06/16/2015 12:08PM

Fornatale: Contests drawing longtime cash players

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There are some remarkable similarities between last weekend's biggest winners in the DRF family of contests, David Bajorek, Zachery McLeod, and Joseph Johnson. A closer look at the three, all longtime racing fans in their late 50s, reveals something interesting about the growth of contest play. It's not just new players who are leading to the explosion in interest; it's also older fans who've found a new way to reinvigorate their passion for the game.

Bajorek, 59, has been a fan since going to the Detroit-area tracks as a kid. He'd never played in a contest before last year, when he saw an ad for NHCQualify.com on the DRF website. The lure of a life-changing score at the National Handicapping Championship drew him in.

"I had seen references to contest play and never gave it any thought," he said. "Hearing about the NHC pulled me in. I didn't even know there was such a thing, but I saw what it was and what it was about and thought it would be fun to be involved in something like competing against the best handicappers around. In the first one I played, I qualified."

Bajorek's inexperience came into play at the NHC. After a strong first day, he targeted Aqueduct for his plays. "I spent 5 1/2 hours looking at the card, got down to the ballroom, and saw they canceled because of the weather," Bajorek said.

He made a little run but ultimately fell short. All in all, it was a great experience that left Bajorek vowing to get back. "I loved being out in Vegas just talking to the players, and all of them were willing to share ideas and thoughts," he said.

This year, Bajorek's experience is starting to show. Just a couple of weeks ago, he qualified in both the BCQualify.com contest (where eight of 67 players won in) and the DRFQualify.com contest (where two of 93 won in). He adopted different strategies for each. "I knew from playing online that different tournaments have different numbers of players, and it affects the strategy," he said. "The players on BCQ didn't have to go for big swings, and I adjusted my play accordingly."

Bajorek, like many tournament players, credits contests with improving his cash play as well. "Contest play opened me up to pay more attention to longer shots that maybe before I would have dismissed out of hand," he said. "It's a different type of handicapping – much more challenging."

Johnson stumbled upon contests three years ago at the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge. "After buying my way in and making some money that first year, some of the BCBC players I met turned me on to the contest route for qualifying," he said.

Starting this year, he's been playing in NHC and BCBC qualifiers almost every weekend. "I did not really get into the contests until my son urged me to do so," Johnson said. "He had just graduated from Columbia University and had taken a job at the Metropolitan Opera, where he met some dedicated online contest players. These guys made it sound like great fun, and I got hooked. My son and one of his classmates have become huge racing fans to the point that he is now in law school with plans to go into equine law."

Johnson's recipe for contest success is smart and straightforward. "I fight the temptation to overthink my picks and like to avoid late changes in live formats unless I really need to make them," he said. "Sticking with my best longer shots after careful initial consideration and not reaching too hard for desperation longshot winners too early seems to serve me well."

Last weekend, Johnson won seats to both the BCBC and NHC in one fell swoop, a feat matched by McLeod. McLeod's been playing horses since the early 1980s but only turned to contest play after seeing the TV show “Horseplayers.” The unique format – with the ability to win both NHC and BCBC seats – drew him in last weekend. "I don't have the money to play week in and week out," he said. "I was waiting to see something like this."

McLeod tried a few contests last year, and despite a good finish in the all-rookie contest, he didn't meet with immediate success. "I played in the free contests but got blown out of the water, especially in the turf races," he said.

He resolved to study and improve. "I read a bunch of books, including ‘The Winning Contest Player,’ and I got better," he said. "I finally figured out that grass racing is more about class and closing than early speed."

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “The Winning Contest Player” by Peter Thomas Fornatale

He still falls victim to errors of inexperience. "I didn't make a pick in one of the races," he said. "That was a rookie mistake. I had entered a pick, but I forgot to click submit, and the races were so close together. I would have had the winner. I threw my Racing Form down on the ground to get my aggression out, and then I was OK."

Overall, McLeod is evolving as a player. "I think I've learned what to do at the end of contests," he said. "Instead of sticking with my picks, now I figure out what it's going to take to get there."

This came in handy for his incredible run to the top Sunday. Like Bajorek, McLeod also thinks contests have improved his overall play, particularly when it comes to the pick six. "In the pick six, you're narrowing down to your top contenders, and contest handicapping helps you learn to make better choices," he said.