03/17/2015 1:08PM

Fornatale: Where horseplayers reap the perks

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I spend a lot of time talking with horseplayers about the benefits of playing in handicapping contests. Typically, I cite the camaraderie, the action, and the value that tournaments offer as the prime reasons to play in them. My recent trips to Gulfstream Park for the Raise Your Game contest and to the Great Race Place for the Santa Anita Betting Challenge have shown me another reason why you should have handicapping contests on your radar if you like to play the horses – they offer fans a VIP player experience without having to regularly put five figures through the windows.

At both Gulfstream and Santa Anita, the player accommodations were first rate. Last weekend at Santa Anita, players had the opportunity to sit in several areas that fans aren’t always able to access. As a reporter covering the event, I got to check out all of them. Several contestants got tables right on the window on the finish line in the FrontRunner restaurant, a prime spot with easy up-and-down access to the paddock area. There was time to leave the table with 15 minutes to post, get down to see the horses walk by, make a bet, and be back at the table with time to spare. Best of all, lunch and drinks were complimentary for players in the tournament.

The Eddie Logan Suite is my favorite spot of all at Santa Anita as it provides the best of both worlds. The room is partially inside, where you can enjoy the air conditioning, and there’s also a deck if you’re more into the fresh air. There are many comfortable places to sit, couches, chairs, and tables. There are snacks. There’s a bar and friendly cocktail service as well. It’s located on the first turn, so for the two-turn races, you can watch them come by for the first time, then turn your attention to one of the high-definition televisions for the backstretch and the finish.

As great as the views are from wherever you are when facing the track at Santa Anita, the view from the Logan suite is the best – an open-air view staring out across the track and up into the San Gabriel Mountains. The suite is normally reserved for high rollers but is free to use if you’re playing in the contest.

The Gallop Out, where the cocktail party was held for contestants Saturday night, is fantastic as well. Some of the contest players were hanging out up there during the day as well. It’s not as fancy as the Logan suite, but it’s a great spot for a larger party. It’s open air, on the first turn, with a fantastic view and a cool bar. The party Saturday featured good food and, most important of all, my two favorite words in the language: open bar.

The buy-in for the Santa Anita contest isn’t insignificant – the March contest cost $3,500, and the May tournament, held over Preakness weekend, will run $4,000. But there are two things to consider. One is that while $1,000 of that total goes to the prize pool, the remaining portion is live bankroll, meaning you get to keep whatever is left at the end of the tournament. Several players below the money line still made money this weekend on their bankrolls alone.

The other important concept to remember is that you can play without buying in if you qualify. Steven Wells won his way into the Santa Anita contest for $80 on DRFQualify.com. By Sunday night, he had won a $25,000 purse, a $10,000 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge seat, a National Handicapping Championship seat, and left with a bankroll of more than $17,000. Qualifying contests for the May Santa Anita contest will be starting soon.

You know the track has hosted a great event when you hear multiple players who ended on zero talking about what a great time they had. That was the case last weekend. As important as owners, trainers, breeders, and jockeys are as well, that point remains that betting generates the money that fuels the game. Despite this, it’s rare that most players get to experience racing the way that many get treated in a place like Las Vegas, with comps and perks that show how much appreciation the host venues have for their business. Handicapping contests like the one last weekend give horseplayers the opportunity to be treated the way they deserve – like the VIPs that they are.

Penguin ymous More than 1 year ago
I just finished listening to the March 13 podcast where you interview one of the Shurmans. I have to say that you asked excellent, probing questions which made for an educational, enjoyable listening experience. Totally unlike the typical interview with the winning jockey after a race: "How does it feel to win a Grade I race?" which tells me nothing I can use in my effort to become a better handicapper. Other topics I am interested in and you might consider asking others, are: 1. Do these successful tournament players wager real money when they are in contention? I know you had an article about the NHC contestants and how much they pushed through the windows, but those could have been the players who were out of contention. 2. Do these players consider themselves professional horse bettors or recreational? Thanks RonZ
David G. More than 1 year ago
Been to many handicapping contests from coast to coast over the years, and would have to say Peter that the contest held at Santa Anita this past week, bar none, has been the classiest that I have ever been to. Nate Newby and his crew put on a truly memorable experience. It was well worth the flight that included multiple delays from New York to attend this tournament.
John Stevelberg More than 1 year ago
Second the comment !
Jeff Kurtz More than 1 year ago
Its a four figure buy in lol. I hope some sort of perks are put in. Sorry, I'd probably rather play some pick 4's and pick 6's and try to hit a big score that way. I'm sure the people in these events are pretty sharp and finding an edge in a 4 figure handicapping tournament can't be easy unless you are an elite horseplayer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As I point out in the article, you can win in for $80 on DRFQualify.com so the VIP experience is really available to everyone!
Steven More than 1 year ago
You can look at the race's that are in the contest two days in advance an see if you have some plays that are in the contest. If you have some plays an they hit the reward is more than worth the $80 entry.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sounds like a good time. I can only speak for myself on the reason why I don't play the tournaments. It took years and discipline to become a consistent winning horse player. The level and consistency of having a positive ROI, for me anyway, leaves me with having to have open choices of whom I'm going to bet and how much. I truly enjoy the sport. I can see how meeting and hanging with other players could be fun. But, from what I've read and seen in a tournament the strategy to win it or cash is more of game of competing against other players, depending on how they have hit the races in that particular tournament. I get it. Maybe fun. But, knowing how well I do without needing to compete with other folks on how they are doing, leaves me many open options to hit some races harder than others, wait for the right moments and profit consistently. Please know, I'm not downgrading tournaments. They sound like a blast. But, those of us that don't play in them, yet still play this game at a successful level have our reasons. Maybe some day I'll decide to take the plunge. For now, I can root for all of you to crush the races and I can crush them too.....without having to risk an " all in " type wager on a horse I may or may not like that much, but have to bet because of his high odds could win me a tournament if he was to win. Maybe a fun risk. But, from my vantage there's less handicapping and more money management going on in these events.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think what you're saying is largely true in mythical money events and those probably aren't for you. But live bankroll events allow you to bet much more normally. It is true that to maximize your chance of winning, you might have to go all in at some point. But you don't have to play them that way. It's quite possible to finish high up in the prize pool in an event like the BCBC just by playing normally. And since more money gets paid out than goes in, it's a positive expectation situation. No pressure of course, but if you decide to take a look at tourneys, given your preferences, you should probably look at live bankroll events rather than mythical money. If you're curious to learn more, contact me via the blog or on twitter @loomsboldly -- and thanks for taking the time to comment.