03/25/2015 8:53AM

Fornatale: Hugging the machine

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Contest players have an amazing array of skills: Strong handicapping chops and the ability to strategize and make good decisions on the fly are all important in contests. But there’s an overlooked aspect to contest play that can make the difference between winning and losing: You’ve got to hug the machine.

The machine in question is whatever betting machine you’re using to punch in your bets. And this really only comes up in the last race of contests, the idea being that you need to have the ability to alter your bet even as the horses are entering the gate, based on the real-time tote information. You’ve got to be so close to the betting machine that you’re hovering over it, practically giving the hardware an embrace.

Hugging the machine exists in two separate forms.

In a mythical-money contest, like the old New York Racing Association contests, you hug the machine to see if the horse you want to play will be long-enough odds to get you to your goal. I think Paul Shurman was the first guy I ever heard use the phrase “hug the machine.” When he was helping me with “The Winning Contest Player,” he told me, “In the seventh race at Arlington, there was a late scratch, and that caused a delay, meaning it would be the last race in the contest. So, I was hugging the machine, just waiting to see what happened in the second-to-last race at Del Mar before I made my Arlington play.”

The concept also exists in live-bankroll events, only in those, the essential question isn’t “Can I bet this horse?” but “How much do I have to bet on this horse or exotic combination that I like?” While you’re hugging the machine, you might also have to have one eye on the betting-probables screen. The money coming in from the contest itself also can affect the odds. For example, at Santa Anita last week, the winning exacta combination for $1 in that last race went from $26 to $16 with zero minutes to post, in part because of money from the contest.

In that same Santa Anita contest, I saw a prime example of the failure to hug a machine costing a player. Frank Scatoni, my co-author on “Six Secrets of Successful Bettors” and a contributor to the Santa Anita website’s handicapping page, was playing in his first live-bankroll tournament. Going into the last race with a bankroll of $2,900, his main goal was to get a National Handicapping Championship seat. He figured he’d need between $6,000 and $7,000 to run at least eighth and achieve his goal. But first, he needed to finalize his selection.

“I do extensive trip notes in Formulator,” said Scatoni, “and I really liked the note I had on Avenge from her dirt race two back: ‘made a very nice move on the turn before flattening out a bit; jock didn’t overly pursue.’ She followed up that effort with her first downhill turf try, where she ran respectably in a maiden special weight that was actually faster than stakes fillies later in the day.”

At 8-1 with four minutes to post, he figured $500 to win would yield around $4,000, giving him enough to meet his goal, even considering the possibility of a little late odds drop on Avenge. It was a rookie mistake. Unfortunately for Scatoni, there was no small odds drop. Avenge’s price was nearly halved by post time to 9-2, and he was not near enough to the betting machine, ensconced as he was in the Eddie Logan Suite.

Avenge ended up a pretty easy winner, and while he still collected more than $2,500 in real money on the wager, he didn’t really get to cheer the way he wanted to because he knew he was drawing stone-cold dead in the contest. “She made an easy lead and never looked back,” he said. “It was one of the easiest wins I’ve ever had – too bad it felt like a loss!”

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

In retrospect, he would have played the last race differently. “In addition to the win bet, I also spent about $500 worth of trifectas, trying to really crush something so I could even possibly get the win,” he said. “In hindsight, that was probably farfetched, considering how great the winner played, but at the time, I figured, ‘Why not at least try?’ If I had just taken that $500 in trifectas and bet it all to win on my top choice, even at her final odds of 9-2, I would have easily gotten an NHC seat and possibly much more.”

Scatoni acknowledged that there’s a learning curve when it comes to live-bankroll events. “Having spent the last three years focusing on mythical win-place tourneys, I realize that I was very out of practice for my first live-bankroll tournament,” he said. “It was a tough lesson to learn, but I can assure you I won’t make the same mistake ever again. If I find myself in the same spot, I’ll just double my win bet to be on the safe side.”

In this case, doubling the win bet wouldn’t have even been necessary – an extra $150 on the win end would have done it. In the end, Scatoni did make money on the day, but the education he received was of even more value. “I ended up doubling my bankroll,” he said, “but I was $700 shy of an NHC seat. That should never happen when you have the winner of the last race. Not being prepared for a significant late odds change cost me a placing. Lesson learned!”

Next time, he’ll be watching the board more closely and will be in a position to change his bet at the last second. He’ll be back playing in the Santa Anita Betting Challenge over Preakness weekend in May. If you’re looking for him, he’ll be the guy hugging the machine.