06/12/2014 12:28PM

Ask Pete Fornatale: Are many contest players pros?


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,

Aaron Shapiro More than 1 year ago
Well stated Pete. There is nothing wrong with having an income and playing in tournaments or for that matter betting every day. They are both different,but each does require skill to come out ahead in the long run.It is no accident that many tournament players qualify each year. They know how to play these tournaments.
gus stewart More than 1 year ago
speaking only on my own experience, I attempted betting for a living back in the early 90s. I for the entire year got up at 6am clocked 6 days a week returned home at 11, then went over my workout notes and dicta-phone notes for an hour in a half. Went back to track by one, stayed there till 5. I had two investors I called everyday to go over horses for each day. So here is how i did, Hollywood park I crushed I could do no wrong, The workouts were so powerful and my betting was pretty good so I had a major profit for meet. Down to Del mar Expenses went up I live in L,A and overall I broke even. Had a few tough beats that would of made me a minimal profit but that's gambling. To Santa Anita I got crushed nothing went right, workouts seemed to be meaningless. So I can say this,, I put in over 70 hours a week, lost a minimum of money for the 3 meets, but I never felt more excitement and rewarded, when I was right in a race in any job I ever had, I also think the game was easier then. Today it is much tougher, so good luck if you try!!!!!!
Tony Brice More than 1 year ago
Excellent answer, as always, Pete. I had never been as mentally and physically spent as I was after NHC 15. If I were to attempt to 'go pro', I now know the level of effort I'd have to put into it to be successful... and can't imagine ever pouring myself into something that way on a full-time basis.
HatzOffToNixon More than 1 year ago
imo, the big money is made by computerized rebate getting operations. There may be a few 'pros' making more than a token amount, but probably fewer than you think. There's a reason they play contests, write books, and work for the drf.
Chuck Berger More than 1 year ago
As someone who played in numerous tournaments and won in the six figures and now just bets full time, I can attest to the fact that both tournaments and regular betting have pros and cons. At seventy six years of age I find betting real cash is easier on me than the rigors of playing tournaments. Today, I wasn't feeling good. I did not bet. Had I been in a tournament, I would been forced to bet. I wasn't near to being on my A game. In truth last year was a losing year for me. The first in nine years. Regular businesses don't always show profits year in and year out. And yes, profits from prior years sustain me during the slow times. And you are right Peter. You can with knowledge ,patience and discipline beat the races. That one race that you think can't lose is at the mercy of lady luck. Getting bumped at the start or a hundred other things for example. I certainly would encourage a single fellow to give tournaments a shot. Putting up a relatively small amount for a possible "score" is great. For me, I am content to grind out a profit during the course of most years. By the way, I have been a consultant to a few players who enter tournaments. They have done quite well.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Great perspective, Chuck. Thanks, as always, for chiming in.
pshurm More than 1 year ago
"Professional handicapping" and tournament play are two totally different games. I don't think there are too many players that excel in both. I believe that most professional handicappers attempt to grind out a decent, but not huge, ROI with relatively conservative bets. It is very tough to make a consistent profit when certain bets have up to 25% take outs. I also believe professional handicappers rely heavily on rebates in order to help get over the take out. The beauty of handicapping contests is that you can lay out a relatively small amount of money and reap a big reward.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I agree, though there are a few notable exceptions as I mentioned in the piece. In truth, a positive expectation contest like the BCBC really is a de facto rebate and should be appealing to all pro players I would think. I believe there are a few other Vegas contests that also have positive expected value.
DavidM9999 More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed your article Peter. You make some really good points especially about risk and work load. There is one thing that puzzles me though. These folks are best of the best. Period. I fully give them their just due. But where are their bankrolls from prior successful years of handicapping. I understand your $20k or $200k analogy but that is why you have a bankroll to sustain you thru any temporary down periods. Am I missing something?
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I can only speak for myself in the years when gambling was an important part of my income but for me, what I made I spent. It's just so easy to spend money and I kind of mean that whether you're making 20K or 120K as well! Of course, if you were committed to going pro for real, that's exactly what you would have to do, build up a bankroll over time. But to me, that's a sacrifice I'm not particularly interested in -- would much rather have the ability to have an income stream that paid the bills (for me it was freelance writing and editing) and then what I win from gambling can be allocated to special projects (college fund, vacations, nice bottles of wine etc). And if I lose gambling, it stinks but it doesn't compromise anything. FWIW, I would describe the true pro horseplayers as the best of the best, and my buddies in the contest world who aren't pros as truly excellent. I definitely have special respect for anybody who does this for a living with all that's stacked against them.
Jeff More than 1 year ago
Pete, I have re-read your response and want to comment again.Maybe we know different pro horse players,but the ones that i know can give you a very good idea of how much $ they are going to make because most of them make about the same amount year after year.Also,most that i know have guaranteed money coming in...that is a prerequisite of calling yourself and being called a pro by others! As for a monastic lifestyle,again I need to disagree.Pro's that i know have moved to their favorite cities in the world to live.When I hear stuff like that it drives me a little crazy! Good Luck.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
The pro players I know often pull 70-hour work weeks. That's all I meant by "monastic." As for knowing how much money comes in, to be honest, that's not a conversation I've had with many pros. That was more my writing based on own experience of gambling seriously where the annual swings were huge. I'll do a little follow up research on this if I can find some time.
Jeff More than 1 year ago
Pete, If this was an answer to my comment,then you answered fare and respectfully.I do not necessarily agree with your last paragraph,but I do not comment -on drf-to try to change people's opinions!
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
In any case, tx for taking the time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Why doesn't the Tour allow players to buy into NHC Championship? Why does everyone have to qualify? I don't play in Tournaments because I don't make money when I play in Tournaments- I play different. I want to make $$$. Poker lets everyone in just pay up. Qualifiers deserve a spot rightly so. Let Money players buy in. Pool will be huge. This is why I don't think the best players are represented in NHC. At least not all of them
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I've never asked the question of how the system came about. I've always thought it was cool that the NHC was the only tournament where you had to win in. From an economic perspective, I suppose it is possible that even more money is raised by the current system but I don't really think that's the point.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
yes I know you never did. World Series of Poker lets anyone in for 10,000. Why doesnt NHC do the same thing? What do you think? Im the best money player nobody heard of.
Starks43 More than 1 year ago
Agree completely with premise of the article. I can't imagine how difficult it must be to rely entirely on betting the horses for ones livelihood. When I was in my early 20's I did it for basically a month- was basically between jobs. I didnt need much money to live on had no responsibilities and even for that short period of time could see the change in my pysche. Plus game is so much harder now. Not to go off topic but one of the great misnomers about horse players is they are a bunch of uneducated degenerates. Just look at last years NHC qualifer guide and the wide variety of occupations. No one puts their salaries in there but clearly many are making six figures. Have to put $5 million through the windows and make 2% on your money to get back 100k (not counting all expenses related to that). Plus doesnt factor in benefits, company 401(k) match, etc.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Tx, Starks. A hard way to make an easy living indeed.
Matt Banchero More than 1 year ago
You can beat a race....but you can't beat the races....
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I would argue the exact opposite: you can't necessarily beat a given race, but you can, over time, beat the races.