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Book Review

Horseplayers: Life at the Track
by Ted McClelland
from Chicago Review Press, May 2005, 240 pages hardcover

For most racing fans, the racetrack is a place to enjoy an afternoon betting a few dollars on each of ten live races, maybe dabbling in a few simulcasts, and writing off any losses as the cost of entertainment. But for a small few, betting on the races is a full-time job, the source of their livelihood. Readers of major racing publications may have heard of handicapping legends like Steve Davidowitz and Andrew Beyer, who have made profitable careers as horseplayers. But they are the exception and not the rule. In fact, only two to five percent of horseplayers can turn a consistent profit. In his latest book, Chicago Reader staff writer Ted McClelland sets out to meet the exact opposites of Davidowitz and Beyer, full-time horseplayers who ply the Chicago racing circuit in relative obscurity and who, for the most part, are members of the 95-98% who consistently lose.

Infiltrating the small community of Chicago horseplayers, he meets many interesting, unique characters who came from many different backgrounds. He finds that each may use different handicapping methods and have vastly differing levels of play (determined by a combination of available bankroll and comfort level), and often they get into heated arguments with each other over the validity of their strategies, but all have one thing in common. They each believe that they have the secret to winning and the insatiable need to prove to themselves and to others that their strategy is the right one. Some dabble in speed figures religiously, others rely on pace and trip handicapping, and others take the lazy way out, spending hundreds of dollars on expensive software and datafiles, the "sheets," or other third-party sources. And finally, one man in the book seems to pull numbers out of the air, using all sorts of convoluted numerology and superstition. His method is found to be bogus when he picks the 8 horse to win in a 6-horse field. A few more turns at the crank and his bet suddenly goes to the 3 horse. And sure enough, the 3 horse runs out of the money.

Not surprisingly, many of them fit the stereotype of the compulsive gambler. They have made the conscious decision to forego everything else that those not in the community hold dear, such as family, friends, other entertainment, and stable employment. Instead, they have committed themselves to the 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week grind of the horseplayer's life. McClelland wanted to find out what makes these men (there were few women) make such a decision so foreign to those outside of the community. He found that the most successful players completely immerse themselves into the game and never miss watching a single race, because if you take a day off, that is the day your 20-1 shot comes in.

McClelland did not spend so much time with these people simply to observe. He also wanted to try his hand as a professional himself, fully immersing himself into this rather alternative lifestyle. After a few big scores he could see the allure in becoming a full-time player, but the long losing streaks and the need to win back those losses made it crystal clear what gets these people trapped into the game. Horseplayers are betting against the odds in what is mathematically the most unforgiving form of gambling in the world.

Not every player in the book is a lifetime loser. He spends a lot of time with Scott McGinniss, a "professor" of handicapping at Hawthorne who teaches classes on betting and is a consistent winner. The fact the man at the front of the classroom wears a custom tailored suit while his students wear clothes with the track's logo on them that were either free giveaways or "purchased" using horseplayer club card points, is very telling indeed. And as a welcome break from the daily grind of Chicago racing, McClelland takes a road trip to Oklahoma and Montana with Terry "McChump" Bjork, whose hobby is to drive to bush league tracks across North America, bet the live races to help the locals out, and then write about his travels.

McClelland said, "Through these horseplayers I was learning something every day about how to be a stronger gambler and what life was like at the racetrack. But playing the horses wasn't about the money, at least not for me. It was an intellectual game, like chess. It was about trying to be smarter than the rest of the gambling world."

This is an excellent book about people in the racing community who are mostly ignored and sometimes vilified by the mainstream press but who, through the takeout on their heavy wagering levels, ultimately pay for the operation of the sport. Without them, there would not be a sport for the rest of us to enjoy. McClelland produced an excellent wake-up call to anybody considering making the serious jump up from casual fan to professional horseplayer. It is a decision not to be taken lightly, and in his book, you read about people for whom the decision was, sadly, the wrong one. We strongly recommend this book to racing fans who want to learn about the horseplayer's life, and especially to those who think that betting on the horses is "easy money".

Horseplayers: Life at the Track has a list price of $24.96 and is available from Amazon.com for $16.47.

Rating:     4.5/5

For a different look at being a professional gambler, check out Six Secrets of Successful Bettors by Frank Scatoni and Pete Fornatale. Based on interviews with professional horseplayers and gamblers, it presents the methods common to them all that lead to success.

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