09/05/2014 4:09PM

Fornatale: Knowing when to play favorites

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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.