06/18/2014 1:27PM

Fornatale: NHC qualifier Polk reflects on strategy


Frank Polk played in his first handicapping tournament about 10 years ago in Las Vegas. After the contest, one of the tellers asked him how he did. “I told him I did well. I was proud of coming in 35th. He asked me, ‘What does that pay?’ I told him it didn’t pay anything. Then he asked me, ‘Well, what does last pay?’”

At the time, Polk was irritated by the cheeky remark, but over the next few years he came to see that the teller had a point. By focusing on “not embarrassing himself,” in his contest play, he was essentially just middling along, guaranteeing he’d never really do well. This changed in 2010. Polk explained what made the difference: “At first, I just wanted to prove I was as good a handicapper as everybody else, but I didn’t really care if I was better. I picked a lot of logical horses who were maybe 5-2 and 7-2, but that’s not the way to have success in tournaments. I changed my mindset to become more aggressive. It took time, but I was able to develop the confidence to play longer-odds horses.”

While his selections may have been more aggressive, Polk became a more patient, philosophical player overall.

“I learned to be willing to lose, to not complain when I’d lose a photo finish, to not second-guess. As long as your handicapping is good and your decisions are strong it doesn’t matter where you end up in any particular contest,” he said.

Polk likened tournaments to baseball in this regard: “It’s like being a home run hitter. If you want to hit home runs, you’ve got to be willing to strike out. It’s the same thing in tournaments. You’ve got to be willing to lose and wait until it’s your day.”

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Polk, who just turned 60, first attended the races with his parents at a now-defunct track in Raton, N.M. when he was 8 years old. He read Andrew Beyer’s “Picking Winners” in law school and also was influenced by a handicapper named Michael Pizzolla. These days, Polk is an attorney specializing in aviation finance law, but much of his free time is spent playing the horses.

In Sunday’s NHCQualify, all four players who won NHC seats, including Polk, selected cap horse Cristina’s Halo, but there were three players who played her that didn’t advance. Polk believes that while longshots are essential to successful contest play, you also have to accept shorter prices on occasion “if that’s all there is in the race.” Sunday’s contest spoke to the wisdom of Polk’s approach: “I only had two other horses that hit, but that was enough.”

An adjustment on the fly allowed Polk to qualify.

“I try not to fiddle with my picks too much, but at the same time I’m not afraid to make changes,” he said. “I changed my pick in the next-to-last race. I was originally on a longshot, but I changed to the winner, Crown Queen, because I just thought she was going to win and I didn’t need a big price at that point.”

He got in by the skin of his teeth, qualifying by just 10 cents.

“I assumed that I had lost my qualifying spot in the last race. The horses that ran one-two were logical. But when I started looking at who played what behind me, I saw there was a chance I’d be okay – only one guy who could catch me had picked the right horse. As long as the place horse paid less than $7.10, I was going to be okay. It ended up paying $7 exactly. And I told my wife, who has always been my biggest supporter, ‘Okay, we’re in again!’ ”

Polk is a big believer in brief “freshenings” to keep his mind sharp and his handicapping creative, but opted to ride a hot streak last weekend.

“I got my first seat for this year in an online contest on Belmont Stakes day and I was able to follow it up with another good showing on NHCQualify this weekend. I wasn’t planning on playing, I just figured I was kind of hot, I might as well see what happens.”

In 2010, Polk’s first year at the NHC, he made a furious run on Day 2 to finish 17th and caught the bug. He’s been back every year since, meaning this will be his sixth time at the event.

“The tournament is great,” he said. “It’s definitely the best contest I’ve played in, and I like that it gives me something to shoot for each year. I like the new format. The only thing I’d like to see them do is have a current leaderboard available to all the players, especially as it gets down towards the final 50 and then the final table.”

Polk looks forward to having two entries at this year’s NHC, but he realizes it’s no guarantee of anything.

“I think I’ll feel more relaxed, and I’m going to enjoy having that freedom to play more longshots, but having two tickets can be frustrating, too, because there’s always the danger of splitting them. You have half the winners on one and half on the other and then you play the ‘what-if?’ games. But overall, it will help.”

Jeff Wright More than 1 year ago
This is a great article. Still tho I can see how it's confusing to understand it all if you only played 1 year. I've embarrassed myself before ..a few times .. and learned I needed to take a breather , take it all in and come back fresh and more aware. Learning from your piers is the best way to understand anything. Great article.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Thank you!! If you like hearing great players talk about contest play you should definitely check out my book, The Winning Contest Player.
BeychokRacing More than 1 year ago
Great article. Frank Polk gets "it". Contest play is about long term results and decisions not about short term winning. Love the comment on the "freshening" as I'm in a layoff period pointing to a big effort at the Saratoga tourny this year.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Very shrewd. . .I look forward to seeing you up there. Will you be accepting any partners this year? ;)
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
That's certainly one perspective, Dan, though I only agree to a point. Look at last year's BCBC when winner Peter Behr had the guts to play his real money on seemingly "crazy" longshot Ria Antonia. Still, given your predilection, probably you'll want to stick with live bankroll formats -- and that's OK.
Mayhemily1 More than 1 year ago
Great article Pete. And congrats to Frank Polk. I really appreciated your outlook on tournament play, and play in general really; focusing on good decisions and temperament rather than the immediate outcome.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Tx, Emily! I am beginning to think that the mental part of the game is indeed the thing that separates the very best players. I know it's an area I can work on myself.
Dan Cronin More than 1 year ago
That's is why contest is not handicapping it is reaching for prices that you would not bet with real money. Contest should be real money ,no limit on odds, and all bets in BEFORE 1st race. You want to bet 50-1 go ahead but its real money 200 W 200 P. You put all wagers in at beginning and you don't have people just betting longest shot cause they have zero chance, that's not a champion. I bet the 50-1 cause I was in last place and now I won contest even though I never came close all day, its silly .
Mayhemily1 More than 1 year ago
Dan There is a format for everyone and just because you played a 50/1 in the last race does not automatically mean you are swinging. Going into the last race when it becomes a numbers game of course people are going to be playing those price type horses, that's game theory and often you have to still handicap which one has a greater chance amongst the other prices. From my own experience, there have been numerous times I have handicapped and backed a "bomb; capper; 50/1" in the last race and had it win and had know that if that race had been earlier on in the sequence not as many people would be on it. That's just part of the game and why many tournament players and champions are rewarded for consistency. Your other point I think it will be only a matter of time when we see more tournament formats such as the one you mentioned.