The case for being an occasional higher roller

May 24th, 2023

More than four decades after it was first published, the most fun book ever written about handicapping and betting on horses arguably remains “My $50,000 Year at the Races” by Andrew Beyer. In a mere 150 pages or so, Beyer lays out his strategy for beating the races for one calendar year and executes it well enough to show a profit for an amount that even today would make most recreational bettors salivate. (His $50,000 profit for the 1977 season has the purchasing power of about a quarter of a million dollars now).

The game today admittedly doesn’t look anything like what Beyer was trying to beat. Except on the rare occasion when he used the services of a bookie for out-of-town action, Beyer’s play was restricted to the nine or 10 races daily at the track he happened to be attending. The only exotic wagers were one daily double, a sprinkling of exactas, and perhaps one trifecta per day. Straight wagering (win-place-show) still ruled the roost, for the most part.

One of the appeals of the book, and perhaps a jaw-dropping one for the relatively new bettor or casual player reading it for the first time, is the size of Beyer’s win wagers. Even by today’s standards, the outlays were enormous: $100 action bets, $300-$600 for prime plays, $1,200 if a hot streak has been going on all day or all meet.

In this respect, the book is rather inspiring. Who doesn’t aspire to play the game at that level?

I can’t admit to having first-hand knowledge of what it feels like to bet those kind of amounts on a routine basis, but a wagering strategy I’ve incorporated over the past few years has given me a small taste of what it would be like.

Whether your standard win wager is $2, $5, $10, or even more, start to think about the possibility of enjoying one blockbuster day or weekend by increasing your initial outlay five-fold. The weekends surrounding the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, and Breeders’ Cup are viable choices.

Handicap those cards. Pick your spots wisely for win play opportunities. The quantity can vary, but three to six plays per card seem about right for a program of 12 races or more. And make sure you incorporate an odds floor. There’s no need to accept anything below 5-2 or 3-1 when risking a larger than usual amount.

Next, create a bankroll that is part real and part mythical for the said day or two (you won’t be investing it all). Instead of playing as if your win bet bankroll is $200, make it $1,000. And rather than bet a fixed amount per race, bet a fixed percentage of your balance, a wagering strategy the late Tom Ainslie once wrote of approvingly.

Let’s say we have 10 win-bet spot plays spread over two days. With a $1,000 bankroll, we’ll devote a fixed 5% of our balance to each win play. Our first win bet would be $50. If we lose that bet, our balance of $950 will result in our next costing $48 (rounded up). If our handicapping happens to not be sharp, we’ll be punished less for each losing wager. If we strike out with all 10 spot plays, we’ll lose around $400 of the $1,000 bankroll. Hey, it was worth the shot. We can go back to betting $10 a race and try it again some other time.

But what if you happen to cash several of them? Let’s say you cash your first bet for $50 on an $18 winner. Now your balance is $1,400, and your next bet is $70. No sweat if you lose, you’re still up for the day, and the balance going forward is $1,330. Maybe your third play hits for $67 on a $10 winner. Your balance is up to $1,598 and change, so the next play is $80. That might be a loser, but your fifth play for $76 cashes when your $12 horse wins a photo. Your balance now sits at $1,898 after five races.

Even if you fail to cash a ticket on your final five spot plays, your profit for the two days is still around $468, better and a lot more interesting than the $100 profit you’d have if you had bet a fixed $10 to win per race, or whatever the final amount if you bet 5% of your balance from a lower-starting bankroll.

Obviously, selectivity and good handicapping, as well as good luck, are all required to make this a profitable exercise. Not everyone has the temperament to be a high roller, but on select occasions during the year it might help your bottom line to simply be a higher roller, if only for a day or two.