12/02/2013 12:02PM

Choosing the right kind of handicapping tournament

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In last week’s column, I wrote about the importance of game selection. Today I want to go over a more specific point: which contest is right for you?

If you are driven by competition and a desire to be crowned the best, the answer is easy. You want to play in the National Handicapping Challenge. Format-wise, the NHC is difficult, as a championship event should be. It’s a three-day marathon. On the first two days, there are eight mandatory races which require a $2 win/place bet. In addition, you must choose seven other races from a selected list of tracks to bet $2 win and place. Logically enough, these are called optional races. If you are among the top 50 players at the end of the second day, you advance to the Final 50 contest, where your bankroll carries over. These players will play three more mandatory races and choose seven optional races. Ultimately, the players with the top 10 scores will advance to the final table where they will play five more mandatory races to determine a champion. Got all that? If you need a refresher or want more details, the full rules can be found here.

I’ve already written extensively about various opportunities to qualify for the NHC. There are several good ones coming up in the next few weeks, especially at DRFBets.com on Jan. 12 and on NHCQualify.com on Dec. 14, 21, and 28.

The most popular online contest format is the 12-race bullet – you must bet $2 win/place in 12 races that are picked for you. This is the format you’ll find at NHCQualify.com and BCQualify.com. You’ll find the same format or variations of it at DerbyWars.com, horseplayerqualify.com, horsetourneys.com and twinspires.com.

These are great for players pressed for time. You can play from the comfort of home and you don’t have to spend any extra time deciding which races to play. As a result you can put all of your energy into handicapping. Because of the time-saving aspect, it seems a much more acceptable idea to me to pay a rake in a tournament like this than in one that involves travel.

Of course, the NHC isn’t the only contest held in Las Vegas. There is no one “Vegas” format, though the contests there tend to have some similarity in that in most cases they ask you to choose optional races from a variety of tracks. You’ll need to read the rules carefully to sort out the specifics. If you’re interested in playing in Vegas, check out the contest options at the Orleans, the Wynn, and the LVH. All three offer intriguing contest opportunities. You’ll need time to travel for these, obviously. But if picking which races are likely to produce longshots is part of your skill set and you like the Vegas rush, these contests are a must for you.

All contest players have heard many variations on the following lament, “I don’t like contests because I/my brother/my Uncle Joe once had the lead going into the last race when some knucklehead passed me/him by hitting a longshot in the last race. That’s not handicapping blah, blah, blah.” These players are upset by one of the necessary evils of mythical money formats. If you feel the same way, that doesn’t mean you have to just give up on contests entirely. You should investigate live bankroll tournaments.

Live bankroll contests are still contests but they play out much more like a typical day at the track. Usually there will be a buy-in that goes to the contest payout pool and a live money bankroll. In some instances, you’ll need a bunch of money to play live money, as much as $10,000 in the case of the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge (though you can win-in via BCQualify.com).

You must make a certain number of bets of a certain amount throughout the contest. The big advantage for some players is that in addition to win, place and show, you can play your vertical exotics in a live money tourney, so you’re likely to have exactas and trifectas at your disposal. You can also create de facto horizontal exotics by making manual parlays - bet one or two horses to win, and if one of them wins, bet the whole amount back in the next race if you’re so inclined.

There are also some intriguing live bankroll options that involve much less of an investment. I’m thinking specifically of contests held at Delaware Park and Monmouth, where you can play for $140 or $200.

Live-bankroll contests are great for players whose edge lies in their ability to manage their money as well as handicap. Be warned though, all contests, even live-bankroll contests, are games unto themselves. You’ll still need to play strategically in order to give yourself the best chance to win. If you can’t handle that, stick to playing through the windows. Or take up knitting.