07/30/2014 3:01PM

Fornatale: Low-roller contests offer competitive learning experience


The New York Racing Association recently announced the debut of a low-roller series of contests. For the remainder of the Saratoga meeting, NYRA will host a low-buy-in contest each Monday afternoon, including Labor Day, and NYRA hopes to continue the series in some form downstate this fall.

Here’s how it works: Contestants put up $40 to play. Of that money, $10 goes into a prize pool. The pool is paid back 100 percent to the players – with no takeout – as follows: 70 percent to the winner, 20 percent to second, and 10 percent to third. The remaining $30 must be wagered as five $2 win-place-show bets on races of the contestant’s choosing.

The contest is real money – i.e., the bets are actual bets that hit the pools – but don’t make the mistake of confusing real money with live bankroll. In these contests, the bankroll is still fixed – you must make five across-the-board bets and can’t reinvest your winnings in the contest.

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NYRA Advertising Manager Donald Nelson has been involved in getting this series off the ground.

“We recently got approval to do real-money contests, and this seemed like a fun format where we could get a lot of people involved very quickly,” said Nelson. “And we thought it would be a fun thing for the racing fans here at Saratoga.”

Nelson hopes the contest will grow.

“If the number of entrants grows high enough, we may pay out a few more spots,” he said. “We might experiment with some different structures as well. We’re looking to get feedback from the people who are playing to see what they like so we can tailor the contests to the players.”

The contest is modeled after the successful format Santa Anita has used for many years. It’s a great way for newer contest players to cut their teeth and get involved in the excitement of the tournament world. But be warned: Just because the buy-in is low doesn’t mean it will be easy.

The Santa Anita contest has been known to attract sharp players such as the two-time National Handicapping Championship runner-up Dennis Decauwer, former NHC Tour champ Tom Noone, and last year’s NHC winner, Jose Arias. Over time, one would expect the Saratoga contest to attract some big names as well.

Eventually, we might see these low-roller contests also act as qualifiers for larger-money events – something Santa Anita has done, most recently with the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge.

“That’s one of the things we’re looking into adding,” Nelson said. “So players can be playing for something other than just that day’s prize.”

The first of these low-roller contests took place down at Belmont, where the winning score was $115. The second contest, held Monday, turned topsy-turvy when the longest shot on the board won the last race. The winner ended up with $140. These are very high scores. For a win-place-show contest with a $30 starting bankroll, one would expect to see scores closer to $75, if even that much. But as always, players are at the mercy of the specific run of races in the sequence.

Players are allowed two entries. One strategy that might be interesting is to play one entry from the start of the tournament and only play a second if the scores are relatively low with five races remaining. Players can enter right up until post time of the fifth-to-last race.

Having to choose which five races to play can be the hardest part of the format – but it’s also great practice for an event like the National Handicapping Championship, in which you have to pick your spots for your optional plays. This could be a great learning experience for players accustomed to online formats such as BCQualify.com and NHCQualify.com in which all the races are chosen for you.