07/23/2014 3:07PM

Fornatale: McFarland seeks three-peat at Del Mar


This weekend at Del Mar, Kevin McFarland will attempt to become the Michael Jordan of handicapping contests: He is going for a three-peat in the Del Mar Handicapping Challenge.

This would mark the first time in handicapping-contest history that a player has won the same major contest three years running. To McFarland, this quest isn’t just about making money, it’s personal. “I grew up at Del Mar,” he said. “This place is part of my identity. It’s what I’ve always been passionate about. I have an opportunity to do something I could look back at for my whole life – to win three in a row at my home track.”

The Del Mar Handicapping Challenge is a live-bankroll tournament that requires a $6,000 buy-in and has a maximum field of 100. Of that initial investment, $1,500 goes into a prize pool that will be paid back in full to the players, with value added in the form of 10 National Handicapping Championship seats, one full Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge seat, plus three partial buy-ins to the BCBC. If all goes as planned, the winner’s share this year will be $60,000, with the overall purse as high as $150,000.

McFarland knows he’s in for a tough fight. “This is probably the best field ever assembled for this tournament,” he said. “As tournaments have become more and more successful over the years, there are more and more players with credentials who really know how to play.”

In 2012, McFarland turned his starting bankroll into $27,000, plus an additional $30,000 in prize money and entries into the country’s two most prestigious handicapping tournaments. Last year, his final bankroll was $19,015, plus $25,000 in purse money and the seats.

McFarland gained notoriety back in the 1990s as a member of “the Pick Six boys,” along with Christian Hellmers and Nisan Gabbay. Eventually, Hellmers went on to his own career as a professional gambler, while McFarland and Gabbay continued playing tournaments as partners on a recreational level.

Hellmers will be among the many looking to deny McFarland and Gabbay the three-peat. McFarland welcomes the challenge. “That’s what makes it fun,” he said. “Christian will be there. I presume that Damian Roncevich, who dominated the series of live-bankroll contests at Santa Anita, will be there. Friends of mine, Todd Cady and Joji Mangubat, who I helped mentor and went on to win the $100,000 contest at Santa Anita, they’ll be there.”

McFarland’s greatest challenge might well come from his old mentor, Gibson Carrothers. Carrothers, a legend in the annals of handicapping, took McFarland under his wing years ago, and the two remain close. McFarland credits Carrothers with teaching him the contrarian mindset that’s led to his horseplaying success.

Carrothers will be flying in from Houston for the event. McFarland said, “He told me, ‘If you’re going to win, you’ve got to go through me.’ I’ll definitely be doing some scoreboard watching.”

McFarland thinks the most important strategic edge he holds is that he is willing to bottom out. “You have to be willing to go to zero,” he said. “If not, you have no chance. The good players finish with zero if they don’t win. But is that natural behavior for most of the field? Absolutely not.”

McFarland sees other important differences between live-bankroll events and mythical-bet contests as well. “In live-bankroll events, you have to be much more organized and much more calculated,” he said. “It’s not as easy as just picking a winner. You have to stay much more focused. And your mistakes are magnified – any error you make is much more likely to cost you.”

When he talks about being calculated, he’s being literal. “You have to judge payouts,” he said. “You have to hit a target. You have to be staring at the screens and understand what things are going to pay, and you have to make the right decision about how much to allocate for the win, the exacta, the trifecta. Most important of all, you have to know when to shoot and when not to shoot. There’s much more strategy in live-bankroll contests.”

In this sense, he likens live-bankroll contests to golf tournaments. There are times you need a driver and times you need a nine iron. “If somebody races to the lead, you have to start shooting at pins earlier,” he said. “Each contest has its own personality, and you don’t know what your strategy is until you’re in it. Analyze your races and understand which ones fit your style of handicapping, and ace those holes. That’s how Tiger or Phil Mickelson do it in a golf tournament. You’ve got to know the course inside and out. When I go in Saturday, I know everything I like for Sunday. That’s the difference between failure and success in a lot of these tournaments.”

Unlike his old partner Hellmers, who has often been quoted about how he adopts a Jedi mindset to deal with the ebbs and flows of gambling, McFarland’s advice for improving one’s mindset is much more straightforward.

“The mental side for me goes back to preparation,” he said. “The more organized you are, the more you can focus and not be so scrambled. Looking at the Form for an hour isn’t going to get it done. And that’s what separates the best players. You have to have belief in your convictions, and you live with your decisions. If you’re not fully prepared, you’re going to second-guess yourself when things go wrong, and those are the things that kill you.”

Preparation was one of the many things McFarland learned from Carrothers, “He taught us that this game isn’t about luck,” McFarland said. “It’s about hard work and preparation. Before computers, he’d dig out all the charts and stay up all night. He’d outwork everybody to the angle.”

Computer handicapping has revolutionized the game for McFarland, “The game has changed, and the game has changed for the better,” he said. “Formulator makes it so much easier now, especially for a recreational player. With Formulator, the tools and resources are right at your fingertips: watching replays, inputting your notes directly into the past performances, making a customized Racing Form.”

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McFarland has been thrilled to see how tournaments have evolved since he first started playing in them. “Racing needs people who are perceived winners,” he said. “The tournament structure allows that more than a bet like the pick six, where the winners are often anonymous. There are a lot of people in this field this weekend who are great handicappers who just haven’t had their break.”

Despite the difficult task ahead, McFarland is optimistic. “I’m not going to lose on preparation,” he said. “Of course, if I’m cold and my horses don’t run well, there’s nothing I can do. But I know I’m going to execute properly, so if I get hot, I like my chances.”