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#5- Malcolm Gladwell's Advice For Horseplayers

"There are times and places where it is better to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond than a Little Fish in a Big Pond."
#5- Malcolm Gladwell's Advice For Horseplayers

Malcolm Gladwell wouldn’t bet NYRA tracks. The man wrote numerous New York Times bestsellers, but he wouldn’t bet Santa Anita or Del Mar either. He has been named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential people, but he probably wouldn’t bet Keeneland or Churchill Downs either. Why? Because Gladwell believes there are times and places where it is better to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond than a Little Fish in a Big Pond. So, Gladwell, the horseplayer, wouldn’t bet into the large pools. His horse racing play would probably focus on Sam Houston, Indiana Grand, or Prairie Meadows.

What Horseplayers Can Learn From the Impressionists

In his book "David and Goliath," Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of the Impressionists, a group of remarkable painters who would go on to impact modern art with the movement known as Impressionism. Gladwell writes about the time when these painters were unknown and struggling. In the 1860s they were just a group of fledgling artists, and critics were belittling them. As Gladwell tells the story, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro “painted one another and painted next to one another and supported one another emotionally and financially, and today their paintings hang in every major art museum in the world.” But the only reason we have heard of these painters or seen their work is because they shunned the big pond and found success in the little pond.

Don’t get me wrong I love Saratoga, and I dream of spending all of October at Keeneland. But as a handicapper- as someone aspiring to improve as a horseplayer- I see the value in focusing my play somewhere other than the big pond. The story of the Impressionists is about them trying to break into the art scene in Paris. Art played an enormous role in the cultural life of France in the nineteenth century. Every year the Impressionists submitted two or three of their best paintings to a jury of experts. The idea was to be chosen for display in the Salon, the most important art exhibition in all of Europe. The Impressionists kept getting denied admittance. They kept trying, and they kept getting denied. Then, they finally decided to branch out on their own and stage a show just for themselves.

Being a Big Fish in a Little Pond of Your Own Choosing

The Impressionists had to decide if they wanted to be a small fish in the big pond of the Salon or a Big Fish in a Little Pond of their own choosing. For the horseplayer, do you want to be a small fish in the huge pond of NYRA or Santa Anita pools or do you want to be a big fish in the smaller pond of your own choosing? Gladwell writes about how people strive for the best universities for their children. “We strive for the best and attach great importance to getting into the finest institutions we can,” writes Gladwell. “But rarely do we stop and consider- as the Impressionists did- whether the most prestigious of institutions is always in our best interest.” And I would ask, is playing the tracks with the largest pools always in the best interest of 95% of us? Why battle the syndicates and the professionals, when you may be able to hone your craft and be the big fish at Indiana Grand?

If you follow a track in depth and have good success picking winners, does it really matter if you are doing it at Prairie Meadows or Santa Anita? Winning tickets are winning tickets. Stop and consider whether being a small fish in the Churchill Downs pond is in your best interest when there are so many other smaller ponds doing great things. Think about Shopify- the tech company headquartered in Ottawa, Canada. If they were in San Francisco they would be just another tech company that made it from startup to success story. But in Ottawa, Shopify is THE tech company. It’s certainly not a perfect analogy, but it’s a classic example of being a big fish in a smaller pond.

Even the Impressionists disagreed initially on what to do. Eventually, they found their own space and set up their own show. Gladwell writes, “And they wouldn’t get lost in the crowd, because there wouldn’t be a crowd.” If you feel lost among the horseplayers playing into Saratoga or Del Mar pools this summer, find a smaller track of your choosing. Play Scioto Downs. Play Sam Houston. The Impressionists were tiny fish lost in the Big Pond of the Salon until they broke free and found a way to be the big fish in a tiny, tiny pond. Break free of the online tournaments with hundreds of entries. Break free from the tracks with the largest pools. Don’t get lost in the crowd. Shun the big pond. Find your little pond and settle there. The Impressionists created a movement. They went on to change the art scene forever. So don’t discount the possibilities of the tiny pond.

The blessings of the Big Pond Are Mixed

In reality, the blessings of the Big Pond are mixed. “And it is strange,” Gladwell writes, “how rarely the Big Pond’s downsides are mentioned…It’s the Little Pond that maximizes your chances to do whatever you want.” If Malcolm Gladwell handicapped horse racing, he would shun the Big Ponds.

We still want a low takeout. We want a track that attracts the horseplayer; we want large fields and a quality product. But there are several mid-level tracks doing good things. Seek the little pond. As Gladwell says in summary, “The lesson of the Impressionists is that there are times and places where it is better to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond than a Little Fish in a Big Pond.”