(CHICAGO, IL – February 14, 2011) Paul Roberts, the British racecourse consultant, is back in Saratoga Springs on St. Valentine’s Day. He’s the darling of the New York Racing Association. Since Roberts came aboard in 2008, a large part of his job has been to get the people of Saratoga Springs, who know about Saratoga Racecourse, to teach him about Saratoga Racecourse, so that he can teach NYRA about it. Another part of his job is to advise NYRA on how to spend its hard-fought gains from the Aqueduct racino wars in a way that will update Empire State horse racing suitably.

Some people would complain that NYRA, by hiring Roberts, has placed an expensive and unnecessary step between them and the fans that they serve. Other people would incorrectly assume that the highly-paid executives of NYRA should know what to do because of their own capabilities. Still others might argue that there are plenty of professionals already suited to serve Roberts’s purposes right under their noses – Sheikh Mohammed restored Greentree with local talent. And there are others, specifically those who have tried to bring much-needed change to a place where change isn’t wanted, that are perfectly comfortable with NYRA’s decision to bring a stranger in – in fact, they are thankful.

“Until you know that you don’t know, you don’t know,” was the advice of Aristotle, the father of metacognition. John W. Santrock, a professor and the former chair of Psychology at the University of Texas at Dallas, defined metacognition as “knowing about knowing.” Wisdom comes only after we become wise enough to understand that we don’t know everything. Having someone on the outside to fill you in on what you don’t know is a practice that’s prudent. On the other hand, not knowing squared produces compounded stupidity.

Before the Internet, there were probably as many people as there are today who considered themselves experts in a given field even though they knew nothing. But with the freedom to express oneself at the drop of a hat, unknowing people these days are able to pop off with occasional consequence. Technology seems to have emboldened society beyond its true capabilities. The sport of horse racing – oh heck, make that the world - is rife with egotists.

One issue that’s been wrought by intellectual narcissism is the debate over takeout. Many gamblers, having scant idea of how much money it takes to run a racetrack, are convinced that the handle would grow and shed bigger proceeds for operating the track if less money was taken from the pari-mutuel pools. They use examples where this has been true for short periods of time to make their argument. But they refrain from explaining how the benefits that flow from a buck bet are to be met if their proposition is faulty.

The argument over exchange wagering provides a similar example. Opponents of exchange wagering worry that the popular scheme will scalp the pools that exist, leaving the tracks even more wanting than they are from the rake that they take from wagers made away from their premises. Proponents rightfully say that exchange wagering is the boost that the sport needs to attract young people, provide a fairer shake to the faithful, and make horse racing a more attractive alternative to games of chance that subtract dough from their players slower. Both proponents and opponents would be better off by leaving the decisions to experts.

Granted, the experts haven’t always performed expertly. Horse racing’s behind the times, fraught with entanglements caused by its own doing and appearing unable to reach consensus on anything – a little like Washington, perhaps. But takeout rates, exchange wagering, casino partnerships, legislation liaison and a plethora of other preoccupations that get the public’s ire up are not petty annoyances that will disappear at the wave of a wand. Coincidentally, it’s worth noting that a lack of intelligence and experience was not the cause of these troubles. It is, for the most part, a short-sighted view to make money at any cost that threatens the sport with extinction.

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Outliers, wrote that 10,000 hours of practice are needed before you can claim to have mastered a field. Even geniuses in the three fields where child prodigies exist – mathematics, music and chess – require long periods during which they are deeply immersed in a subject before becoming fully developed in it. It is ridiculous to believe that people with experience on only one side of an issue can provide dogmatic positions with ultimate confidence on issues that have many sides.

The changing landscape of what constitutes sport, including horse racing, has created a news environment that’s made practitioners stretch beyond their experience. Last week, Alex Waldrop trotted out an old NTRA research study that claimed one of four US adults are fans of the sport and that five million unique individuals visit a track or an OTB facility twice monthly – a mathematical conclusion that no research professional or fool with an abacus could support. Turf writers, with the sufficiently-developed skills to break a horse race down, interview its participants or recognize the stories that would intrigue readers, often veer recklessly into debates about business, legislation, finance and marketing for which they’re unprepared to participate. Bloggers, thrilled by the ability to have their own voices heard, produce monologues that amount to white noise, rarely accepted with respect because they lack depth and substance.

Aside from publications such as The Blood-Horse and Thoroughbred Times, where the wherewithal exists to hire a specialist to cover the business side of the industry, the breeding side and the racing side, there aren’t many public forums where an opinion on all these topics are legitimate. Reckless opinions fly like flak, wounding those who happen to be targets. The cacophony of a million words colliding in cyberspace has become content for the masses - who, like the character George VI in The King’s Speech, say a mouthful when they can’t hear themselves think.

Vic Zast posts bits about horse racing and other things on Facebook and Twitter.