02/17/2014 12:27PM

Pick-and-pray contests cater to busy horseplayers

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I’ve been getting asked a lot lately about the pick-and-pray contest format, sometimes referred to as a “lockdown” contest. These are the simplest and purest tests of handicapping ability, if you limit your definition of handicapping to simply picking winners. On Saturday, March 1, Horsetourneys.com will host a pick-and-pray National Handicapping Championship qualifier, so this is a good time to examine the format.

Here’s how a pick-and-pray works: There are a certain number of races chosen, you put in your $2 win/place bets before the first race, and you watch. The highest score at the end of the day wins. Nobody can pick a horse because of what price it is, except in the first race, because nobody knows the prices. That means the whole criticism about people picking longshots indiscriminately – a common complaint about contests – goes out the window.

Certain players prefer the pick-and-pray format for online contests, including 2013 NHC Tour champion Brent Sumja.

“There’s no throwing darts and using strategy depending on what’s come in so far,” he said. “I believe I have a big chance in those. When it comes to just straight up picking horses, I feel like I’m better than the next guy.”

A huge part of the appeal of pick-and-prays is that they are easier to fit into our busy lives. Two-time Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge winner Patrick McGoey told me in “The Winning Contest Player,” “I like tournaments because I fit them into my schedule. I can put in my picks in the morning and still go to my kid’s soccer game. And if I have time to sit in front of the computer, I will. It’s a fun hobby that I can work into my real life.”

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Let’s take a minute to talk about specific strategies for pick-and-prays. I asked Don Marr, a new contest player who has had a lot of success in lockdowns online, how he approaches them.

“I don’t play morning-line favorites at all in a lockdown,” he said. “I’m looking for under-the-radar horses. A lot of my winners in lockdowns are in between the favorites and the monster longshots. I’m looking for 5-1 and above, but I’m not too hung up on the price range other than not wanting the morning-line favorite.”

Sometimes, online contest sites will run a pick-and-pray contest and a “bullet” contest on the same set of races. I spoke with Eric Moomey – who keeps his own database of online contests – about the difference in final scores when this happens.

“The normal contest format final score is way higher most times,” he said. “There are two reasons. If I hit a longshot early, why do I need more longshots? Why can’t I just play favorites at that point? And if I’m not doing well, I can adjust and pick higher prices near the end. And if a bunch of people hit longshots early, I know I need to adjust in that direction. In a regular contest, you have to constantly think, and adjust, and change your tactics.”

In a pick-and-pray, your average contestant becomes more conservative. “I like the pick-and-pray because most people tend to pick logical horses, so maybe I want to be the guy picking longshots in the pick-and-pray, especially near the end, when they always seem to come in,” Moomey said.

There are other reasons to go longer in the last leg. If you’re not in contention, a longshot might get you there, and if you’re in the lead, you protect yourself from someone else hitting a bomb in the last leg. Plus, a lot of people play pick-and-prays precisely because they want to avoid losing in the last leg to a longshot, so maybe there's an edge to be gained by trying to do exactly that.

Personally, I’ll always choose a traditional format over a pick-and-pray if I can. I like to make selections at least partially based on how the horses look, and I want to know what price they will be before betting them. I also love the in-contest tournament strategy that is lost in these games. That said, I’m glad this format exists, and pick-and-prays remain the perfect solution for a lot of players who have issues – in terms of time management or otherwise – with the traditional online format.

synospizza More than 1 year ago
hey peter can you find me the results of last years kentucky downs to get in to the breeders cup handicapping challenge? they never posted a list, thought i finished in the top ten, This gives other tournaments a bad name.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I don't have that information but you should be able to figure out who the contest director was and appeal to them. Was it an NHC qualifier? If so, the NTRA site or someone at the NTRA should be able to tell you. If it wasn't a qualifer for the NHC, you'll have to contact KY Downs directly.. . .good luck finding the info!
Richard Land More than 1 year ago
1) Any contests which focus on horizontal wagers? 2) Why no contests for "maidens" ie non winners of a contest or tournament? Or a "conditioned" contest for non winners in last three or four years?
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I have only heard of a couple of contests that allow horizontal wagering. I know Surfside at Del Mar had at least one format last year where they were allowed -- but definitely check to see if that's continuing this year. Not sure why but they are almost always excluded. I kinda love your idea about a contest for "maidens" but have no idea at all how one would manage the oversight with so many different places to play. Thanks a lot for your thoughtful comments!
gene cahalan More than 1 year ago
FYI..Hawthorne tourneys usually permit multi-race bets ..I know because a $6,000 P4 sank me last November.Such is life.I believe that contests should reflect how contestants actually wager.How many of us don't at least play doubles or P3s.Other than Surfside,I know of no other contest.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Great point, Gene, thanks for sharing that info.
mikey More than 1 year ago
Pick and pray is true handicapping.You are right all other NTRA included become dart throwing.In other contests (not live money) after 6 of 12 races a 40-1 shot comes in and 25 or more have it.In most cases they woul not bet a buck on them.Pick and pray is the real deal.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Mikey I just want you to know that I'm bending a personal rule -- usually when a commenter uses the word "dart" or "stab" I block them instantly ;)
mtrudyesq More than 1 year ago
I would love to see you or your readers address the tax ramifications of contest winnings vs. traditional track winnings. We receive 1099 Misc. Forms instead of W-2 Gambling winnings. If we can't deduct gambling losses against contest winnings are players declaring their contest plays as a business and writing off all contest related expenses?
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Wow, GREAT question. . .I have been surprised in the past to receive 1099s for contest winnings. Unfortunately, I'll have to do some digging on this and get back to you. If I'm not timely in my response, bug me again, because this is indeed an important issue. Thanks. . .