This appears to be the neediest of times.
Turn on television, sign on, or pick up what’s left of the printed pages, and somebody is apt to be there picking from among common stocks, sports teams, politicians, and horse races. We must be so busy, we don’t have time to think; or don’t know how to. Consumer Reports picks everything from sunscreens to big screens. Retired soldiers pick the outcomes of wars. Failed coaches are on TV trying to pick winners of the game that cast them aside. Picking has become more than a cottage industry. It’s big business. There are pickers in charge of filling out college basketball tournament brackets, the sports equivalent of picking your feet in Poughkeepsie — a reference courtesy of the perfect Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle in “The French Connection.” Restaurants are picked, food is picked, movies are picked: we waste more money on bad pickers than bad products.
With the Kentucky Derby season returning to form, here’s something you should know about pickers.
After college, I went to New York to learn how to sell stocks and bonds and oil and gas and grains and animal parts, living in a residence hotel just around the corner from The Dakota, where John Lennon was killed out front, and where “Rosemary’s Baby” was filmed. Tough-looking guys lived on the top floor of our residence hotel. When you shared an elevator with one of them, you faced the corner of the car. During this training period, we got paid $1,000 the first of the month. We spent all our money on sporting events and plays with dancing girls, and were broke by the 15th.
To become a stock broker, you had to pass a test chock full of numbers, and Wall Street rules and regulations. After averaging something like four hours of sleep for three months, I passed the test by one point. I couldn’t believe it either. One of my roommates, a former FBI agent, was certain that the grading machine had malfunctioned with my test papers inside. He asked me to close my eyes and imagine people giving me their money to invest for their futures. It wasn’t the simplest thing in the world to do. But I could see somebody investing a couple of grand with me. So long as I showed proof of having made the same investment myself, a practice I took to horse picking: tout it, buy it.
For the most part, all a rookie stockbroker had to concern him or herself with was two possibilities, forget puts and calls, and the complicated: Which way would a stock go, up or down?
The most terrifying aspect of the job was fiddling with commodities; one miscalculation, or rotten pick, and you could wind up with a boxcar load of something like chicken necks with your name on them, out at the rail yard.
I was not a terrible stock broker. It was a selling job like any other. Only, instead of Tupperware, you were selling money. I was very conservative, weeping on several occasions with customers over the prospect of being wiped out. What I learned during my time in the picking hotbed of the Earth was a disdain for the obvious, and that some people couldn’t pick a replay. The brokers who were far and away the most successful frequently went against public sway. The most success I achieved as a broker was in going against a bad picker who sat across from me. If he liked the market, we’d sell short and sit back and relax.
Unfortunately, the really rotten stock pickers didn’t last long.
This is in contrast to bad professional horse race pickers, who are everywhere.
There’s one track-site picker who is something like one for the last 30 races. Running a thick line through this character’s predicted winner has become close to exhilarating.
Go-with horse race pickers are hard to find, but are easy to identify. They have a track record with successful picks in print. Bad pickers won’t get much better. They get to keep their jobs because they never admit mistakes, and because so many others are just as lousy. The way to use horrendous pickers to your full advantage as the Derby season springs into view is by handicapping a race down to your favorite three or four horses, in order of preference. If a bad picker likes one of yours, treat it like a scratch. In few fields other than horse race handicapping do hacks get to stay. It’s a gift.
Originally Posted on ESPN