09/24/2014 3:03PM

Fornatale: Horses over the cap still worth a look


In a recent contest at NHCQualify.com, Carl McIntosh put himself in a position to win early on by picking a horse named Raglin River in the second tournament race. Raglin River was 55-1 on the board. But since the contest caps win prices at 20-1, Raglin River paid “only” $42 on the win end for the contest.

Many contest players avoid playing over-the-cap horses for this reason, a view summed up by 2010 National Handicapping Championship winner Brian Troop in “The Winning Contest Player.”

“There’s not really much sense in playing a horse over 20-1 unless you really like it, because there’s a cap on it,” Troop said. “If you get a $100 horse, you’d better like it quite a bit because you’re only going to get $42 for it in tournament play.”

But there’s another way of looking at it. McIntosh was among only four players out of 237 who had the horse. Raglin River gave McIntosh such a leg up over his competition that he was among the favorites to qualify from then on – even though the contest had barely begun. This speaks to the power of playing way over the cap.

Many contest players agree with Troop’s view and are reluctant to play horses whose prices are way over the cap. And their point is hard to deny. Isn’t such a runner a guaranteed underlay, the exact thing we’re supposed to avoid when playing horses?

So, why does this sound logic go out the window in contest play? Because in contests, the very nature of what value is changes. There’s a horse’s price in the real world, and then there’s a horse’s price within the contest.

In tournaments, the goal isn’t only to accrue points. The goal is to move to the top of the leaderboard.

Obviously, you can do this by outpicking everybody over the course of the contest, stacking several winners. That certainly will work. But there’s another way, some might argue an easier way: You can have winners whom no one else – or at least very few people – will have. This is the real power of the over-the-cap horse. That same horse who is 50-1 on the board and only gets you $42 for the contest might reward you as if he’s 100-1 in the contest if you’re the only one who has him.

Kevin Cox, aka “the Brooklyn Cowboy,” is one of the contest world’s biggest believers in the power of playing over the cap. In “The Winning Contest Player,” he said playing over the cap “is only a problem if you’re looking to grind out a profit over the course of a year. In a contest, what happens is certain people will ignore those horses because they are higher than the cap. But because of that, you’re actually getting more value in the contest itself. So, proportionally, you’re actually doing better if you include those horses.”

Of course, one over-the-cap horse still might not be enough, especially in a full contest field. The other three players who had Raglin River in that recent contest all failed to qualify for the NHC.

Another point to consider: Over-the-cap horses early in a contest are worth more than over-the-cap horses late. This is because later on, even the over-the-cappers are likely to be covered by several players from the back of the pack who are trying to catch up.

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

There are other times when the conventional wisdom makes more sense. Let’s say you’re one of four players in front of the pack late in a contest. From there, you need to worry more about those other three than the pack as a whole. Of course, if you really like an over-the-cap horse, you’re free to play it at any time.

Any way you look at it, the main point should be clear: An over-the-capper might “only” pay $42, but his value far transcends that if he enables you to move up the leaderboard alone.