11/14/2013 1:01PM

Contest strategy: Play to your strengths and play hard

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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.