04/22/2014 10:37AM

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.