02/20/2014 12:50PM

Protecting a lead late in a contest

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Later in today’s column, we’ll look at what’s going on at NHCQualify.com and BCQualify.com this weekend, but before that, I wanted to write a follow-up piece about end-of-tournament strategy. We’ve already examined the question of whom you might want to play while in hot pursuit of the tournament leader. But what if you are the leader going into the last couple of races? How should you approach the contest then?

A lot depends on the specifics of the leaderboard. Is there one player within reach of you or a bunch of players who might pass you with a logical horse? Two races out, you’re going to want to play the horse you like, pretty much regardless of price.

If you’re not committed to a particular horse, my general inclination would be to play a longer price, the bigger your cushion, because these are the ones you have to worry about. With a pack of people behind you, my general thought would be to pick the best horse in the mid-odds range. These are statistically likely winners who could knock you off your perch.

The last race is its own animal. One significant difference is that it might no longer make sense to play the horse you like. Once you get to the last race, there are certain horses that you’ll already “have,” so there is no need to play those. For example, if you’re ahead by $21, you own everything that’s 5-1 or lower anyway. You have what is known as “the protection of the chalk.”

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There is a mathematical formula to determine this number, similar to the Rule of Three discussed in my previous article. But in this scenario, you need to make sure you’re protected even if there is a late odds increase on a horse who might beat you. To be safe, you can take the gap between you and second place, divide by three, and then subtract two points in the odds. So, in the example above, $21/3 is 7. Subtract 2 from 7, and you get 5, meaning you’re protected against 5-1 shots and below.

As for which 6-1 shot or higher to play, you’ll obviously want to go with the horse you like best, and no matter whom you choose, you now have multiple ways to win. You win if your horse wins, and you win if you simply block the person in second. You can force your opponent into a situation where he is drawing dead.

As the leader, you can use game theory as well. The player in second might assume you’re going to play the first horse whose odds can beat you, so you can play even higher. But this, of course, is dangerous. You really don’t want to ever get beaten by the horse you like best. So, you’ll almost always want to pick the horse you like best who is at the minimum odds that can catch you.

However, there is an exception to this rule. It doesn’t come up often, but it is worth mentioning. For this to work, you really would have to like one of the shorter-priced horses’ chances of either winning or running second. But assuming that’s the case, here’s what you have to consider. You know that all the players below you are gunning for your score going into the last race, sometimes down to the penny. 

So, if you play the favorite, even if it just runs second, the place price you get might leapfrog you over the person who just caught the winner. You win anyway. You are essentially trading one “out”– the opportunity to block whomever is chasing you – for a potentially better out:  the chance to have your horse run second and still get the money.

This weekend's tournaments

Entries are now open for Sunday’s contest on NHCQualify.com. It’s a one-day contest with a buy-in of $165, with up to five National Handicapping Championship seats being awarded.

On Saturday, there is a qualifying contest at BCQualify.com with a buy-in of $190 and four spots being awarded. Free past performances are available for contest participants. The selected races are:
4:03 Gulfstream 8
4:08 Oaklawn 5
4:33 Gulfstream 9
4:39 Oaklawn 6
4:55 Fair Grounds 8
5:03 Gulfstream 10
5:09 Oaklawn 7
5:25 Fair Grounds 9
5:33 Gulfstream 11
5:38 Oaklawn 8
5:55 Fair Grounds 10
6:25 Fair Grounds 11