02/10/2014 4:04PM

An end-game strategy for tournament players

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Every contest player hopes to be in this spot: It’s the last race and you’re in the top 10. What horse should you play? The answer is going to depend on a number of factors.

I’m going to start with the supposition that you’re best off trying to win the contest outright rather than just to shoot for the high money. The reason is that in contest play the money is most often disproportionately tilted to the first spot. Yes, there are instances where it might make sense to shoot for second, as Tony Brice did at this year’s NHC. I also detail another example of this in The Winning Contest Player (page 191). But those are the exceptions. The money is at the top so that’s where you should be shooting.

The first question you need to ask yourself is: What price will it take to overtake the leader? This is where “the rule of three” comes into play.

Determine the difference between your score and the leader’s score and simply divide that by three. This will give you a very broad idea of what price, based on a $2 win/place bet, you will realistically need. For example, the leader has $110. You have $92. That’s an $18 difference, and 18 divided by three equals six, so therefore you will likely need odds of 6-1 or longer to have the best chance of winning. In reality, a 5-1 could possibly get you there, but with the possibility of a late odds drop (see this year’s NHC) it’s good to build a little fat into your number.

Some players have taken these calculations to much greater lengths, building spreadsheets that include the variable of field size to come up with a far more accurate guesstimate. However, it’s still a guesstimate, and for me, the rule of three has worked out pretty well.

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You can zero in on where the final odds will go by looking at the horizontal exotic will-pays for the race. Sometimes you can see that a certain horse is favored in the double and know he is not going to be the 5-1 he is on the board now. If the rule of three says you need 6-1, skip him. On the other hand, if that filly is only 9-2 now but she’s the fifth choice in the double, maybe she will be the 6-1 that you need in the end. If you like her, you can play her.

The other major factor in deciding who to play in the last race has to do with the fear of being blocked. Sometimes the contest is over for a chaser when the gates open and the picks are made public because the leader has the same pick. It’s extremely frustrating for the chaser – and extremely gratifying for the leader – when this situation occurs.

Avoiding being blocked isn’t easy. Obviously the farther down the ladder you are, the more players are in front of you and the greater the possibility you might be blocked. My suggestion is to use simple game theory. Look at the players in front of you. Try to figure out who you would play if you were in their shoes, keeping in mind that not everyone will be going for the win. Avoid the horses who are likely to be played by others.

This will lead you, generally speaking, to reach up a bit higher in odds range than the rule of three suggests. And, of course, it doesn’t guarantee you anything. I saw a contest online yesterday where the leader picked the fourth choice in the last race, even though he was vulnerable to the first three favorites in the race. You could have used all the game theory that John Nash knew and still ended up drawing stone-cold dead. Clearly the leader just liked his pick best.

This brings me to a really important point. At the end of the contest, there are no absolutes. If you happen to really like a horse in the last race, that’s who you should play, assuming there is some realistic chance the beast can get you to your goal, whether that goal is an outright win or a high money finish. It’s a terrible feeling to outsmart yourself off your top pick, see that pick win, and know you would have won if you had just stuck to your guns.

Sometimes I’ll deliberately try to not become wedded to a particular horse in the last race. I’d rather stay flexible. My thought is that over the long run I’m better off prioritizing my chance of drawing live over my affinity for my theoretical top selection, which could maybe or maybe not get me to the top of the leaderboard.