12/10/2014 11:08AM

Fornatale: In defense of odds caps in contests

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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.