Gary Epstein
And now for something completely different . . .

Equine Equity and Equality–The Advantages of Handicapping

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I am going to go out on a limb and guess that you did not come here to learn about the esoteric nature of handicapping in British horse racing. But don’t leave yet.  Take a chance. At a minimum, you might broaden your perspectives and learn something new. But, as always, my goal is more comprehensive and ambitious: I want to change the world by providing the best solution to a problem that society has been futilely attempting to address for most of the modern era.

We need to think out of the box. When you leave the box, you start thinking of ovals and that leads ineluctably to horse racing. As any reader of the late, lamented Dick Francis knows, British horse racing is an institution with a long history, unlimited pageantry and frequent crimes of passion. But in addition to outstanding adventure stories, it may also provide a lesson to those of us who seek a better society that embraces diversity, equality, and inclusion, and are willing to learn from our equine friends. One need not travel to Newmarket, Ascot, or Cheltenham to obtain this wisdom. One merely needs to open one’s eyes.

We commence with an observable fact. It appears that some horses run faster than other horses. This fact may result from breeding, training, personality, determination, luck, or a combination thereof. Whatever the cause, viewed from the modern vantage point, it is unspeakably unfair. If it were left unaddressed, it would also take a lot of the fun and mystery out of horse races, harm the profitable horse racing industry, and allow privilege to prevail in its most egregious form.

But the British Empire, which gave us the Magna Carta, is rich with traditions that have permitted it to survive and thrive (until recently). So we are not surprised to learn the following from the British Horseracing Authority (BHA): “British racing welcomes horses with widely varying ability because they provide employment, enjoyment, and entertainment for those who look after them and own them. It is not merely elite horses that can produce an exciting race . . . [b]ut if a better horse were to race repeatedly against a lesser opponent . . . the better horse would usually win . . . Yet horses with less exalted levels of ability should have a chance of winning a race, too.”

Yes!!! Exactly!!! This is the burning social issue of our day and, sad to relate, we have not addressed it with any level of effectiveness or intelligence. To the contrary, all our efforts to level the playing field in society and atone for past injustice has only served to exacerbate tensions and increase hostility.

In the most obvious example, attempts to bring about racial and economic equity through welfare programs, affirmative action, discrimination against “oppressor” classes, elimination of standards, rejection of merit-based hiring, relaxed policing, urban redevelopment, and abolition of educational metrics, have resulted, if anything, in higher levels of racial discord and anger. As Bayard Rustin presciently predicted, “Weakening the merit principle and legitimate standards does no benefit to society, least of all to minorities.” Moreover, as Thomas Sowell said, “When people get used to preferential treatment, equal treatment feels like discrimination.”

We need to look elsewhere. And, quite remarkably, for some reason I am unable to discern, we have not yet looked to British horse racing. As noted above, it has pioneered a way for those “with less exalted levels of ability” to have a chance at winning.

The BHA again: “A handicap is the best way to provide this winning opportunity for most horses–and therefore a wider cross section of owners and trainers–because it enables those of varied ability to race competitively against each other with a realistic chance of success.” The handicapper’s theoretical perfect race is one in which all the horses would arrive at the finish line at exactly the same time–a dead heat. How could he or she accomplish that? By handicapping–assigning varying weight to each horse based on its history and ability, with the most accomplished horses being assigned the most weight to bear.

Do you begin to see? Most horses are not Secretariat. So burden Secretariat with so much weight that he runs no faster than the slower horses. Problem solved.

In any sport, over a season, teams with better players will win more games than teams with less skilled players, even allowing for differences in coaching and biorhythms. Oddsmakers address that fact by creating a point spread, so that the one who wagers on the less talented squad benefits from points being awarded as if his chosen team had scored them. But that only benefits the punter (for Americans, that’s a British term for someone who gambles). What of the games themselves?  How do you assure equality and equity in the game itself? How do we raise up the less exalted, who, even if they beat the point spread, still leave the field as losers?

The answer is–HANDICAPPING.

Example: most basketball players will never be as good as LeBron James. But what if LeBron James had to play barefoot? Or in snowshoes? Or a blindfold? Or, instead of a point spread, which is just a betting device, what if, at the end of each quarter, an official subtracted the number of points that the lesser team had scored from the number of points the better team had scored, calculated the difference, and added that amount to the score of the lesser team? Every quarter and every game would end in a tie.

Problem solved. Equity achieved.

