Let's get one thing clear from the outset: You can be the most psychologically stable gambler who ever lived, but if you can't handicap and don't know how to manage your money, you're not going to win.

Having said that, your chances of success will certainly be enhanced by being free from the problems that beset so many punters.

Of the dozens of books in my racing library, few spend much time on the psychology of winning, mainly because we don't know much about it, at least so far as horse bettors are concerned.

Oh sure, there has been a lot written about the psychological problems of compulsives, but those are losing gamblers. Typical of these depressing anti-wagering screeds is The Psychology of Gambling by Dr Edmund Bergler, who writes on the first page that a gambler is a "neurotic with an unconscious wish to lose".

Certainly, we've all heard the comments: Gambling takes over a person's life, a gambler never learns his lessons when he loses and cannot stop when he wins, he eventually risks more than he can afford, and he is caught up in the pain-pleasure thrill which is gambling. YADDA, YADDA, YADDA.

Gamblers have at times been studied by sociologists and anthropologists. See, for example, The Degenerates of Lake Tahoe and Poker Faces. But a scientific study of successful horse players? Can't find any. Nearly all the brain-wave and other physical studies have been conducted either on recognised compulsives, or on non-gambling types who simply sign up for experiments.

Some of what has been studied may be applicable to unsuccessful horse bettors. For instance, recent brain research (reported in a recent issue of Science) has found stronger neural processing signals in the anterior cingulate cortexes after a punter loses a bet, as measured within a quarter of a second after the punter has learned the result.

Space doesn't allow a complete report of the full experiment, but what basically happened is that punters who made a losing bet made riskier choices following a loss than following a win. They chased, which for a horse player can be deadly.

By knowing what the typical unsuccessful punter might do, the professional strives to do the opposite, or at least something different.

Because of a lack of hard data, we won't be quoting any studies about the attributes of successful horse players. What follows shouldn't be taken as scientifically determined truth based on empirical research, but as long-time observations of successful players.

It's subjective, though you probably won't find too many successsful punters disagreeing with some of these suggestions.

There is an entire field of sports psychology, in which coaches attempt to get athletes to perform to their best. And some of what they teach may be applicable to horse players, though not exactly.

For instance, although concentration is important to both pursuits, it's hard to make an exact comparison between betting on a horse and preparing to hit, or get hit by, a 140kg football player.

Still, when we talk about the psychology of success, several -areas come to mind. Among them:

  • Setting realistic, reachable goals.
  • Creating a winning environment.
  • Having a winning attitude.
  • Preparing a winning plan.
  • Managing stress.

Before worrying about success, define it for yourself. Everybody's racetrack goals are different. For one punter it might simply be to play an exciting game with friends, within a set budget. For another, it might be to make a full-time income.

The significant difference between these two punters, along with the differences of everybody in between, means there cannot be a one-size-fits-all plan for all punters.

For instance, a millionaire who goes to the track with $100 and bets $10 on each of 10 races has the excitement of gambling with virtually no stress at all. A full-time punter on a losing streak who's $80.000 in the red for the year (and only had $50,000 to start with and had to borrow the rest) is in a completely different situation.

But before we get to the stress part, let's start our look at the psychology of winning with setting realistic, reachable goals. If you're going to be betting $20 a race and bet six races a day, your chances of doing this full-time are zero.

To get some idea of how much you MIGHT make during a successful year, here's the result:


ROI (return on investment) is defined as the amount that comes back to you for each bet. If you bet $100 and get back only $84, your ROI is 0.84 for a 16 per cent loss. If you bet $1 and get back $1.08, your ROI is 1.08 for an 8 per cent profit.

There are four factors which contribute to your ROI. To increase profits, you'll need to increase some combination of:

  1. Your edge on each bet.
  2. Your bet sizes.
  3. The number of races you bet per day.
  4. The number of days you bet.

Unfortunately, each has limitations. Take your perceived edge, for instance. You can't simply increase your edge per bet by will. If you decide to wait to make bets where you have a bigger perceived edge, you'll make fewer bets, not more.

When you increase your bet size, you also increase your stress level. Every player has a "choke point" beyond which he feels uncomfortable betting. Reaching this point may well mean your capability to make good decisions is reduced. And if your bet size is too large, you may affect the pool to the point where you either reduce your edge or kill it altogether.

If you try to increase the number of bets per day, you'll probably wind up either betting races where you have no advantage or playing more tracks, where you don't know the local horse population so well.

If you try to increase the number of days you bet, this could lead to problems at work, or added family stress. If you're at work during the week selling trucks, you can't very well be monitoring the odds on the internet and calling in your bets while you're trying to close a sale.

So, overall, you need to set realistic goals. Doing so enables you to work towards something achievable, rather than constantly berating yourself for not becoming the king of all gamblers.

Creating a winning environment is something that every coach knows the importance of. That's why often one of the first things a new coach does is to review every aspect of the environment. This might mean re-arranging the lockers, ordering that the uniforms be changed, or getting rid of a good player who has a bad attitude.

As horse players, it's easy to get bogged down into a negative environment, especially if you're a regular attendee at the track. Racetrack grandstands (and TAB agencies, Editor) are filled with whining losers. Spend more than two minutes at any track and you're certain to hear negative after negative after negative, with punters berating everyone from the idiot in front of them in line to the jockey who stiffed their horse. Since most players must lose,
there's a constant drumbeat of pessimism.

Now, more than ever, punters are choosing to stay at home, betting either on the phone, or over the Internet. They may set space aside in a home office. I've been to some homes where players have a bank of TV sets, an Internet screen for the odds, and a phone set for speeddial to place their bets.

When these guys are hungry, instead of waiting in line for an overpriced hot dog, they simply waltz over to their refrigerator. And instead of complaining about the drive or the crowd or the lines, they can relax in the comfort of their home.

Control your environment and you will find it much easier to control your business.

You've got to have a winning attitude: too many punters feel they won't win, or they can't win. Everything bad seems to happen to them. They get shut out only on winners. If they have to pick between two horses, they always pick the wrong one.

Having a winning attitude doesn't ensure you're going to win. If you have no skills, it doesn't matter if you think you're going to play major-league baseball, because you're not. Usually, players develop a winning attitude in anything as a result of previous successes; if you've been a winner, it's easier to feel you are a winner.

Towards that end, focusing on your successes is a better plan than focusing on your failures. Everybody's got bad-beat stories, and often when you gather a group of punters together that is all you get.

If you play golf or tennis or basketball, think of the difference in your game when you FEEL as if you are going to play well. You're relaxed yet focused. You brush aside errors rather than get bogged down by them. You think that when your opponent does something well it's good because you're challenged, rather than he's probably on the way to beating you.

You don't worry about the outcome because you're focused on the process.

Too many punters worry about every outcome, instead of staying focused on making GOOD bets. If you keep making good bets, you have a good chance to be a longterm winning player.

If you focus instead on whether you won the last race, or how you're going to win the next one, counting your money after every bet, your focus is in the wrong place. There'll always be other races. A winner thinks of long-term improvement.

Barry Meadows is one of America's greatest modern-day handicappers. His monthly newsletter, Meadow's Racing Monthly, is available from TR Publishing. Check out his website at: www.trpublishing.com

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By Barry Meadows