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.”

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “The Winning Contest Player” by Peter Thomas Fornatale

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.