Ray Wallin brings the topic of problem solving to light.
Hard problems don’t need to be hard to answer. By using the simple approach of breaking complex problems into smaller ones, you will find a solution.
In handicapping, every race that we encounter has a different level of complexity. While we often try to focus on the big picture or the entire field, this approach often leaves us scratching our heads as we try to figure out who are the contenders.
In 1945, Hungarian born mathematician George Polya published a book that is still used today as part of college curriculums. Entitled How to Solve It, the basis of this book was to identify four basic principles of problem solving. One of his principles was to devise a plan. Polya even went as far as to offer strategies on how to devise a plan, one of which can be successfully applied to your daily approach to handicapping.
Solve a Smaller Simpler Problem
Some races are easier to analyze than others. Yet if you take a micro, rather than macro scale approach to the more difficult races, you will find your contenders with greater ease and confidence.
Using Polya’s principles, the graphic above establishes that we have a Big Problem with several possible outcomes. Given the information that we have available, we are unable to solve this problem.
However, if we can identify smaller, more manageable problems that we can solve, the big problem will become easier to tackle. Sounds easy enough, but how exactly can we apply this to handicapping horse races?
Let’s start off assuming you are looking to pick the contenders within a given horse race as your big problem. Your small problems are the different factors you consider when handicapping. While every handicapper weighs these factors different, most look at all of them in each race.
In this graphic, we have broken down the task of finding contenders into looking at the following factors speed, class, form, pace, pedigree, and the jockey and trainer. There can be more or fewer small problems depending on your own style of handicapping or the conditions of the particular race. The important thing is to pull the complexity out of the decision making process.
Some handicapping factors will be easier to solve than others. If you are looking at a conditioned claiming race you can see which horses have not met the condition and which horses have already beat the level or higher with relative ease. You can tell which horses are from leading barns and have leading riders. In the age of information, most past performances will tell you how well both the jockey and trainer perform under today’s conditions.
Maybe you are still stumped on how the pace of the race may set up. If you still find that the smaller problem is too complex, you can break these small problems down into even smaller problems.
You could look to identify the early speed horses and see how they match up with one another as well as the other entrants of the field. If you have established that the early pace is weak, you could analyze the pressing, stalking, or closing style horses to see which horse may have an advantage.
The key to this strategy is to continually break down the problem until you find a way to solve the small problems. Even if you need to continually break the smaller problem down several times, each step becomes a simpler question to answer. By drilling down this deep you gain confidence in your decisions and can start answering the bigger problems.
You don’t need to solve every small problem. There will likely be some that you can’t solve at all. You need to solve enough to be able to start eliminating possible outcomes.
This is the culmination of solving your smaller problems. You have established a level of comfort and confidence in your solutions to this point. By now, some of the options are clearly either in play or can be completely eliminated.
Whether it is a construction project, your third grader’s math homework, or a horse race, applying George Polya’s strategy of solving smaller simpler problems can help you make a molehill out of a mountain. The resulting elimination of the least likely outcomes will help you find the solution to your problem with greater confidence.
About Ray Wallin
Ray Wallin is a licensed civil engineer and part-time handicapper who has had a Web presence since 2000 through his blog and for various sports and horse racing websites, most recently at USRacing.com. Introduced to the sport over the course of a misspent teenage summer at Monmouth Park by his Uncle Dutch, a professional gambler, he quickly fell in love with racing and has been handicapping for over 25 years.
Ray’s background in engineering, along with his meticulous nature and fascination with numbers, parlay into his ability to analyze data; keep records; notice emerging trends, and find new handicapping angles and figures. While specializing in thoroughbred racing, Ray also handicaps harness racing, Quarter Horse racing, baseball, football, hockey, and has been rumored to have calculated the speed and pace ratings on two squirrels running through his backyard.
Ray likes focusing on pace and angle plays while finding the middle ground between the art and science of handicapping. When he is not crunching numbers, Ray enjoys spending time with his family, cheering on his alma mater (Rutgers University), fishing, and playing golf.
Ray’s blog, which focuses on his quest to make it to the NHC Finals while trying to improve his handicapping abilities can be found at www.jerseycapper.blogspot.com Ray can also be found on Twitter (@rayw76) and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.