11/12/2014 11:55AM

Fornatale: Choosing a contest format comes down to personal taste, strengths

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Two contest results over the past couple of weekends deserve a deeper look. During the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, when Take Charge Brandi came in at 61-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, a sharp proponent of the live-bankroll format proudly pointed out that the result might well have skewed the results of a typical mythical-money, fixed-bankroll contest usually used online, but because the BCBC was a real-money, live-bankroll event, it did not disproportionately alter the results.

This comment makes sense – but it also begs further examination. In a major mythical online contest taking place at the same time as the BCBC that had 133 participants, only two players had Take Charge Brandi – hardly a crazy number. Of course, if the Juvenile Fillies had occurred later in the sequence, when many players needed to bomb away to have a chance, a lot more players would have had her for no other reason than her price on the board. Still, that’s why the odds cap exists in mythical-money formats, to keep the results from skewing too much on individual results, especially late in contests.

This brings us to last Saturday’s contest on NHCQualify.com. A bomb came in in the final leg, Itz a Saint. All five players who qualified for the NHC out of the event backed Itz a Saint. Out of the 325 players who participated in the contest, at least 50 of them had the 22-1 horse. On one hand, this would seem to prove the critic’s point: Doesn’t it seem wrong that you needed to have this one bomb to qualify? At the least, the effect of a bomb late in the game is a quirk of the format that must be acknowledged.

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But there’s another way of looking at it. It’s notable that those five people who qualified all had at least $76 in collections before that race. In other words, they had handicapped very well before that race – certainly better than the rest of the 50-plus people – to put themselves in a position to be helped by hitting that horse, no matter the reason why they played it.

Playing mythical-money contests is not an exact replica of betting real money on your own, nor was it meant to be. There is no money management aspect. There is a handicapping element, there is a strategy element, and there is luck. In any one given contest, luck is the biggest factor, maybe 50 percent, but in the long run, between handicapping and strategy, it feels right to say thatstrategy could be worth up to 40 percent and handicapping itself worth as little as 10 percent.

One could argue about the specifics of that split, but only the most naïve player would argue that strategy does not play a massive role. If someone wants to play in a contest format that puts a greater emphasis on handicapping and/or money management, he or she has other options: live-bankroll events and contests like DRF’s all-in format where all picks must be put in before the first race. These are both radically different formats that lessen the impact of the type of contest strategy one needs to succeed in mythical online games.

Live-bankroll events and all-in tournaments have their own pluses and minuses, and they require different skills. Live-bankroll players must excel at both handicapping and money management; all-in players must be able to out-pick their opposition in the purest sense. But these other formats have their downsides as well – live-bankroll players could pick a bunch of winners but manage their money so poorly they still lose; all-in players don’t have the benefit of seeing the odds for the horses they pick – for some, including this writer, this creates a fundamental disconnect with what horseplaying is supposed to be about.

Still, it’s a great thing that there are many styles of contest so players can find formats where they are most comfortable. Regardless of what your personal preference is, you have to feel bad for Brett Wiener. Wiener, currently second on the NHC Tour, was leading Saturday’s contest going into the finale. Virtually any other result besides Itz a Saint and he’s your new NHC Tour leader and might have taken some doing to reel in. But he was blown off the board in the end, and Bill Shurman retains his spot – for now anyway.