09/22/2015 8:21AM

Fornatale: Be a goal-oriented player

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Having a specific goal at the beginning of a handicapping contest is more important than a lot of players realize. Late in a contest your brain is dealing with enough variables – why not be clear going in on what exactly you are trying to achieve? Having a specific goal can clarify the score you’re shooting for and which horses you might need to get there.

Very often in online contests, the goal is provided for you. You simply need to finish in one of the qualifying spots and there’s no real difference between first and third or, say, first and 20th if it’s a BCQualify where the top 10 percent advance. In these instances, it’s up to you simply to plot a course to that goal. I’ve written before about how about how your play might change when you only have to reach the top 10 percent instead of the top 2 percent.

The National Handicapping Championship Tour can change this equation a bit. Players chasing the Tour will need outright wins in online contests, and therefore will have to play more aggressively. Players seemingly out of it early in online contests can continue to grind away, having the secondary goal of grabbing a top 10 percent finish and the Tour points that go along with it.

Onsite contests are a different animal. In a lot of instances, the prize pool isn’t set until the contest has already started. This is because late entrants may still bump up the amount of money in the prize pool. This can make having a specific goal a little tricky beforehand. As soon as the prize pool is official, the contest director should share the information with all the entrants and you can finalize your goal.

In a contest like the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, there is typically an outsized award for finishing first, and some aggressive players will adopt an “all or bust” mentality, and are happy to go all-in on the last race. That’s what Bob Traynor did at last year’s BCBC. Other players, perhaps a little more conservative by nature, will see that fourth place is still going to pay $100,000 and maybe shoot for a top-four goal.

Jose Raphael’s goal at last year’s BCBC wasn’t to finish atop the standings; he simply wanted to finish in the top 15 to secure a spot for the National Handicapping Championship. He played aggressively enough to get into position and then got conservative. His initial $7,500 bankroll became $29,769, and he got his seat and an extra $14,000 in prize money.

NHC Tour points can come into play in onsite tournaments as well, particularly in the last onsite tournament of the year, held at Del Mar’s Surfside. In 2009, Trey Stiles entered the last weekend on the cusp of qualifying via Tour points (in 2015, the top 150 players on the Tour get automatic entry into the NHC). He flew out to San Diego on a $29 Southwest flight with one goal in mind: not to win, but to simply finish in the top 10 percent and get the necessary points to send him to Las Vegas.

“It was an advantage to not be playing for the win,” Stiles said. “I was able to lay up some low-priced horses to get the job done.”

Eric Bialek flew to San Diego from Chicago last year on the day after Christmas to do exactly the same thing.

Back in June at Santa Anita, former NHC Tour champ Mark Streiff clawed his way back into contention from a very short stack. The difference between first and second in the contest was $10,000 - not insignificant, but not enough to make him play aggressively for the goal of winning outright. His “win” was to get a BCBC seat, which went to the top two, so he was happy to play for second.

Last weekend’s Gulfstream contest, won by Jonathon Kinchen, provides another example. The first through third finishers all received NHC spots and BCBC spots, and the difference between the three spots was only around $5,000 cash. Kinchen, who has wrapped up the NHC Tour title, was just trying to finish third and earn himself a BCBC seat. He found himself in third - well clear of fourth - late in the contest, and took a successful swing at the win.

Kinchen's move showed that there’s no reason to become a prisoner to your initial goal. If you’re in a position, as Kinchen was, where you have a good shot of holding a top-three slot going to the last race and you’re $200 clear of the player in third, you might as well take a swing to get yourself into first. I don’t see this as deviating from the plan; I see it as a smart minor adjustment on the fly. Had Kinchen aggressively made a large enough wager to bet himself out of the top three at that point, that would have been a mistake in my mind – even if the bet had won – because that would have flown in the face of achieving his stated goal.