01/14/2015 9:37AM

Fornatale: The case against awarding points for show

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One frequently asked question from new tournament players is, “Why are show prices excluded from typical contest formats?” It’s a good question. After all, there’s something to be said for rewarding longshot players whose horses run third – and as we all know, longshots run second and third a lot more often than they win.

I started researching the issue fully expecting an answer something along the lines of “because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” The first person I spoke with was NTRA vice president Keith Chamblin, and he didn’t fully dismiss the notion.

“In the early days of the [National Handicapping Championship], tracks were looking for guidance, and we suggested a win-place format due to the fact that other tournaments in Nevada and elsewhere were using it and using it successfully,” the NHC contest director said. “The contest software and hardware were in place and working – no easy feat – and it made sense to use a format for the final that we had been suggesting to the early adopters who were holding qualifying tournaments at their tracks for the first time and throughout the year. Over the years, there have been tweaks, and none more noticeable than this past January, but the win-place component has remained unchanged.”

I was curious about the reasoning behind the initial decision to use win-place as opposed to win only or win-place-show. I approached two of the smartest tournament players out there, Bill and Paul Shurman, to get their opinions.

Bill Shurman elucidated why win-only contests can be very difficult for players. “I think there was/is a desire not to just be win only,” he said. “No one feels good about handicapping well but getting nothing for it when your horse doesn’t win but comes close. The gap/payoff between win and place is large and meaningful, although place prices are often big enough that you can piece together a winning total with the assistance of some placings.”

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Bill Shurman doesn’t see the same issue in the difference between place and show prices.  “The gap gets a little less so between place and show,” he said. “I think where using place feels like a good balance, using show feels less important or unnecessary.”

Paul Shurman came to a similar conclusion from a different angle.

“The reason why show isn’t used is the same as why the cap for place is lower than the cap for win,” the 2012 NHC Tour champ said. “If the cap for win and place was the same, then a person would be doubly rewarded ($84 as opposed to $64) for hitting what could have been just a stab in the dark.”

Avoiding over-rewarding players for one winner comes into play in the decision to use win-place over win-place-show. “In a win-place-show contest, you could be rewarding someone triple for hitting with a stab,” Paul Shurman said. “Even if you make the place and show odds cap the same, as is the case in the [New York Racing Association] contests, you are giving someone a triple reward for hitting with that same horse.”

Still, it would be nice to find some way to reward players whose longshots fire and hit the board. “Of course, you would love to be rewarded with something when your 35-1 shot comes in third,” Paul Shurman said. “The problem becomes, what if it comes in first?  I'm sure in theory something could be devised to make it more reasonable. Maybe making the cap for third less than for first or second or lowering the show cap if your horse wins as opposed to coming in first or second, but then it gets too complicated and unwieldy.”

I was impressed. I came away from talking with Chamblin and the Shurmans convinced that the win-place scoring system really is the optimal one for mythical-money contests. How much would the inclusion of show payouts really matter anyway? Bill Shurman summed this up succinctly.

“My guess is that if you ask people whether they would have done better over time had win-place contests been win-place-show contests, almost every person would say yes,” he said. “I also think nearly every one of them would be wrong.”