04/27/2016 8:07AM

Fornatale: Sometimes '1' isn't the loneliest number

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Contest players are an odd bunch. People who play in handicapping tournaments are already a subculture to begin with: an ever-growing set of racing fans looking for a new, fun, and profitable way to augment their horseplaying. But within that framework there are further divisions, all related to one’s preferred tournament format.

There are those who love the mythical-money, all-mandatory contests, found online every weekend at the DRF contest sites. The players in this group are mostly weekend warrior types. They appreciate that the races chosen for them because it makes the workload manageable. They also like playing the same races as everyone else as it heightens the competitive aspect of the contests. Countless players at some point have uttered some variation of this old saw: I’m a good handicapper but a terrible bettor. Well, this format is perfect for anyone who feels that way. What could be simpler than picking one horse to bet win-place in each race?

Another group – and I’ll include myself here – love live-bankroll contests where you can bet as much as want across various pools, typically at one track. We think that live-bank play more accurately resembles our everyday play at the track because we have access to exactas and trifectas. We like being able to weight our opinion by betting more in the races where our opinions are strongest, and we love the excitement of being able to go all-in. And we really love that our opponents can’t just play longshots because of the price they are on the board – the horses must be backed with actual money.

I’ve heard a convincing case made that the NHC format is really the best test of true handicapping. The mix of optionals and mandatories ensures that you’re not just a specialist, you have to look at all kinds of races. And the three-day format makes it less likely that someone can just get lucky – the winner has withstood a marathon test. “It is the true handicapping challenge,” says NHC Tour mainstay Brett Wiener, “no hitting crazy exotics or going all-in on the last race. The NHC is a handicapping contest to find the best handicapper for these three days; it’s not a contest that will be won by a person who has a good three days of gambling."

Then there are those who insist that the purest form of contest is the one where all picks must be in before the first race. Known in the DRF world as All-In and elsewhere as Pick-and-Pray, this format does have its advantages. You can do all your work, put in your plays, and go have a life, as opposed to holing up for 2 1/2 hours studying exotics probables, looking through second-dam pedigrees, and boning up on the Rule of Three (see The Winning Contest Player for an explanation on that one).

Proponents of the All-In format would tell you that the other great thing about their preferred game is the ability to win or lose based on the strength of your actual opinion. You can’t get beat in the last race by someone playing some crazy longshot they had no basis in handicapping to choose.

Except sometimes you can. Last weekend, in an online National Handicapping Championship qualifying event, one entrant must have run out of time. He already had an entry so rather than take a zero he simply clicked the box for the number “1” in each of the assigned contest races. Lo and behold, when War Fan, with his red saddle towel, won the last at 70-1 plus (limited to 20-1 for contest purposes), he had advanced to the NHC.

What does this tell us about contests? For one thing, it’s no secret that they require a lot of luck. Luck plays a larger role in tournaments than it does at the windows. And we all know that in any one day, any random person can get lucky and do better than the Platonic ideal of a horseplayer. That’s true in contests and at the windows.

There was a lot of chatter on Twitter in the contest’s aftermath. The best response came from contest player and worthy follow Barry Spears. To paraphrase: No one complains when someone does that and loses so why complain the one time someone does that and gets lucky?

Personally, I don’t see this as an indictment of contests or even of this format. The fact is that every format has its advantages and disadvantages and the best players are going to find the ones that work for them and emphasize those in their contest play. The idea that one format is somehow morally superior to another is taking things too far.

Noted player Dave Gutfreund is an aficionado when it comes to tournaments of all kinds – he’s cashed huge in racing and in poker. His words on this topic really resonate for me. “All contest formats are just games with numbers and you have to aware of that at all times,” he once told me, “Just tell me what the rules are and make sure they’re the same for everybody and I’ll be happy.”