truly analytical approach to this or any other puzzle.

The more intense and all-encompassing is one’s analysis of the past performance, the more it will contribute to our brain’s stamina. So if we improve our handicapping, we’ll probably be building a better preventive rampart against Alzheimer’s. If our handicapping involves looking for nuances in the past performances, obscure pattern matches, subtle pace configurations, plotting the position of a horse, etc., then we’ll be stretching our analytical chords.

Books by Mark Cramer can be bought at many book stores operating via the Internet.

By Mark Cramer