04/22/2014 11:37AM

Ask Pete: Is it ever a good idea to play favorites?



I played in a contest last weekend and noticed a lot of players selected favorites who won. I’m thinking that if I feel like a favorite is a lock that I should pick those horses instead of longshots in those races. Is my thinking correct or should I never include horses lower than 2/1?

--John Herzberg

Thanks for your question, John. When I was first playing in contests several years back, there was definitely an accepted conventional wisdom that favorites were to be avoided like the plague. I played under that assumption for a few years.

Eventually, that changed. At the end of any contest I’m in, I like to look back at what I’ve played and deconstruct my results objectively. Did I make any obvious blunders? Did I get unlucky? Was today just not my day?

At some point I noticed something significant – there were many instances where I was finishing within a few dollars of my goal, and if I’d just tabbed one more winner of any kind along the way, I would have gotten there. There were also plenty of horses I was reaching for because of their price but I didn't really like the plays. I remember one contest in particular where I dismissed a Mike Mitchell first-off-the-claim horse in a downhill sprint at Santa Anita. I loved the horse on paper, bet-of-the-day type stuff, but decided at 3/1 he “wouldn’t hurt me” if he won. Well, guess what? It hurt like a fist to the solar plexus when he galloped and it turned out he was the difference between me winning and losing that day.

Certain contest formats are more conducive to playing favorites than others, but even in the NHC, we see the same issue I described above. Players have lost out on six figures by a matter of cents. I don’t think Tony Brice or Roger Cettina did anything wrong during their great NHC runs, but let’s say they had loved one extra favorite somewhere along the way? Of course, it’s not as easy it sounds. It’s certainly possible that by reaching for that favorite, maybe Tony Brice or Roger Cettina would have missed out on one of the price horses who got them where they were. So how do we know when it’s OK to play the favorite?

Let’s start by examining what we do know – if you play favorites indiscriminately, you have little chance in all but the shallowest of contests. There is a reason that the bias against favorites exists in contest play. One general rule is that favorites are a lot easier to take in a mandatory race than in an optional one because in a mandatory race, you really just need winners.

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But whether you’re talking about mandatory races or optionals, I believe the best way to remain sane in contest play is to cleave as close as you can to the idea of playing the horses you like. If you really like a couple of 2/1 shots, and you know you have other places in the contest where you can reach for price horses, then it’s OK to chalk out. It all depends on the strength of your opinion and your being aware of what else is happening in the contest.

One other important thing to remember is that when you’re choosing between two horses you like and one is on the shorter side and one is on the longer side, you’re almost always better going with the longer price. It’s probably a good idea to save the favorites for times where you have what Jim Quinn calls “an overwhelming intuition” that the favorite is going to win. Or in those occasional instances at the end of a contest where you're torn between contenders but the favorite makes more strategic sense.

John, I hope this helps and I’ll see you around in the comments section.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Do you think this is different in Live vs. Pick & Pray. In live, at least you know what odds you're going to be getting. In Pick & Pray, that 5/2 morning line could be 3/2, but it could also be 5-1 and be just what you are looking for. This is what I struggle with in Pick & Pray - which I have recently been focusing on.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
This is a great question. In contest formats where you can't alter your picks, there's always a lot of guesswork about what the price will be: we've all picked 15/1 shots on the morning line that go off at 3/1. It's my view that in those contests if you love the favorite, you're just trying to pick up points so even though you might not have played the horse at 3/2, it's not a disaster. Part of the skill set in those contests is being able to have a sense of what the price will be at the off -- it's not an easy skill to hone on the fly, I think it comes more with experience and even with experience, it's easy to be befuddled by the what the market does. For me, I'm more inclined in the pick and pray format to shoot for 4/1 ML and up -- but if I LOVE a favorite I'll play it. Again, even a 4/5 shot running second for you could be the difference at the end of a contest so at a certain point you have to play who you like. Perhaps I'll explore this one more fully in an ASK PETE column in the future. I hope this helps.
radiocblue More than 1 year ago
I consider a favorite any horse better than 4-1, or whom I think will be better than 4-1 as the gates close. In the contests I enter, I have to choose one horse per contest race before the first post time, so it's a true Pick and Pray. And I'm an atheist! I go with the horse I like most, pure and simple. I believe that with smaller tracks (that is, tracks with smaller daily handles), the odds change drastically more so than with larger tracks, except in the case of Derby Day or where there is a huge Graded Stakes card. It's the law of smaller numbers, I suppose.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
LOL your belief system! That's an excellent point about the ML being more accurate at the larger tracks to some degree, a combination of their being more liquidity in the pools and perhaps having horses whose chances are easy to handicap / more experienced folks making the guesses as to what the public is going to do. Whatever the reason, that observation matches my experience.