12/10/2014 11:08AM

Fornatale: In defense of odds caps in contests


There is an important reason that odds caps exist in contests, and Sunday’s BCQualify.com event provides an excellent illustration. As I’ve written about this week, C.J. Johnsen cashed in all 12 races in the contest and won a trip to the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge at Keeneland next year. But here’s the thing: If there were no odds cap, he wouldn’t have qualified.

In the sixth contest event, the winner was My Storm Trooper, who paid $57.40 on the tote, but that was limited to $42 on the win end for contest purposes (the cap is 20-1 on BCQualify.com). Without the cap, both Jim Sebes, who did qualify for the BCBC anyway, and Robert Crowe, who was third, would have leapfrogged Johnsen and left him on the outside looking in, despite his strong performance.

“That would have been very frustrating if I hadn’t made it because of that one longshot,” Johnsen said. “To have nine winners and three seconds and not win just wouldn’t have been right.”

I agree. At least My Storm Trooper’s race was in the first half of the contest, so the people who played the horse probably genuinely liked him. Later in a contest, the need for the odds cap becomes even greater.

“Had it happened later in the contest, it would have been doubly frustrating because at that point, people are picking big prices not because they like the horse, but just because of the price on the board and how much money they need to get up the leaderboard,” Johnsen said.

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Dave Gutfreund of the Derby Wars contest site calls caps “a necessary evil” and refers to one contest in particular to show why they are important.

“It was in the mid-’90s in the Hutcheson at Gulfstream,” he said. “Frisk Me Now won and paid like $200. This was at the end of the tournament, and all 20 people who ended up cashing in the tournament had that winner. If you weren’t just stabbing at that winner, you didn’t have a chance. The rest of the tournament didn’t matter.”

We all accept that one longshot can be the difference in a contest. But that’s the exact situation caps are designed to avoid – one single horse being worth so much that the rest of the contest doesn’t matter. Lady Luck is always going to have an invitation to the party in any handicapping contest, but you don’t have to let her sit at the head of the table.

The idea behind the cap is to reward consistency, ensure a fair contest, and limit the role of luck. Part of the theory behind the cap is that while it certainly takes skill to pick a 35-1 shot, it doesn’t take appreciably more skill than it does to hit a 15-1, and yet the rewards are outsized for hitting the longer shot.

In a long contest, like the six-month DRF Public Handicapper Challenge, one could make the argument that you don’t need a cap because there is so much more time for the luck to even out. But even there, founder Scott Carson said a cap is the right way to go.

“We have a 30-1 odds cap on DRF Public Handicapper, which is pretty generous,” he said. “I do think you need an odds cap of some kind because a 100-1 horse can really skew the results. But you can hit a nice 30-1 and still be catchable. But at the same time, it pays so well that it is a huge advantage to have.”

Noel Michaels wrote in his “Handicapping Contest Handbook” that cap horses are the Holy Grail, and I can’t improve on that metaphor. Yes, you can win a contest without hitting a capper – just ask C.J. Johnsen – but it’s always going to be a lot easier if you do.

Phillip Cleek More than 1 year ago
I've been on both ends of the stick. But the fact is, the rules are laid out before the contests begin, so everyone knows how to handle the strategy. It looks like C.J. did a pretty nice job of handicapping, considering he cashed in all of the events. One could argue that if the amounts of wagers, number of races, mandatory or no mandatory, etc. were different than you might have different winners. But aren't horse races like that too? If the tournament had been a no-cap, then I would have had to disagree with C.J. on his "fairness" statement, though. All's fair in love, war, and horse racing!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great points here. To be fair, I don't think CJ meant "unfair" exactly, even though that's the word he used, from his tone I think it more meant, "man that would have been lousy" . . .
leonardf More than 1 year ago
i tend to agree with Danny in some regards .Players who argue that its all about consistency and not hitting a home run time to time . Are players who dont care for survival tourneys . Which make absolutely no sense . I guess its all about opinion and whos calling the shots in the tourneys for the formats that exist .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Yes, for me, the odds cap allows for the right amount of consistency. I personally would have no interest playing in a contest where the goal is just to pick chalky winners. . .but I know that a lot of folks out there do like that format.
Danny More than 1 year ago
i understand your reasoning and the example was good . But lets face it not everyone is a full time handicapper with unlimited funds . Some like to take a shot and have a prayer . These same players increase the overall picture and prize fund for the better player . I weekend player needs a shot to have a dream of winning . Lets face it if someone is playing a 5/1 shot and someone is playing a 50/1 with all things equal the 50/1 shot play isnt going to bite that 5/1 player that many times over the course of the year. My point is if your playing a 50/1 shot and thats what the public believes hes worth and the track pays at that price why wouldnt you see it the same way ? oh and guess what? The better players when their having a not so good day still have the ability to play that 50/1 at any given time. Just my opinion .
More than 1 year ago
I just don't think that's enough of a case for the positives of allowing the full price to outweigh the negatives. I don't think picking a 50-1 is that much harder -- in % terms -- than picking a 50/1 and in a short contest the reward is outsized.
C.J. More than 1 year ago
It is one things if you pick a cap horse early on in the tourney when everyone has similar amounts. But when it is late in a tourney and people are picking horses based on their odds that can get them in the lead isn't right. Most of the time these people don't legitimately think the horse has a chance but play him because his odds will pay enough to put them in contention.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Yes, that is definitely a quirk of the format. However, the odds cap means that players at least must be within striking range later on, which makes it a whole lot more fair than if there were no cap.