Making a Living at Horse Racing
Is it possible to make a living at horse racing? Perhaps, but it certainly isn't easy. The idea of the professional horseplayer is certainly an enticing one - a man who makes his living from his wits with a wad of cash in his pocket, a Daily Racing Form under one arm, and leggy blond on the other. The reality is more prosaic. As is sometimes said of professional poker, it's a hard way to make an easy living.
I'm reminded of a scene from the movie Sneakers where Robert Redford collects a check for his services from a bank secretary:
Bank Secretary: So, people hire you to break into their places... to make sure no one can break into their places?
Redford: It's a living.
Bank Secretary (handing Redford a check): Not a very good one.
The basic obstacle to earning a steady income from racing is familiar to any horseplayer: the size of the takeout. A 20% blended takeout, which is the norm at most American race tracks, is a formidable obstacle to overcome. Combine the size of the takeout with the relative efficiency of the betting pools, and a long term edge of more than a few percent is unlikely to be obtainable over any lengthy period of time.
As it happens, the only professional horseplayers I've met (both of them) have told me that their edge is no more than 3-5%. Let's do a little math. At (optimistically) a 5% edge, you need to bet $1 million in a calender year to earn a reasonable middle class income of $50,000 a year. And that income includes no health insurance, no 401K, or other benefits of any kind.
Note also that because of the fickleness of lady luck and the variability of success in the exotic pools, that $50,000 will not be there year after year. Some years you might make (theoretically) $80,000, while others it may only be $20,000. It will be necessary to keep a large living expense reserve to tide you over in the lean years.
If you play 250 days a year, you'll need to bet $4000 a day to churn $1 million over the course of the year. Please read that again. How many of you who are fantasizing about making a living from racing have ever bet $4000 in one day, let alone day after day after day?
Ready to quit your day job yet? Well, let's look at some of the other pitfalls that await the would-be pro:
- Burnout - Getting up early, grabbing the morning scratches, doing your handicapping, planning your exotic bets, then spending 4-5 hours actually playing the races, whether from home, at the OTB, or at the racetrack, then doing record keeping and taking a look at the next day's races is a grueling regimen indeed. Are you up to it?
- Boredom - Successful betting entails passing a lot of races. Do you have the willpower and stamina to pass on underlay after underlay while waiting for the few races of the day in which you have a real edge?
- Bad Luck - Streaks are a part of horse racing. Can you withstand, both psychologically and financially, a run of bad luck during which you lose a disastrous run of head bobs and photo finishes?
Well, enough nay-saying. If you've stuck around this long you have a good idea of the magnitude of the task before you. Let's now look at some creative ways to put the odds in your favor so you can potentially start to make some actual race track profits.
One trait that successful horseplayers seem to share is that they go out of their way to play against a lower takeout than is available at track odds. There are several ways in which this can be accomplished:
- Play in Handicapping Tournaments - These tournaments offer a great way to play against a lower takeout. Many local tournaments are run as loss leaders and return all the entry fees to participants, meaning you're effectively playing against a zero takeout.
- Playing the Pick Six - Pick Six carryovers are among the best deals in racing. The carryover money is added back into the pool resulting in a substantial takeout reduction. On rare occasions, you may even be playing a positive expectation bet. Both the professional players I have know considered themselves to be primarily Pick Six players. It takes a big bankroll to get serious about this bet, but the rewards can be worth it.
- Getting Rebates - Rebate shops are not as plentiful or easy to gain access to as they once were, but it goes without saying that any rebate is better than none at all. A significant rebate can change the odds dramatically in your favor.
- Playing on a Betting Exchange - Betting exchanges, of which Betfair (off limits to us Americans) is the most prominent, change the game altogether. The pick-your-own-odds model is very player-favorable and something we can only dream will one day come to this country. If you're a Canadian or a Brit, however, well have at it!
Yes, Virginia, professional horseplayers do exist. I've met a few myself, and several authors (including Barry Meadow) have claimed to be among the select. It takes a substantial starting bankroll, a great work ethic, and an iron stomach, but it can be done. On the other hand, maybe it's just easier to get a job.