09/05/2014 4:09PM

Fornatale: Knowing when to play favorites


Last week, we looked at strategies for succeeding in the New York Racing Association’s low-roller contest, which features five optional races. But how does strategy change when we’re looking at a contest with all mandatory races? After all, that’s the prevailing contest format in the online world, and it’s featured weekly at NHCQualify.com and BCQualify.com.

The biggest difference between optional and mandatory contests might be the way a player should look at a favorite. In optional races, one key to success is identifying races with poor or overbet favorites and focusing on those. In mandatory races, it’s the same thing – except you still have to make a play in those races where you deem the favorite strong. Since you have to make a play anyway, many good contest players believe it’s acceptable to take some of these shorter-priced horses when you’re dealing with an all-mandatory format.

In my book, “The Winning Contest Player,” several well-known tournament veterans spoke to this point. Steve Wolfson Sr. said, “You have to figure out the difference between the races where you can really fire that gun and other spots where you have to take shorter prices in spots where the favorite can’t be beaten.”

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

Paul Shurman, the 2011 NHC Tour champ, added, “In an early mandatory race, if you play an 8-5 and it wins, that $9 sure looks good on your scorecard after the race.  I’ll even play 4-5 in that spot sometimes if I think the horse can’t lose; I just want to get the points.”

When you look at the end of a contest and see how often big money is decided by a mere 10 or 20 cents, it’s very easy to see the validity of Shurman’s point. And if you don’t believe me, ask Roger Cettina or Tony Brice, both of whom narrowly missed out on six-figure paydays by running second at the National Handicapping Championship. (Sorry, guys, if I brought up a sore point.)

Some players would use that logic to argue that you could also use favorites in optional formats, but that’s a decision best left up to each player. For many, when optional races are in play, the opportunity cost is too high – you only have so many chances to catch a price, so why not pass the race with the live favorite and fish for a longshot in a different pond?

Others won’t play favorites under any circumstance. As Ken Massa, who finished second in the 2007 NHC after qualifying on NHCQualify.com, explained, “I just can’t believe some of the low-priced horses people are willing to play, even in mandatory races. They think they’re taking what the race gives them; that’s usually the attitude. But that’s a bad attitude to have in tournaments, believe me, because every time you think, ‘This chalk is a sure thing,’ you’re going to get snakebit on that.”

As with any contest, it’s incredibly important to know exactly what’s coming up in the all-mandatory format, especially if you’re willing to take a few favorites along the way. You’ll need to have a final points goal – usually 2.5 times your initial bankroll – and you’ll need to have a plan to get there.

Michael Beychok, the 2012 NHC champ, described how he does this: “You have to look at the races in the contest in total. Say it’s a 10-race contest with all mandatory races. In three of the races, the 6-5 or 7-5 horse looks legit, and I don’t like anybody else to beat it.  Now I am looking at a seven-race card.  How do I take these seven races and come up with a plan to get to $100? Can I take those favorites and make it with one other horse, or am I going to need more?”

The best players have some sense going in of what’s going to happen in the beginning, middle, and end of every contest they play in. That’s particularly true with optional races, where you have to decide which races to play and which horses to bet, but it remains true in all-mandatory formats as well.

Once you have your gameplan set, the rest is up to the strength of your opinion and the role of racing luck on any given day. The best advice from there is to stick as close to your opinion as the dynamics of the contest allow, and try to have some fun out there.

Tony Brice More than 1 year ago
Mine was a six-figure payday in January, Peter. It just wasn't THE six-figure payday. As I said at the time, when you can double your winnings from $100,000 to $200,000 one race, what's there to complain about. Although, that missing $1.20 was pretty huge, wasn't it.
More than 1 year ago
Ha! Indeed. . .tx for chiming in Tony. Hope to see you soon.
pshurm More than 1 year ago
Many players believe that because lots of these tournaments are getting so large....500 entries in the NHC, 320 players in online contest...the final scores will be higher. This is not really the case. The total you need to do well in these contests generally stays the same. The difference is that the scores become more compact. When I came in sixth in the NHC a few year ago I was 10 cents out of fifth and 20 cents out of fourth. That 20 cents probably cost me $30,000. This year at the NHC, there were probably 15 players that fell a 5/2 shot away from the final table. These are still "handicapping" contests. You have to use your handicapping skills to determine the best way to play each contest. And you shouldn't be just handicapping one race at a time. You have to handicap the entire contest before you make your first play. You have to look at the entire card and determine where to take your shots with prices and where to take what you feel is being given to you.
Russ Jenkins More than 1 year ago
Very good point that you and Pete both make on handicapping the entire card before making any picks at all...a point i need to make myself more aware of. Thanks.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Tx Russ! There really is no substitute for preparation!
scott More than 1 year ago
Peter.... love these articles. Keep 'em comin! I'm not a tourney player but will be in the futrue. Love to hear about some of the players insights.
stepnen smith More than 1 year ago
same thought, love the articles.....hope to get into the contest scene soon. PS Peter,do you ever talk to anyone who used to play those great 3 day contests at Penn National?
stepnen smith More than 1 year ago
pete, do you ever talk to anyone who played in the 3 day penn national contests?
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Yes, Harvey talks about those in the foreword for my book and I've heard some stories about them for sure!
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Scott and Stephen: Thanks for the kind words, I really appreciate it and am grateful for your interest. Feel free to post any questions you might have and Ill do my best to answer them.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Scott and Stephen: Thanks for the kind words, I really appreciate it and am grateful for your interest. Feel free to post any questions you might have and Ill do my best to answer them.
Steven More than 1 year ago
Does anyone else miss the weekly EQUIBASE.com and BRISNET.com Race of the Day contests?
Russ Jenkins More than 1 year ago
I'll throw my 2 cents in: if i see a horse 3/5 on the M/L, it's almost a sense of relief, because i know in that race, i have that horse i can throw out. If he beats me (and with that as a morning line, chances are the horse really goes off 1-5) i lost out on $5 or $6---i can handle that. And i know that many people in the contest are going to play the horse regardless, so if my longshot comes in, i have a bunch of people beat already. But i do see the value in playing favorites in certain spots....at 8-5, 2-1, where you feel that price is actually an overlay, then i don't have a problem playing them.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
That attitude makes a lot of sense and is shared by a lot of players. There are situations where points are points, and any winner will do, but generally you have to be careful at the low end of the price spectrum.
Russ Jenkins More than 1 year ago
Good article Pete. Enjoy all your stuff.