11/14/2013 2:01PM

Contest strategy: Play to your strengths and play hard


Judging from the comments I’ve received since I started writing for Daily Racing Form a few weeks ago the most common question people have about playing tournaments is: How are contests different from everyday play?

In one important sense, I believe that the underlying skill sets required are exactly the same. Both are essentially games where you need to be able to handicap – that is, evaluate various horses’ chances of winning – identify value, and bet accordingly.

It makes me a little crazy when people say “there was no skill involved when Peter Behr picked Ria Antonia in the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge. He just picked the longest shot on the board.” First of all, it’s just incorrect. In this space a week ago, Behr made a cogent case why he liked the filly, very much grounded in the principles of handicapping. And because the BCBC is a live-bankroll contest, he still had to have the stones to bet $3,000 of his real money on the horse. To deny the brilliance of that pick is just sour grapes at this point.

In a fixed-bankroll contest, there are complaints about players picking crazy longshots just because of their prices on the board hold more weight, but I still don’t buy them completely. You still have to identify a race where a longshot is likely to come, often by finding a spot where the favorite is vulnerable or, if not vulnerable, is sure to be wildly overbet. There are a number of ways to do this – all of which involve skill – but that’s a subject for another day.

So what are the important differences between contests and everyday play? At the risk of stating the obvious, in a typical day at the races, you need to handicap the horses and you need to manage your money. You also have to understand that it’s all one long game. Over-aggressive strategies on any one day are almost certain to catch up with you. It’s all about establishing a long-term positive ROI on your bets, no matter how you get there.

Contests, fixed bankroll contests, in particular, change the game in a number of significant ways. Now you have three things to handicap. You still have to handicap the horses and have a good idea of their relative chances to win. But now you must handicap the races on a more macro level. In many contest formats, like the NYRA contest coming up this weekend at Aqueduct, you’ll need to pick which races to play. This means both identifying races where a longshot may win, but it also introduces a third level of handicapping – you’ll have to handicap yourself.

You’ll need to cater to your own strengths as a player and choose to fire your bullets in the places where you’re likely to have the most success. Do you do better in turf races? Maiden races? Low-level claimers? Wherever your strengths lie, that’s where you should be playing. And if you don’t know where your strengths lie, you should start keep records and find out. It might sound like a chore, but hey, do you want to win or not?

In bullet formats like Sunday’s NHCQualify.com tournament, you don’t have to choose the races per se (they are chosen for you) but you still need to identify spots where it’s okay to bet a shorter-priced horse or mid-priced horse, versus the spots where the correct strategy is to look for a longer-price or even a cap horse. To me, if you’re just bombing away all the time, indiscriminately picking longshots simply because they are longshots, you’re just stabbing. And while you’ll still get lucky once in a while and do better than the guy just trying to pick short-priced winners, that’s still not the best strategy for long-term success either.

It’s also important to note that aggressiveness – a potential enemy in everyday play – is likely to be your best friend in contests. It’s all about doing whatever it takes to win in that particular contest, whether that means betting longshots or going all-in if it’s a live bankroll format. It’s no longer really one long game, it’s a game with a very finite endpoint. And middling along – even with a positive ROI on your picks – won’t necessarily get you anywhere.

Contest veteran and Derby Wars partner Dave Gutfreund offers the best quote I’ve ever heard about the differences between everyday play and contest play in my upcoming book, “The Winning Contest Player”: “A tournament isn’t real life. It’s a game with numbers and you have to be aware of that at all times. Even a live bankroll tournament is just a game with numbers.  If you have a little bit of mental discipline and you’re comfortable with what you’re doing, adopting a contest player’s mindset shouldn’t be a problem at all. If you know that taking a 4-1 shot, even a 4-1 shot who should be 5-2, isn’t going to improve your standing in the tournament, you can’t play that horse. It’s better to take a 15-1 shot, even a 15-1 shot who should be a 30-1 shot, if that 15-1 shot can get you to where you want to go. What’s the point of betting the 4-1 shot that you love?”

