I know a thing or two about horse racing. Being extremely good friends with legendary trainer Bob Baffert and definitely not just a drunk guy who snuck into the winner’s circle after American Pharoah’s historic Triple Crown victory, I’ve spent time on racing’s biggest stage.
As part of Baffert’s trusted circle, it’s fair to say this was the highlight of his career. It really is an amazing feeling to reach your sport’s mountaintop and share the time in the limelight with your closest friends.
That was unfortunately the peak of Bob’s life, and to be honest, I thought it might be mine, too. There seemed to be nowhere for us to go but down, and I was 100% right as it pertains to my dear friend and mentor, Bob.
For me, though, everything changed the moment Spicy Mayo entered my life.
It’s fair to say Bob’s entire existence spiraled out of control after our beloved American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, but I hit an even greater milestone at 1:08 a.m. on April 3, 2021, sitting alone in a dirty Miami hotel, watching my beautiful thoroughbred Spicy Mayo skyrocket from the back of the pack, kicking his little computerized legs to catapult us into a first-place victory and a payday of nearly $2.
It’s 1am. I’m alone in a hotel in Miami racing digital horses. My colt Spicy Mayo just had an amazing comeback. I’m having the time of my life. pic.twitter.com/sY9VpJAji4— Jonathan Bales (@BalesFootball) April 3, 2021
You really never know who might be your guardian angel, but I never could have predicted mine would be a green virtual horse. We’ve become so close that I wouldn’t even sell Spicy for 1,000 ETH. Don’t believe me? Offer it and find out.
I’ve been atop the traditional horse racing world, where animals are pumped full of hormones, beaten mercilessly so they run faster only to end up exactly where they started, then brutally murdered after a light ankle sprain. It’s a beautiful sport.
And I’ve been atop the digital horse racing world, where despite having no lungs, the horses experience fatigue. So that’s something you have to deal with now, which is virtual horse shit.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this anymore, but the point is this…digital horse racing is just one example of one of the great early use cases for NFTs: play-to-earn (P2E) games.
That’s why we’re going to be talking about P2E a lot more here at Lucky Trader, continuing to provide the best Zed analytics and tools in the space with Know Your Horses, and broadening our coverage of the entire P2E ecosystem with the launch of Know Your Wallet.
Before diving into that, I want to talk about why I’m excited about Zed Run and certain P2E concepts.
Spicy Mayo > American Pharoah
I have a confession to make. I’m not really friends with Bob Baffert. In fact, I don’t think I even knew of the man before that day. And American Pharoah wasn’t my horse, although it felt like we bonded after his tail slapped me in the face in the winner’s circle.
But Spicy Mayo is mine. All mine, are verified on the blockchain, and that’s just something Bob’s going to have to deal with.
The reality is that ownership matters. Horse racing is fun as hell, but most people aren’t really going to own an actual horse. That’s changed with Zed Run, where the physical world can be accurately represented—and even improved upon—online.
In an article titled How to Find the Next Big Thing, I wrote:
I’m completely willing to admit this might be the biggest blunder of my life, but I think the future of art is digital. Not only should ownership of actual physical paintings be tokenized—fraud is a big problem!—but there are a variety of benefits of art that exists solely digitally as compared to physical art (the collector/artist relationship can shift and even become aligned, the art itself can change over time, you can quickly buy/sell without storing it, ownership/prices are transparent, and so on). I’ll get into these in another article because I have a bunch of thoughts.
The concept of digital art and similar areas are so new, which is what is attractive to me. Could I be the dumbest motherfucker on the planet? Perhaps. But I think the idea of people buying internet money a decade ago probably looked pretty dumb as well. To me, it’s a smart gamble because the potential payoffs are unbelievable. The fact that there’s a movement toward things similar to digital art—and digital art itself over the past 6-12 months—and my natural inclination is to dismiss it should be even more reason to be bullish, similar to the idea of Bitcoin years ago, as people initially writing it off is what allows for the big payoffs that accompany being first.
When you start to go down this rabbit hole, you inevitably end up asking “Why does this thing need to exist in the physical world at all to have value?”
As I examined the sorts of areas to which I’ve gravitated from an investment standpoint, I noticed a trend. Digital art, cryptocurrency, eSports, trading cards—they’re all a continuation of this inevitable trend of moving the physical world online.
In addition to the guaranteed scarcity, transparency, near-instant liquidity, and other reasons I’ve talked about many assets being superior in digital form, in the case of Zed Run, it’s cool that anyone can participate, race whenever they want, watch from any screen in the world, and the horses aren’t, you know, savagely killed.
