06/17/2014 1:24PM

Fornatale: Looking beyond PPs for capped longshots

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Odds caps are considered a necessary evil in contests. The idea is that without them, tournaments skew too heavily toward the hard-to-find longshots that come in at times. The fact is, however, that sometimes caps aren’t enough to fix this, and a good contest player can take advantage. In Sunday’s NHCQ event, for example, only one of the top nine finishers didn’t have longshot Cristina’s Halo in Woodbine’s seventh race.

Cristina’s Halo paid $69 to win, which was capped at $42 for the purposes of the contest. It’s easy to make a case for many cap horses, especially with the benefit of hindsight, but looking at Cristina’s Halo’s bare form, it’s tricky to find her even after the race – until you look outside her past performances.

In contests, there can be tremendous value in playing horses who look ugly on paper – especially if you can find a genuine reason to like them. In “The Winning Contest Player,” Eric Moomey extolled the virtues of playing above-the-cap horses: “Select the horse that can separate you from the pack. If there are 10 horses in a race, they will not all be played the same. There are some that 20 percent of the people will play, and there are others that nobody will play. Can you make a case at all for that horse no one else will play? If you can, play it.”

Let’s dive deeper on Cristina’s Halo. The 3-year-old filly was making her seventh start. This was her first attempt in stakes company. She’d been competitive enough in nonwinners-of-two allowance races, but had never run a speed figure fast enough to figure to beat several of her rivals on this day.

Was there anything at all to like? There were two main factors that might have put a tournament player on to her. When longshots come in, often a change plays an important role. In Cristina’s Halo’s case, she was trying turf for the first time, and there was evidence that she might improve on the green. Her grandsire, Stormy Atlantic, is a known turf influence and a quick glimpse at the DRF Formulator breeding tool showed that Cristina’s Halo’s dam, Siwa, won two of five starts and posted a career-best 93 Beyer Speed Figure on turf.

The other factor requires a look at the type of race this was. Contest guru Ken Massa often encourages contest players to “fish in the right ponds.” In other words, there is a skill in identifying races that are likely to produce undervalued longshots. Maybe it’s okay in many races to stick to the mid-range or even to play favorites, but some races are ripe for the picking when it comes to bombs. Woodbine’s seventh race on Sunday was exactly one of those instances. It was a full field of 3-year-old fillies sprinting on turf. Each of those factors – field size, age, horse type, surface, and distance – hints at a possible longshot result.

Even though the field contained several contenders who figured to run faster than Cristina’s Halo, they were not so far ahead of the outsiders that a crazy result was inconceivable. Further evidence that a chaotic result was likely is that the third-place finisher, Sky America, went to post at 26-1 and was beaten only two lengths.

Even with an odds cap, there will be many times when the people who qualify in the all-mandatory, 12-race, win-place format will be those that nail the biggest priced winner in the sequence. This is just a fact of contest life, and it’s nothing to get too upset about. Even Sunday, fifth-place finisher Anthony Kite, who didn’t have Cristina’s Halo, missed qualifying by just 20 cents.

It’s foolish to merely stab at big prices like Cristina’s Halo at every opportunity – granted, you’ll win once in a while, but it will be hard to develop any consistency in your play. But if you can handicap the race card itself and choose your spots to play big prices, you’ll have a chance to finish way ahead of the game.