08/20/2014 11:40AM

Fornatale: Five keys for new contest players

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Jamaal Barnett, whom we profiled this week, had five pieces of excellent advice for new contest players about how to approach their first live events.

1. Know the rules

There is so much variation from contest to contest that you need to spend some time looking at the ins and outs of the rules. Obviously, you need to know the basic stuff: Which races are part of the contest? Are they mandatory or optional? What types of wagers are accepted?

But there are also more arcane rules that you need to be aware of. For example, what happens if there is a late scratch in the last race? In some instances, you might get the favorite. But in a contest like the Saratoga low-roller, if you have your fifth bet left for the last race and it scratches at the post, unless you put in a replacement pick in time, you will be disqualified – even if your other four bets would have been enough to win the contest!

Barnett takes knowing the rules a step further. “Sometimes I’ll just read the different tournament rules just to get a feel for all the different contests out there,” he said.

2. Be aggressive

Too many players are worried about being embarrassed in their first live event – they don’t want to see their name on the board next to a zero. But the truth is that a lot of the best players will take zero – because if you end up with zero, odds are you were playing the right way. It’s a lot better to bottom out than it is to middle along, consistently playing too many short prices and not even giving yourself a chance to reach the top of the leaderboard. As Barnett pointed out, “It’s not just about picking winners, it’s about putting up a certain amount of points. Think outside the box, and don’t settle for short prices.”

3. Don’t be intimidated

Many of the players who go to a live contest are there for the camaraderie. This is, by and large, a good group of men and women who share common interests.

Barnett talked about how he transitioned from being the new guy to one of the regulars. “Once you hold a conversation with the other players, they realize that you’re part of the family,” he said. “At the same time, you don’t want to talk too much. You can’t go jibber-jabbing the whole time. But if you show people you know your horses and you’re good company, 99 percent of the people at these tournaments are great.”

4. Situate for success

Barnett believes that you can only play your best if you’re comfortable – and this makes a lot of sense. For some players, that might mean listening to music on your headphones between races or playing with a partner. For Barnett, the answer is even simpler than that.

“Getting a good seat is actually very important when it comes to contests,” he said. “Get there early so you feel more comfortable. At Saratoga, I wanted to walk in at 11 a.m., right when the gates opened. Especially now with laptops and limited power outlets at some of the contests, you’ve got to get a good spot.”

5. Have fun

Barnett’s final key for a new player in a live event was the simplest of all: Don’t take it so seriously, and make sure to enjoy yourself. It’s horse racing – bad beats are going to happen; don’t let them throw you off. Just play your game and be open to meeting the people around you. Barnett said, “I’ve made so many great friends at tournaments.”