Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for ESPN.com, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Monday, February 21, 2011


Science Fiction, Watson


(CHICAGO, IL – February 21, 2011) Even before the computer Watson clobbered its two human competitors in the men vs. machine showdown on Jeopardy last week, horse racing should have been on the alert for possibilities that technology might bring to the handicapping process. The length of time that it takes for people to learn how to read the past performances has forever been viewed by the sport as a detriment to creating new fans. Artificial intelligence may be able to solve the problem.

Educating the uninitiated, an idea that’s countercultural and downright ludicrous, has been the superficial solution of port-brained operatives who refuse to accept that most people prefer knowing to learning. Like cavemen teaching apes to use pieces of stone to write on the walls of their shelters, these proponents of organized instructions for prospective fans have made little progress at anything and now represent a species endangered. If nothing else, Watson gave proof that machines can be endowed with the mental agility of Homo sapiens. Someday soon, they’ll be doing their work.

“I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords,” wrote game show contestant Ken Jennings on his Jeopardy drawing board after suffering a beating by the room-sized computer. Up until Wednesday, Jennings had emerged on top in 74 straight Jeopardy bouts against humans. Facing Watson, he seemed to be slow with his answers and lacking knowledge. The machine, on the other hand, was quick to recall all that was lodged in its “brain” and able to untangle convolutions. Watson was, in effect, solving problems. That’s what betting on horses requires.

Horseplayers enjoy the mind game that handicapping offers. They get an intellectual boost from winning and losing. Being wrong is what keeps them involved despite squandering fortunes. Dopamine levels spike to delirious highs when a horseplayer wins because losing is normal. Under the spell of this human cocaine, the gambler believes he can beat an impossible game. Like in golf or with video games, facing the challenge, not overcoming it, is the ultimate quest.

One reason the challenge can never be met is because horseplayers are dealing with information about events that have happened. What has happened has only some bearing on what will happen next. No matter how sophisticated the data available is, it will be only somewhat predictive. Horseplayers rarely admit that they lose because they’ve looked backwards instead of ahead – it’s always the high rate of takeout or the fault of another or some other injustice that screws them. Doesn’t that tell you how strong their belief in the unknown is and how powerful their confidence gets?

Given the tendency for people to believe in themselves, the computers of the future could produce better wagering results than those achieved by an experienced handicapper. Artificial intelligence that's delivered without burdening the horseplayer with the task of analysis could be delivered in a variety of ways. By tapping an app on the face of a telephone and keying in questions to Watson, the patron could summon up a variety of information without having to know how to search for it. What would make this delivery of service appealing is that it would provide options, not conclusion, unlike conventional tip services that start at the end, destroying the fun of the puzzle.

In mere seconds, Watson could analyze the data that advanced players pour over for hours. It could sort out the probabilities associated with each horse in relation to the odds so that bettors know the underlay and overlays in comparison to factual history. The limitation to having an instantaneous answer for any question is merely a function of budget. If the sport locked up the intelligence provider with a license to manage the program’s distribution, such delivery of information could provide racecourses an opportunity to offer patrons something they can’t find at simulcast outlets or online.

Nevertheless, handicapping by having a machine do your research would be so popular with fans that there’d be no restricting it. For the game to refrain from capitalizing on the enormous bounties that would flow from providing the uninitiated instantly with knowledge that takes years to acquire would be difficult at best. Moreover, who’s that organization or person to work on behalf of the many and determine what’s best for the sport? The simplest of things are damn near impossible to organize.

What makes these possibilities even more science fictional is that horse racing doesn’t have the money to take on a project of this scope, even if it possessed the vision. Racecourse owners have arms too short to reach into the bottom of the bags filled with items that need funding already. The industry’s disorganization interferes with its abilities to tackle challenges. Its structure, based on 30 different states determining 30 sets of rules, is antithetical to teamwork.

It would be interesting to know what emotions are being felt in the hearts of the strategic business planners at a publisher of data such as the Daily Racing Form or organizations such as the Thoroughbred Racing Association and The Jockey Club with their Equibase Company asset - entities that derive their purpose in being to fact collection. The unprocessed information that horseplayers receive now from these sources are headed for obsolescence. As a reference tool, the information used for handicapping horse races will be as out-of-date as casebooks for lawyers and medical journals for doctors soon. A de-emphasis of the importance placed on reading the archaic language of past performances will lead to a need for being more observant of proceedings.

Ironically, an information delivery revolution might be just what is needed to turn horse racing’s fortunes. Theoretically, the sport’s opportunists can turn to Watson to open wide a fascinating game to audiences that heretofore couldn’t understand it. Once they do, all the impatient, attention deficit-plagued, give-me-the-baby-without-the-pain types may become interested in gambling the cool way.

Vic Zast posts his ideas about horse racing regularly on Facebook.com and Twitter.com. Please visit him there.


Written by Vic Zast

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