For many people, the only time of year they care at all about horse racing is when the Kentucky Derby rolls around. Once racing's Triple Crown has ended, investors forget about the ponies for another 12 months.
But before the Preakness and Belmont run their courses, fund investors would be wise to recognize the similarities between picking a racehorse and selecting a fund. The key factors in your choice of horse or fund - and how you structure your wager - are surprisingly close. And while some people place bets on both funds and horses based on names, hunches and other guesswork, examining a fund's key components the way a savvy bettor observes a thoroughbred, improves your odds of finishing in the money.
As in horse racing, favorites don't always win in the fund world, issues that have had a great track record sometimes come up lame or slow down with age.
But if you are considering a wager on a new fund for your portfolio, think like someone picking the ponies and weigh these factors:
*The length of the race and style of the horse. Some horses are bred for sprints, others for distance. The same goes for funds.
Volatile, concentrated funds using leverage or focused on sectors or in nations with developing economies often act like speed horses, jumping out to big early leads before faltering down the stretch.
Conversely, some funds don't go to the front of the pack until late in the race. They don't always look good in the early running, but they don't disappoint in the end.
Pick a fund that best matches your investment personality. Unlike a horse race, you can change funds as they round the turn and head for home, but studies show you are likely to be better off if you stick with your horses for as long as possible.
*The jockey. The fund's manager, like a jockey, has to be able to take advantage of opportunities. As an investor, you must decide whether you want a proven winner, an up-and-comer, or an unknown, or whether you want no real jockey input at all (as in an index fund).
*The field. In any horse race, the size and quality of the field is a factor. In funds, the field is all of the offerings in a certain asset class; if you can't find funds you trust within a given category, you will be happier skipping the race and looking for a more attractive field to run against.
*Track conditions. Some horses do great in the mud or on grass; others like a clean, dry track. Likewise, some funds do well in all market conditions, while others run smoothly only when the market is in their favor.
Examine a fund to see how it has done not only in current market conditions, but in likely climate changes, such as in protracted downturns or when the market heats up again.
*The stable, trainer and bloodlines. Just as the same trainers and stables seem to be represented in the big races every year, the same fund firms may consistently top the charts. A name-brand firm or a recognized style or culture may make you feel more certain about which firm can meet your expectations.
*The weight. In certain horse races, some horses carry more weight than their opponents. The idea, especially in handicap races, is that the horse with the best record carries the most weight to make lesser horses more competitive.
In mutual funds, fees, expenses, sales charges and tax inefficiency all act as extra weight, slowing a hard charger and turning it into a laggard or a nag. The less your fund is weighted down with high costs, the better its chances.
*The horse's track record. Past performance is no guarantee of future results in horse racing or mutual funds, so it should not necessarily be the primary selection factor, but it's always worth considering what a fund has done before shaping your expectations for how it will perform in the future.
*The odds. Oddsmakers try to gauge the horse race and the public betting favorite and tell you if a horse is a favorite or a long shot. In the fund business, firms including Morningstar, Lipper and Value Line evaluate and rate funds and help an investor feel comfortable that he can bet on a fund and come home in the money.
*The kind of bet you are most comfortable with. In fund investing and horse racing, you can be rewarded even if you are not the big winner. You get smaller payouts betting on a horse to finish in the top three than picking it to win, but pursuing smaller, more consistent payouts may suit you more than betting all-or-nothing on a favorite.
Ultimately, your own comfort level and risk tolerance plays as big a role in the selection process as all the other factors, especially because fund investing (unlike horse racing) is a lifelong marathon rather than a short sprint.
Charles Jaffe is senior columnist for MarketWatch and the host of Your Money Radio. He can be reached by mail at Box 70, Cohasset, MA 02025-0070.