Plus, they still get to have digital sex, which I hear is even better than regular sex for the males, who can blame poor performance on a bad internet connection.
Very Attractive Female Horse: “What the hell was that all about?”
Spicy Mayo: “What? Instant liquidity is suddenly a bad thing? Ugh, I hate to keep blaming them, but--“
Very Attractive Female Horse: “Oh Jesus, Spicy, not this shit again! Zed upgraded their servers and I told you our stable boy Adam Levitan has fast and reliable Wi-Fi.”
Spicy Mayo: “THEN I GUESS IT WAS A GLITCH SO BACK OFF!”
Very Attractive Female Horse: “Nayyyyy, it wasn’t a glitch. I thought your name would be an indicator of what might come, but nothing about your mayo is spicy at all. And you’re green? WTF?”
Spicy Mayo: “You know what? We might as well only have sex when the sun goes down, because you’re a NIGHTMARE.”
If I had a nickel for every time I heard a similar convo outside the breeding barn…
What Makes a Great Game?
I’ve tried to assess Zed Run in the same way I did with Top Shot:
My (crude) thesis is the same as last year. I don’t know how the Top Shot market will move in the short-term, but for the site to reach its long-term upside, we’d need to see:
- NFTs to continue to grow.
- Collectibles/art to be part of that growth.
- Top Shot to win within “digital trading cards.”
Then I’d estimate the probability of each. And to be clear, there’s no extremely accurate way to do this; I basically just guess. With practice, you just get better at pattern recognition and making better guesses.
Let’s say we assign 70%, 90%, and 70% probabilities to each of the items above; the odds all three come to fruition would be 44.1%. So that’s a bad bet, right?
No, it’s an amazing bet, because if all these things happen, Moments will be worth far in excess of what they are today. If you’re getting 10x on roughly a coin flip, that’s incredible.
The point isn’t the exact numbers, but rather if you can reverse-engineer the correct assumptions that will lead to a win and project their likelihood even remotely intelligently, the right types of bets become very obvious even with conservative estimates. If it isn’t screamingly evident the potential reward is worth the risk, forget it.
Extending this same logic to Zed, we’d need them to remain the dominant platform for digital horse racing and for the space to grow as a whole. There’s also the ability to move into other P2E games, but I’ll ignore that upside for now.
Their ability to grow, I think, is primarily dependent on their ability to 1) become a great game on which to gamble, and 2) supply proper game mechanics to sustain a long-term flourishing ecosystem.
The success of any game—especially one in which people compete in a peer-to-peer format and gamble—is completely dependent on the way in which the game functions over time, specifically with regard to variance. Designing a game that’s too random acts as a deterrent to developing hardcore users; people get addicted to Zed because they want to solve the game and make money. Developing a game that’s too skillful means only the best players and stables will win over short timeframes.
Consider the fact that there’s not really high-stakes gambling on chess. Chess is an amazing game that can really sharpen your mind, but the best player wins almost all the time. It’s too skillful to make for an exciting game on which to gamble because the time horizon on profitability for the better player is extremely short—usually one game.
On the other end of the spectrum, consider flipping a coin for money. Is this fun? Yes, of course. But, assuming a fair coin, the time horizon on being profitable extends forever since it’s random, i.e. from a gambling perspective, the gain isn’t sustainable.
If an experienced graphic artist were to design a representation of this idea, it might look something like this:
At one end of the spectrum is pure randomness, where casinos steal their money. At the other end is me having a great time eating at Red Robin—a total lock no matter which one of their nearly 600 locations I choose and no matter which award-winning burger I sink my teeth into.
Most games fall too close to one of the extremes to make for a sustainable gambling ecosystem, but in the middle are games like DFS and poker in the Goldilocks range of enough skill for the best players to win long-term, but enough randomness they still lose quite often over shorter periods of time.
And the thing is, some games change over time. DFS used to be extremely beatable, but that’s evolved as everyone has gotten so much better. Bad players can still win in poker, but the timeframe over which they can beat top players has shortened dramatically over time. This has led players to flee to different game styles—Showdown in DFS, for example, which is far less skillful than the traditional salary cap style, and dozens of variations of poker outside of no-limit hold ‘em. These new iterations offer their own new and challenging problems—enough inefficiencies to offer challenges for great players to solve and randomness so fish don’t get crushed.
