03/04/2015 11:05AM

Fornatale: How to hit the contest curveball


The winter in the Northeast shows no signs of yielding, but at least we’ve received the only harbinger of spring that matters. Not only have pitchers and catchers reported, but exhibition games have finally begun, meaning that as lousy as the weather is in the Northeast, Opening Day can’t be far away.

Every year in baseball, fans’ expectations are high at this time of year as a new crop of prospects approaches the majors. Most of them don’t make it, but a few do. What’s the difference? In many cases, it’s the ability to hit the curveball at the major-league level.

Last week, I had the pleasure of serving on a panel at the Raise Your Game Handicapping Challenge seminar at Gulfstream Park along with Christina Bossinakis, Matt Bernier, and Jonathon Kinchen. The topic was handicapping contests. Bossinakis asked a great question about how one handles curveballs in a handicapping contest, and I had an epiphany – as it is in baseball, so it is in contests, and by extension, life. The ability to hit the curveball is what separates the best of us from the rest of us.

Put another way, it’s easy to succeed when things are going your way, but what separates the best players is how you react when the spit hits the fan. Bernier, Kinchen, and I all have encountered examples from our own tournament play.

My story happened when I was playing in an online contest for cash while researching “The Winning Contest Player.” I’d had a good day and was in about sixth place going into the last race. Contest players are taught early on to play for the win – the money is usually at the top in tournaments. But this situation was a little different. There was one live mid-priced horse, and I was sure if I picked him, I would be blocked. There were only a couple of other prices long enough to get me to the top spot, but I didn’t like them, and even if I took them, I was still likely to be blocked.

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

This setup was my curveball. I’d worked hard all day, and if I stuck to Plan A, I was getting nothing. There was a really strong favorite in the race, and I was pretty sure that none of the players above me – who were all vying for the win – would take the chalk. I realized that the points from the favorite, while not enough to get me first place, could still net me second place. I took the chalk, the chalk rolled, and I walked away with a four-figure payday. Not a major score but a solid opposite-field single to drive in a run.

Kinchen recounted a recent story about facing one of the most difficult curveballs in contest play – when a bomb drops in the first race of a tournament and you don’t have it. He cited the DRFQualify.com contest from Feb. 21, Risen Star Day. Silverpocketsfull won Gulfstream’s eighth race at 26-1, and Kinchen thought, “There goes my Saturday.”

But Kinchen’s pessimism didn’t last long. “From there, I knew it would be an uphill battle because you have to be right, and you have to be lucky,” he said. “In the past, when a bomb has come in early, I’ve gotten off 7-1 horses I liked because maybe 7-1 wasn’t good enough anymore. When the 7-1 wins, you feel devastated.”

Kinchen drew on his recent success, deciding to stick to his game plan. “My attitude was, ‘It would be great to do well, but it’s not the end of the world if I don’t.’ ” Then the old football coach used a sports example. “When you’re down big in football, there’s nothing you can do to get 14 points on a play. You have to get seven first,” he said. He stuck to his plan, backed a cap horse of his own, and won his $3,500 buy-in to next weekend’s Santa Anita Betting Challenge. Kinchen hit his curveball for a solid double off the wall.

In Bernier’s case, the Aqueduct November tournament provided a perfect example of a player seemingly swinging and missing at a curveball, albeit one he threw at himself. All day on Sunday, the second day of the contest, he’d planned to play a longshot, Chang’s Secret. But as the race approached, he’d gotten enough points elsewhere that he decided he didn’t need such a long price, and he went for a shorter price.

When Chang’s Secret won at 27-1, many a contest player’s goose would have been cooked. Bernier came back swinging. In his last two plays, he hit 15-1 shot Save the Park and used his double bet on Colin’s Nightingale to win the $40,000 first prize. In the end, he hit that curveball for a long home run, Big Papi style.