08/26/2014 2:26PM

Fornatale: Advice for playing NYRA low-roller contest

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This week’s question came in via Twitter, where you can follow me via @loomsboldly, from @Thorobros.

Dear Pete:

I’m playing in the NYRA low-roller contest for the first time. Any advice?

@Thorobros

Dear @Thorobros:

Great question! I have played in the low-roller contest the last five Mondays and have yet to finish in the money, but I have made some observations I am happy to share. As a reminder to readers: There’s a $40 buy-in, $10 of which goes to a 100 percent payback prize pool, and the other $30 must be played as five $2 win-place-show bets. The five highest scores pay out. Players keep any monies won.

These contests are an amazing training ground for players. I first met 2014 National Handicapping Championship winner Jose Arias playing in the Santa Anita low-roller contest. There’s no doubt that the experience he gained playing live at Santa Anita helped Arias when he later qualified for the NHC and eventually sat down at the final table at Treasure Island.

Let’s start with the obvious: This contest is really hard to win. Participation numbers have been way above expectations, with more than 250 players the last two Mondays. This amount of competition makes it likely that any longshot will be covered. Consider Monday’s second race. Station Chief was 12-1 at the off, but by reckoning, he could have been twice that. Now remember that players only play five of the 10 races. You would think that the second-longest shot in a short field in the second race would be hit by maybe a couple of people. Somehow, 14 contestants had Station Chief.

Practically speaking, this degree of difficulty means that you’re not going to win just by middling along. You’re going to have to go for the gusto. That means you’re either going to have to try to shoot the moon and have four or five winners at short or mid-range prices – which is exceedingly difficult to do – or you’re going to have to have the biggest price in the sequence and pad that out with a few more points somewhere else. This latter path is the one I’d recommend.

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Normally in contests, I try to play to a score. But with only five races here, the variance in that predicted number is going to be higher than Arlo Guthrie at Woodstock. You might think that in a win-place-show format with a $30 bankroll, the winning score could be as low as $75, and it might be, but it could also easily end up double that. So, in this contest, I worry less about a specific score and more about trying to read this specific run of races.

As always in contest play, preparation is the key. You should carefully go through the card and try to identify the races where a price is likely to come in, as well as those that look chalky. Mark the chalky races for passing, and spend extra time on the races where you think the bomb could come in.

Ideally, you’ll have a strong opinion on longshots in a couple of races. But you could also have a race where you just don’t like favorites and have identified two, three, or even four possible longshots for potential play. When the race comes up, use the tote board (the longer the price, the better) and any real-time information (biases, paddock info, etc.) to help you zero in on a final decision.

You can also feel free to mix and match between these two ideas: pick an anchor horse or two who you think are likely winners on the lower price scale to get some points with two of your bullets, and use the other three bullets to try to catch the bomb.

One strategy that occurred to me yesterday after the Station Chief result involves playing multiple entries. You are allowed two entries in the contest. Allow me to introduce a paradox of contest play. It is a general truism in contest play that a bomb early is worth more than a bomb late. It’s also true that the best players often hold onto their bullets to fire late. This makes sense because later in the contest, you have a much better idea of what score you’ll need to make your goal. But it also means that a price that comes in late is more likely to be had by more players.

So, how do these ideas apply to the low-roller contest? One thought might be to play one card where you focus on finding a price in the early races. If you hit one, great, you’re ahead of the game, and you can play that card normally. If you wipe out on Card 1, you still have until race 6 to purchase your second entry. So, come race 6, you spend another $40 and buy in again. If the results have been chalky to that point, you now have a better-than-average chance to win on your second card.

Despite the degree of difficulty, this is still a contest everyone should consider playing. In addition to the 100 percent payback in the prize pool, the bets you make are real, and you can cash out at any time. Let’s just say in theory that a 99-1 shot wins the first race, which you decided to pass. You can go ahead and take your $30 and bet it outside the contest and only be out 10 bucks. That is a small price to pay for this level of experience and fun.

Hope this helps,

Pete