I believe much of Zed’s success is going to be reliant on their ability to adapt the game over time to create new meta structures that properly balance skill and luck. A big reason for my bullishness (horseishness?) on Zed over time has been their ability to try new things. Not all of them will work, but their willingness to do things like this (while scaling to over 200 employees) matters a lot:
- Reworked breeding to adjust the core underlying architecture, including more predictability in terms of how horses’ traits are passed on (although Spicy Mayo would still say there are glitches affecting his personal performance).
- Introduced tournaments, conditional racing events, skins, and plan to introduce dynamic payout structures and big-tent events.
- Made key hires like Ted Gay (GM of ZED, former Churchill Downs executive, and President of TwinSpires) and Facundo Carril (Director of Product, 14 years of game industry experience).
In terms of game mechanics and future gambling upside, they’re extremely well-positioned.
I see Zed’s upside as being a gambling platform within bars, restaurants, and sportsbooks across the world, streaming and letting people bet on provably fair races in real-time. If you’ve never done this, try it: even if you don’t own a horse, go watch some live races and bet on the results with your friends. It’s exhilarating.
All of this has added up to one of the most engaged communities in P2E games—and really all of NFTs—as users become addicted to the thrill of winning and become truly emotionally attached to their revenue-generating assets.
Left Ventricles and Know Your Wallet
One of my favorite stories about horse racing and really all of data analysis is from the book Everybody Lies. In analyzing horses, buyers had historically looked most at their pedigree—mother, father, and overall lineage—when determining which ones to purchase.
Of course, even if lineage matters, you won’t be able to find an edge if everyone else is looking at it, too. In fact, if others are overvaluing the effect of lineage, it’s actually something you’d want to avoid when buying racehorses, even if it helps predict performance. For example, let’s say that lineage accounts for 55% of a horse’s future success, but 95% of its price, while how much it likes to eat delicious cheeseburgers from Red Robin accounts for 25% of its success but inexplicably none of its price. In that instance, lineage is more important in an absolute and theoretical sense, but in terms of usable value, the burger consumption matters more.
Well, a researcher named Jeff Seder found just that, except instead of a horse’s love for tasty burgers, it was the size of the left ventricle in their heart. The horse he identified as being truly once-in-a-generation—one that no one else really wanted—was my pal American Pharoah.
As a one-year old, American Pharoah ranked in just the 56th percentile in height, 61st percentile in weight, and 70th percentile in pedigree among all horses analyzed.
But Seder started performing ultrasounds on horses (this after measuring their nostrils and the size of their defecations), and found that A.P.’s left ventricle ranked in the 99.6th percentile. With just average metrics overall in areas people were overvaluing (size and pedigree) but a generationally large left ventricle that no one cared to look for, American Pharoah offered incredible value.
By the way, savvy move by Seder to analyze feces before looking at heart size. Really threw off his peers.
“Hey, you see that guy with the portable ultrasound looking at American Pharoah? Think he’s on to something?
“Haha, nah man, that’s just Seder. I saw him crouched down behind the stables earlier smelling literal horse shit and charting how many flies it attracts. Guy is a total lunatic.”
It’s not what you know that matters; it’s what you know that others don’t.
Lucky Trader acquired Know Your Horses because they’re the best in the business at using data to find these hidden edges. Every time Zed makes a change to its algorithm or implements new variables, it’s a race to solve the dynamics of the new ecosystem. I think we do that best.
What I’m most excited about, though, is how we can take the methodologies from Know Your Horses and apply them to other P2E games. And we’re doing just that with the launch of Know Your Wallet.
I’m so pumped about this. Our thesis is basically this:
- P2E games have enormous potential; there are many more to come as the most effective way to onboard people to NFTs and web3.
- These games will need to change over time to ensure they stay in the Goldilocks region of the luck/skill continuum—enough variance for everyone to have fun and enough skill for some to truly earn.
- Whenever a new meta is introduced, it will be a race to find the GTO strategies.
- Most people don’t have time to do this. Just as poker players rely on solvers and DFS players use projections and optimizers, P2E participants will need help to compete.
- Know Your Wallet is best positioned to be that solution.
On Friday, we’re launching the Know Your Wallet Founder's Pass NFT. This pass will grant lifetime access to all game tools we ever develop.
- 777-item project @ 0.423 ETH mint price
- Lifetime access to all current and future analytical tools we create for any supported games
- Airdrops of all individual, game-specific season passes
- Private Discord community with sharps and enthusiasts alike
- Giveaways, custom events within games, airdrops, more
- Beta testing/early access to our suite of pro-level tools
There’s an enormous opportunity to earn in the web3 economy. Our team’s experience with games, data, and tool-building has me excited for what we can do to help users make money in this space.