06/12/2014 12:28PM

Ask Pete Fornatale: Are many contest players pros?

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Dear Pete:
How many people who play in tournaments are professional players, meaning they make enough money playing horses to support themselves?

– Curious

Dear Curious:

There are a handful of tournament players who are professional bettors. This blog grew out of a book I wrote for DRF Press called “The Winning Contest Player.” For the book, I interviewed at least four full-time horseplayers, Mike Maloney, Maury Wolff, Brent Sumja, and Duke Matties. Sumja and Matties are regulars on the contest scene. Maloney plays in contests that are held at his home track, Keeneland, and Wolff decided years ago to focus on cash play rather than contests (he was a force in the early days of tournaments, which is why I wanted his perspective for the book).

There are other pro bettors who play in tournaments as well, though most of the best contest players can be better described as enthusiasts. This isn’t meant as a knock of them. Many factors go into the decision to bet professionally. I have interviewed more professional horseplayers than just about anyone else, and the phrase, “it’s a hard way to make an easy living” comes to mind.

For one thing, it’s a lifestyle that requires an incredible amount of work and a high tolerance for risk. There is just so much variance involved no matter how good you are. It’s impossible to sit down and write out an annual household budget when you don’t know if you’re going to make $20,000 or $200,000. I have no doubt that many of the best contest players could make a living betting if they chose to – but they’d sacrifice a lot in terms of comfort and security. I respect the decision of players who want to keep their betting as a side business. That way, they reap the benefits of their hard work and handicapping insights without committing to a monastic life.

That’s not to mention how much more difficult it becomes to play when you need to win to pay your bills. Under such pressure, the natural, self-destructive tendency is to tighten up, and your creativity can suffer. Lewis Burrell, father of hip-hop icon MC Hammer, described his choice to play poker professionally to Andrew Beyer back in 1991: “I was a warehouse supervisor at the time and I told myself I was wasting time working. I started gambling full time – and it was the worst mistake I ever made. All of a sudden, when I had to win for survival, the cards wouldn’t come.”

This topic reminds me of a remark I hear at the track from time to time that drives me a little crazy: “If so-and-so is so smart, why is he giving out his picks?” The answer is not that the person in question isn’t good enough to support him or herself.  Rather, the answer is that it’s a lot easier to construct a lifestyle when one has some idea of how much money is coming in the door. That’s not to say that everyone who touts horses for a living has the right stuff to be a pro player, but plenty of them do, and I feel the exact same way about the best players in the world of contests.

Hope this helps,
Pete