After a while, owners would realize that it really doesn’t make a difference whom they put on the floor. They could hire the first people who show up at the door (free of any concerns about aptitude and able to make absolutely certain that the religious, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic makeup of the team reflects the relative proportions of society). I am 5’8”, overweight, Jewish, and 76 years old. Should those really be factors that disqualify me from playing in the NBA? Is it fair? Is it fair that a clumsy person is unable to achieve her dream of becoming a brain surgeon, and that society is accordingly bereft (in some Northern states) of clumsy brain surgeons? Don’t stupid people have lives that are sufficiently difficult? Do we need to make it worse for them by giving them poor grades? Handicapping medical school applicants and bright students would make for a more equitable society.

Alternatively, we could impose an economic, rather than physical, handicap. Players who were paid more money based on their superior ability would be required to contribute all amounts they earn over the average salary to subsidize and be distributed among the players earning less. Ditto funds from endorsements. Presto!  Everyone is making the same amount. What could be more fair? And it could be applied across professions. Handicapping those who are smarter, faster, harder-working, more ambitious, and more dedicated could become the new American Way. And some of us could happily watch our bank balances grow as other people’s money is deposited. Imagine the delight!

Of course horse race style handicapping need only be applied in sectors in which it is needed. Fortunately, we do not need it in politics, where the “less exalted” have already risen to the top and driven out any vestige of intelligence, integrity, or public service. Similarly, in the field of public education, once the teachers unions succeed in getting rid of charter schools, we may expect that the standard of uniform mediocrity for which they strive will be achieved and maintained (thank you, Randi Weingarten). Architects? Don’t get me started.

If, owing to some recalcitrant parent groups, local high schools aren’t doing the handicapping effectively, universities could proceed to follow the mandate of the Supreme Court and base admission on merit, but then handicap the best students by making them wear earmuffs in class, denying them heat during the winter, and forcing them to spend 11 hours on TikTok every day. Of course, if they are Jewish, the universities could just utilize the old tried and true techniques of thuggery and antisemitism. All just another form of handicapping. Distinctions would disappear pretty quickly, and admissions could be adjusted.

Groups that have demonstrated high levels of success at standardized tests to measure aptitude or achievement could be forced to take them in languages in which they are not proficient. Thus handicapped, they will enter a level playing field, and those with “less exalted” levels of ability will inevitably rise. As it stands now, if you finish first, or score higher, or perform better, and someone who finishes behind you, or scores lower, or performs less well, gets the prize or the job or the reward, you have reasonable grounds to feel cheated and complain. If, however, handicapped properly by expert handicappers, you fail to perform better, or score higher, or finish first–well, you have no basis to be unhappy. Fair’s fair.

Indeed, assuming the goal is to have everyone run at the same velocity, and think with the same acuity, and earn the same amount of money, and own all of the same objects, handicapping may be the best way to go.

Or maybe . . . we should be trying to improve and work within the traditional system that has developed in the United States, and to a great extent in Israel, that rewards skill, initiative, dedication, and talent and has produced the greatest wealth and happiness for the greatest number of any society in history. And maybe we should continue to promote color-blindness, equal treatment and equal opportunity, rather than equal outcome, because those are the features that drive a successful, equitable society. Even if skill and talent are not evenly distributed, should we not be working toward a society where everyone with those aptitudes will have the opportunity to develop them, rather than penalizing those who have them and rewarding those who don’t? Thomas Sowell says, “I have never understood why it is ‘greed’ to want to keep the money you have earned but not greed to want to take someone else’s money.” 

What if it is not universally accepted–and probably not even remotely true–that all differences and inequities between racial groups must be the result of racist policies? (To realize how laughable a concept that is, think back to me, LeBron, and the NBA, even if the image is disturbing.) The success of a series of ethnic groups in the United States, including those that indeed were discriminated against, like Jews, Asians, Indians, and Filipinos, reveal the falsity of that argument. Society should be working toward abolishing barriers, both social and economic, that keep disadvantaged people from acquiring the skills necessary to succeed and realizing the incentives for success offered. Perhaps we should not be erecting more barriers, and driving artificial divisions like “oppressors” and “oppressed.” Perhaps we should not be labeling any racial group as evil. Maybe we should follow traditional models of encouraging and rewarding certain behaviors and discouraging others. Maybe we should be striving toward a society in which no one is denied the opportunity to succeed and the ability to obtain the tools to succeed, thus allowing people to optimize the diverse talents that each individual possesses.

And if that doesn’t work, handicapping might just be worth a try. 

About the Author
Gary Epstein is a retired teacher and lawyer residing in Modi'in, Israel. He was formerly the Head of the Global Corporate and Securities Department of Greenberg Traurig, a global law firm with an office in Tel Aviv, which he founded and of which he was the first Managing Partner. He and his wife Ahuva are blessed with18 grandchildren, ka"h, all of whom he believes are well above average. He currently does nothing. He believes he does it well.