06/18/2014 12:27PM

Fornatale: NHC qualifier Polk reflects on strategy

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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.”