12/23/2013 12:38PM

Six important lessons for contest play

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Writing “The Winning Contest Player,” which will be available from DRF Press sometime in the next month, has been a bit like spending a year abroad doing post-doctoral study.

At the end of the book, which includes valuable insight from many of the most successful handicapping tournament players, I made a list of 21 of the most important lessons I either learned or had reinforced during the process of completing the project. I want to share six of my favorites.

1. Have a game plan. Know what score you need and devise a plan to get there. This was the big leap for me, where I feel I made the leap from average contest player to a player who has a shot to win. In the book, I discuss at great length how to come up with a target score based on different contest formats. And, with help from an expert panel of contest players, you find out how to plot a course to get there.

2. Focus on decisions, not outcomes. The process is more important than the specifics of what happened in any given race or contest.  You need to trust the process.  People are quick to whine that a certain player got lucky and beat them based on one aberrant result. Well, if you’re really a good player who is making good decisions, the occasional unlucky results will be balanced out over time by your superior play. Remember, good players have worse “luck” than bad players because good players are always tilting the odds in their favor – so when they lose, they are necessarily unlucky. When you’re getting the best of the odds, you don’t need luck, you need to focus on the big picture and allow the long run to play out.

3. It’s an information game. Get information other people don’t have or learn to use the available information better than your competition. If you’re reading the Daily Racing Form already, you clearly have a jump on this one. A tool like Formulator makes it possible to do work in minutes that used to take hours. Also, the note-taking functions are a must if you want to give yourself the best chance to win.

4. Never forget the importance of being different. You can get an idea of the right way to play by emulating successful players or internalizing lessons you might read in a book, but if you really want to be the best of the best, you’re going to have to innovate. Open your mind to new ways of thinking about handicapping and contest play that will vault you to the top of leaderboards on a consistent basis.

5. Cap horses come in all shapes and sizes; tailor your handicapping to find them. This idea gets back to the differences between everyday play and contest play I’ve written about before in this space. First you must find races that are likely to produce long prices, then you have to find a way of looking at those races that’s creative enough to find the right longshots. The players I interviewed for the book offer a lot of specific advice about this.

6. Never stop learning. It amazes me that even the most successful horseplayers in the world are always looking to continue their educations. Noel Michaels, author of The Handicapping Contest Handbook and an excellent contest player himself, recently told me, “Even though I’ve written a book about this stuff, I have the opinion that I have more to learn from everyone else than they have to learn from me. I try to take the best of what other people have to offer and incorporate that into my handicapping, and I’ve done that my whole career as a handicapper. You are your own person, but you have to acknowledge that other people have things to teach you and be willing to learn.”

That succinctly describes my attitude as well. I hope that my book has something to teach you. And I also hope that in the comments on my blog or when we meet at some future book signing, you’ll have something to teach me.