10/28/2015 11:49AM

Fornatale: BCBC field projected to be largest ever

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The Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge is the most important live-bankroll horse-racing contest in the world. A purse of more than $800,000 is expected, and 15 seats to the National Handicapping Championship – the richest handicapping contest in the world – are on the line. On Friday, the seventh edition of the BCBC begins at Keeneland. The contest takes place on the third floor of the Keeneland grandstand in a room overlooking the paddock. Players and their guests also will have seats on the third floor.

The buy-in costs $10,000, $2,500 of which feeds the prize pool, with the other $7,500 acting as a live bankroll. Contestants must make a minimum of five $600 bets Friday on Keeneland’s card. On Saturday, a minimum of five $900 wagers must be made on races up to and including the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Permitted wagers are win, place, show, exacta, and trifecta. Players can bet up to their entire bankrolls at any time, and any money left over at the contest’s end remains the property of the player.

“We think it’s a great opportunity for players,” said tournament director Tim Schram. “They can come see the best horses and the best two days of racing there is and have a chance to win a lot of money. And even if they don’t hit the board in the BCBC, they can still leave with more money than they showed up with.”

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Contests in general have soared in popularity, and the BCBC provides a prime example as to why: It’s a rare opportunity in horse racing where more money is paid out of the prize pool than is bet in, creating a positive-expectation situation for players. This year’s contest field projects to be 10 percent larger than last year’s, which was the biggest in BCBC history.

“The growth is good, exactly as we planned,” said Schram. “Players get the opportunity to come to the track, get their tickets, and get treated well. And for the people who can’t or don’t want to come to Keeneland, we’re taking the BCBC to them.”

Schram is referring to the satellite-site program established last year. This year, in addition to Keeneland, players can play at Belmont, Del Mar, Gulfstream Park, or Santa Anita. “Every returning satellite site has attracted more people than last year,” Schram said, “and we’re expecting the satellite program to continue to be an engine of growth for the BCBC.”

That growth helps the industry as a whole. In 2014, within the contest itself, the 252 players at Santa Anita wagered $3.425 million in the BCBC. That is an average of almost $13,600 per player for the weekend. A total of $20.1 million was wagered ontrack during the weekend of the 2014 Breeders’ Cup. That means that 17 percent of all ontrack handle was wagered through the BCBC – a fairly staggering number, especially since many participants bet considerable sums outside of the contest as well. Look at those numbers, and it’s easy to see why live-bankroll contests are growing in popularity.

There are many ways to approach strategy in the BCBC. The most common path to victory has involved a player going all in on the last race of the tournament, the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Patrick McGoey followed this route to victory twice, and Bob Traynor emulated McGoey last year by wagering his entire bankroll on Bayern in the Classic.

But with $875,000 in cash, plus the 15 NHC seats on offer, there is a major chance to have a great day even if you’re not willing to bet your whole bank. Jose Raphael proved this last year when he ran his bankroll up into NHC qualifying position and played it safe from there. At the NHC, he narrowly missed the final 50 cutoff – and his chance to win his share of $2.5 million – but his BCBC strategy still put him in a great position to win.
Another notable aspect this year is that West Point Thoroughbreds, whose Twilight Eclipse will run in the Turf on Saturday, is sweetening the pot. The overall winner will receive a $25,000 interest in a West Point horse, and the second-place finisher will get a $10,000 interest.

Schram is interested to see how the change in venue affects the contest. “With so many Breeders’ Cups run on the West Coast over the last few years, the California players have had a little advantage,” he said. “I’m interested to see how the Keeneland players will do this time around.”

Most players have a good handle on the Breeders’ Cup races themselves, but Schram sees the undercard as a potential difference maker. “They’re a big advantage for the locals,” he said. “The more you know the circuit, the more comfortable you are firing away. It’s a big handicapping angle, horses for courses.”

Many players qualified for small money on BCQualify.com, but those online opportunities for 2015 have passed. It’s not too late, however, to sign up for the BCBC. Simply go to www.breederscup.com/bcbc to register and make a deposit.

For full coverage of the BCBC, follow @loomsboldly on Twitter and stay tuned to live.drf.com.