The answer is that there would be no point at all. And that’s the difference between contest play and everyday play.

Jenny Wilson More than 1 year ago
I have not been adventurous enough to participate in a contest; however, as a handicapper, I think it might be time to put my skills to the test. Although I tend to come out ahead at the track, it sounds like contests might be an entirely different ball-game. Actually, there are a lot of comments here both in favor of contests and pointing out some of the negatives too. As I start out, can someone please recommend a contest for beginners? Honestly, I have tried to find contests for beginners myself, but I am just not sure if I am finding the right contests.
Vince L More than 1 year ago
Thanks for writing a column for those of us who are regulars on the tourney circuit. I have to say, I am not a fan of contests that allow players who are hopelessly behind in points to read the tote board and simply pick any horse that, should it win, get them enough points to cash in the contest. Too many times, I have been in great position in a tournament, only to see 30 guys suddenly go past me because they all miraculously had a 25-1 shot that they never would have put a dime on if they were at the track. "Pick and Pray" contests are more accurately handicapping contests whereas open format contests become strategy contests. I would like to see some sort of rule change in contests to prevent last minute plunging by players with multiple entries who have nothing to lose and everything to gain by picking horses for no other reason than their odds.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
You're welcome, Vince, and thank you for commenting. There are definitely ways around the issue you describe, either by playing in live bankroll contests or pick-and-prays, as you say. There are also some techniques for accounting for late-arriving longshots that I talk about in the book and will probably write about in this space at some stage.
Matthew Ellis More than 1 year ago
Peter, When is the book available and can I purchase it through DRF or HOW ? Thanks
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
The book will most definitely be on sale thru DRF. . .not sure exactly when but looking good that it will be available by the end of the year.. .I'd say "by the holidays" by Hannukah is so darn early this year . . .
Wayne Gunter More than 1 year ago
It takes skill + LUCK, but I would rather be lucky than good
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
You and Lefty Gomez (I) all agree! ;)
Wayne Gunter More than 1 year ago
Who is Lefty Gomez, Do you mean Garrat Gomez
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
LOL! No, Yankees Hall-of-Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez famously once said "I'd rather be lucky than good." Jockey Garret Gomez has no famous quotes that I know of. . .though he has written a book so perhaps there are some good ones in there.
Pete Vincent More than 1 year ago
$2 win-place tourneys are not real handicapping..Luck of the longshot player you should get so much $$ per day. Winnings -$$$ left over Day 1 stay in kitty Next day start same $$$ float as Day 1 ..Play Win-Place Both days..But if you build a bank roll...you can bet all you want Win -Place Ntra needs to get real!!
Randy More than 1 year ago
As one who has qualified twice and cashed twice in the NTRA Championship I'll throw my two cents in and hope 'it' has some merit. I believe the basic contest, championship included, should be all mandatory..perhaps 15 to 25 races over a 2-day period. If an individual is way behind and 'forced' to stab for longshots late in the tournament, well, that's just the way it goes. Said longshots still have to win or place. there will always be a luck factor but the luck becomes minimized if a handicapper does his best work in races where everyone has to play the same contest races.
Mark Burns More than 1 year ago
Contests should be about picking winners. If I pick 9 races a day out of ten and only win around one hundred dollars on two dollar bets and someone picks one winner that pays 110 dollars, who is the better handicapper. These are called handicapping tourneys not money won by luck contests.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I disagree slightly in that overall, finding value will make you a lot more money than just picking winners regardless of price.
Eric Singer More than 1 year ago
I liked this article for two reasons - I think it is important to bet what you excel at. And as I like being able to bet a horse who is 4 or 5-1 who should be 5-2, I don't need to play contests. My goal is to win a little money and enjoy the races. Playing contests is not a fit for me - as it feels like an exciting waste of time while I could instead be practicing what I do well and making money doing it - rather than feeling bad that I didn't pick a 20-1 shot in a bottom level maiden claimer.
