04/13/2016 11:10AM

Fornatale: With minimum bets, to thine own self be true


The current Daily Racing Form contest schedule includes qualifiers for both the $4,500 Santa Anita Preakness Challenge and the $2,000 Monmouth Pick Your Prize contest. These events allow players who aren’t as experienced with live-bankroll events to win in for a fraction of the contest buy-ins (this upcoming weekend’s qualifiers on DRFQualify.com are priced at $210).

Live-bank contests typically mandate that you bet at least a certain amount over a specified number of races. For example, at the recently concluded Ultimate Betting Challenge, players had to make 10 bets of at least $250 across the Gulfstream and Santa Anita cards.

Of course, the beauty of live-bank play is that you’re not limited to those amounts. You can bet up to all of your bankroll at any time. With this in mind, let’s go over one of the basic questions inherent to live-bankroll play: How should players deal with their minimum bets?

The most prominent theory is that you should try to get around your minimums by betting conservatively – maybe even just to show on favorites you like. Those minimums are only there to ensure that you’ll churn your bankroll; there’s no magic to them, and there’s a clear benefit to working around them. The idea here is that you’ll preserve your capital, allowing you to strike hard in the spots where your opinion is strongest. I would argue that the more conservative you are in dealing with your minimums, the more aggressive your betting should be when the right time comes. If you’re playing in a live-bank contest but worried about going home with money, you’re taking a knife to a gun fight. And if you’ve won your entry on DRFQualify.com, you’re already ahead of the game.

Final scores in live-bank events are famously difficult to predict. We’ve seen less than three times the initial bank win and we’ve seen 10 or more times the initial bank win. For this reason, many players believe that the later you can make an aggressive play in a live-bank contest, the better off you are. The logic follows that those show bets are not only preserving your bankroll, they are increasing its value within the contest because the closer you get to the end of the contest, the more information you’ll have about what that final score will be. This ties into how Patrick McGoey was able to win two Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenges. He got to the last race, had a pretty good idea what total he would need to win, and he went all-in to get there.

This isn’t the only way to fly, however. Other players detest the idea of waiting around, letting others dictate the terms of the game. Duke Matties, talked about this in The Winning Contest Player.

“What I do is I try to hit something early on to create some kind of bankroll, because you need more money to bet with,” said Matties, the professional horseplayer and winner of the 2015 Santa Anita Autumn Challenge. “Now I can manage maybe double what everybody’s got, and I just keep betting from there. I don’t worry about still holding the lead; I want to increase my lead, because I know the way the other guys play:  They tread water and then they go all-in. You don’t want to just set that target. Then they know what they have to get.”

For Jonathan Kinchen, who won Gulfstream’s rescheduled Raise Your Game contest last year, the strategy of show-betting through minimums just doesn’t compute. “I understand the theory behind it,” said the 2015 Tour champ, “but I would rather take that same $250 and bet it in the trifecta, keying the horse someone else might bet to show. I am more comfortable risking the $250 with a chance to make money than risking it for a chance to not make money.”

My favorite quote about contest strategy is Paul Shurman’s deceptively simple advice: Play who you like. Perhaps there should be an addendum: Play how you like. Before he got fully into racing, Kinchen was big into gaming. He once won a trophy on behalf of the University of Texas (it now sits next to the won he received for his NHC Tour victory). When he’d play the EA Sports NCAA college football game, he’d go for two every time at the end of the game rather than kick the extra point and play for overtime. For a player like Kinchen, who has a lot of gamble in him, conservative play through his minimums is anathema; it’s just who he is.

But for many others, the edge to be gained within the closed economy in the contest universe is well worth adopting a conservative approach in the minimums. After all, the minimums are their rules, not yours.