Those Brainy Horseplayers
The controversial trainer Jeff Mullins once famously quipped "if you bet on horses, I would call you an idiot." Unsurprisingly the comment was not well-received by horseplayers at the time, especially those attracted to the game by the intellectual challenge. And unfortunately Mr. Mullins' sentiment did little to change the popular stereotype of the "degenerate" horseplayer.
Never mind that typical past performance data for a single race include a dizzying arrangement of thousands of tiny numbers, fractions, abbreviations, and superscripts. A veteran horseplayer can scan two to three pages of this kind of densely packed information and form an initial opinion in a matter of minutes. The number and complexity of neurons firing to accomplish this pattern-seeking task is taken for granted by its practitioners. But give the exact same information to a layperson and ask them to make an interpretation. Check back with the poor soul in a couple of days to see how they fared.
That said, we're all about data-driven reasoning here. Opinions are fine but give us evidence-based opinions please. To that end, let's look at a few data points concerning horseplayers and intelligence.
In early 2006 the Pew Research Center conducted a detailed and methodologically rigorous survey into behavior and attitudes about sports and gambling as part of their Pew Social Trends series. A randomly-selected national sample of 2,250 adults were surveyed by telephone. With the internet-fueled abundance of junk polls often portrayed as genuine research, it is a rare luxury to have such reliable data to tap for learning.
Dutifully noting the concession that academic achievement is an imperfect indication of intelligence, let's use these Pew survey data to take a look at the relationship between "education" and "types of gambling". The table to the right presents hard data supporting the notion that more educated gamblers are indeed attracted to the cerebral challenge that betting on horse racing offers.
Those who bet on a horse race in the past 12 months are more likely than all adults to have earned a bachelor's degree or higher (34% vs. 27%). Those who participated in the other types of listed gambling in the past 12 months are either equally likely or less likely than all adults to have earned a bachelor's degree or higher.
And the same pattern is observed when we look at post-graduate schooling.
This view is not as "clean" as it might be since the average gambler participates in more than one gambling type. So what about those horse racing bettors who specialize in horse racing? Let's turn to another survey for more insight.
The Horseplayers Association of North America conducted a membership survey in 2009. This advocacy group is primarily composed of extremely dedicated horse racing bettors who do little more than dabble in other forms of gambling. How educated are they? Of those who participated in the survey, a whopping 58% have earned a bachelor's degree or higher.
Not that any of this should encourage you to drag your Uncle Dominic out of the OTB and straight to the NASA employment office, but you get the idea. Horse racing bettors are, on average, above average in academic achievement. More evidence that horse race handicapping is the thinking man's (or woman's) gambling game of choice.
What to do with this insight?
Steven Crist, a graduate of Harvard and a uniquely thoughtful and sophisticated horseplayer, reportedly was obsessed with the classic Strat-O-Matic baseball simulation board game as a child. I'm not at all sure what the modern-day equivalent of Strat-O-Matic might be. But if there is one, many of its enthusiasts are likely only a nudge away from becoming lifelong horseplayers.
My gratitude to the Pew Research Center for making their survey data available to researchers and scholars for further analysis. The Pew Research Center bears no responsibility for the analyses or interpretations of the data presented here.