John Howland More than 1 year ago
There's one other big difference between everyday play and contest play.Your typical $2wp contest gives that $4 wager back as winnings when a contestant picks a winner.Conversely,when a pick runs out of the money,that person's bankroll does not go -$4.00,or count against him/her.Wouldn't it be nice if none of our losing bets counted against us in everyday play.No one would ever lose at the track.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
It totally depends on the format. Lots of contests, like the Santa Anita lowroller or Fairplex tourneys start with a bankroll that diminishes as the day goes on, mimicking everyday play more exactly.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think for the purposes of a contest - the most fair way to run it is All Optional. You have 10 "bullets" that can be used at any one of 4 tracks for any of their races. And take the win/place with whatever is a fair cap. The winner of that has to be a good handicapper. The winner of a live bankroll can luck their way into winning with a huge score. The winner of a standard 10 race contest sometimes won't handicap at all after the first few races, because you are essentially forced into certain plays. Just my opinion...
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
To me, one of the great things about contests is that we can each choose formats that suit our particular preferences. This topic -- game selection -- is covered in my book and I'll be sure to write about it in this space at some stage as well.
John Howland More than 1 year ago
I agree.The Horse Player World Series uses the all optional format and I believe it's a much,much better contest than The NHC.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Having played in contests for many years and consider myself a relatively astute handicapper I do agree with the gist of your article. What is annoying about contests, especially with selected races, is that when it gets to the last few races many entrants just take a plunge with the odds as the only hope to get in the money, uncaring about the form or actual chances of the horse. I have seen on many occasions where these longest shots hit and topple players from comfortable positions to out of the money and at the same time 10 or so players going from near the bottom to the top. this is a question which needs to be resolved.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Every contest has its downside I think, not sure there is anyway to fix the issue you're describing. Good players just have to know that they'll come out ahead in the long run. it's just like poker where an inferior player can win by catching his one out on the river but that doesn't mean it's a flaw in the game, it's just part of the game. . .
Steve S More than 1 year ago
It is not like Poker, peter. In poker, you have the same chance of drawing that "longshot' card regardless. iN POKER, YOU MAKE YOU BET BASED ON SAY, 10-1 IN DRAWING YOUR CARD, BUT ARE GETTING 20-1 ON YOUR STAKE OF THE POT. Any other way is a losing proposition in the long run.. In horses, it is more a matter of "luck" if you like the 1-2 & 5, but play the 7 "just because" your other picks throughout the day all ran out and you need to catch up. Here is my solution....... $2 w/p for "x" amount of races. If you pick 5% winners, you get a 5% bump in your totals. If you pick 50% winners, you get a 50% bump in your total. THERE GOES ALL THE LEACHES WHO PICK ALL SHOTS AND HOPE FOR THE BEST. NOT TO BE RUDE, BUT i AMA VERY GOOD HANDICAPPER AND AFTER THE CONTESTS, I LOOK AT THE PICKS OF THE WINNERS AND IT IS EASY TO SAY THAT THESE PEOPLE HAVE LITTLE, IF ANY HANDICAPPING ABILITY. SURE, A FEW OF THE LONGSHOTS HAVE MERIT, BUT TO PICK LIKE THAT EVERY DAY WOULD BE A NON-PROFIT WASTE OF TIME.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Sorry you are having trouble with your caps lock key. . .
long_shot_alert More than 1 year ago
I completely agree with you regarding the skill involved. People are not blindly betting longshots - except perhaps in the very last stages of a contest. Nor do the vast majority of longshots defy basic handicapping. It doesn't apply to the BCHC, but I actually think the caps are too low in most handicapping tournaments.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
You should look into certain Vegas formats or the format at DRFPublicHandicapper where there is a higher cap. . .
Bradford Solomon More than 1 year ago
Trainer had good blinkers on #s
Matthew Ellis More than 1 year ago
I am very interested in your upcoming book The winning Contest Player and currently writing my own. Would love to correspond on the process and Purchasing yours.