12/23/2013 11:38AM

Six important lessons for contest play


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.

Ron Solberg More than 1 year ago
ive played in a lot of contest where you seldom see a cap horse. as far as the learning goes.this is a school that you go to but you never graduate.
Bob More than 1 year ago
Strategy aside, you aren't going to win any contest unless you hook more cap horses than the next guy.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
This is definitively not true from my experience. Cap horses are extremely helpful, obviously, but you can do plenty of good things by catching horses in the sweet spot range of 5-1 to 15-1, especially in a bullet format.
Bob More than 1 year ago
I have to disagree with #3....if you are reading the DRF you are using the exact same information as everyone else in the room and unless everyone else in the room is a complete idiot, you gain no advantage what so ever from the information in the Form. When Jeff Goldstein was alive and his trainer-jockey report for California tracks were still be published, I used to crush the field every once in a while because of information I had, that nobody else did. But I can't recall a single instance where the fact that I had the DRF was the difference between winning and losing.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I see where you're coming from but that's what great abt Formulator imo. It allows you a better way to keep track of your own subjective experience of watching the races in a way you can gain an edge. Plus, players willing to do the extra trainer/chart work can still gain an edge that way -- just b/c everyone has access to good information doesn't mean they know how to use it. That's where the edge comes into play in my experience.
Bellwether4U More than 1 year ago
I need all the help I can get and then some...ty...
Vince L More than 1 year ago
Once again, thank you for writing a column specific to the needs of tournament players. For what it's worth, in addition to the six lessons you list, I have found a couple other things valuable to successful play. First, isolate your play to three (3) tracks on any particular day. Trying to handicap six or seven tracks the night before they go can drive one to drink. Instead, pick three tracks you are comfortable with and then pick specific races at those tracks that are likely to provide value plays. In other words, don't play the five horse fields where the longest shot on the board is 5-1. Instead, handicap the full fields and look for angles, i.e. 2nd race off a layoff, 1st time Lasix, distance cutbacks, etc. If you can't find enough horses at the three tracks to fill your card, THEN go to other tracks for your final two or three plays. Second, don't be afraid to play 20-1 shots if you can build even a minor case for the horse. And, don't regret your pick if it runs up the track. Keep plugging with prices because nobody wins these things by hitting 9/2 shots. You have to have some big prices somewhere in the mix. Remember, horses that pay $40 are not going to be easy to spot. Don't expect a consistent horse with fast works and a top jock to pay a cap price. It's going to be the horse no one else can see. So, have the courage of your convictions and be a little wild. Each tournament is different, of course. Some tourneys are going to have races that play to your style of handicapping and others will end with you feeling disappointed and wondering if you should keep entering these things. Stay the course.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
Handy Graph More than 1 year ago
LOL. I have won a contest or two. Got so wrapped up in one that, although I won $500 and a souvenir T-shirt, I missed a $300+ double and a $200 exacta, because I forgot to go to the real window. Add that mistake to your list of contest "don'ts."
mikey More than 1 year ago
The true contest is the one where you make your picks before it starts.Picking a 40-1 shot only because that is the only horse that will help is not handicapping.Make your 10 or 12 picks and see how good you are.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
There are plenty of contests out there that utilize this exact format. If that's how you feel, stick to those. Personally, I like viewing the horses, making adjustments on the fly and the game theory aspect of contests too much for those. . .
Wayne Gunter More than 1 year ago
You must have the last winner with enough odds to have a chance.
Wayne Gunter More than 1 year ago
In a large field of players,I think you have a very good chance going intothe last race about 20 to 30 dollars behind if the race has 10 or more horses.
mikey More than 1 year ago
Only if you have to pass 1 or 2 not 10 or more.
Matthew Ellis More than 1 year ago
Cant wait for the book The Winning Contest Player. You sir have filled a void that has been missing for years. It personally was the reason I avoided Contests (Ignorance ) and intimidation by not knowing. Thank you for finally providing a reference along with models of successful player to gauge. Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays to ALL
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Tx, Matthew!! Your check is in the mail :)
Bob Lunny More than 1 year ago
I see players hit a $40 horse in a contest. Looking at the pp's, the horse has finished last the last 3 times. No speed, no moves, no speed in the works, J/T stats are bad. Yet the horse goes wire to wire and wins. Those are the players I would like to hear from.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I've seen horses like that win as well. I have noticed that the turnaround has typically been due to some major change -- barn change, blinks on in a young horse etc. In fact, my friend Emily Gullikson pointed one out to me pre-race this summer, was at Charles Town maybe? Horse had three runs, all last, but was changing barns and the works had improved markedly. Thing went wire to wire. Sometimes you have to look beyond the bare form to find the bomberoo. It's a lot easier to get creative in races where the faves are vulnerable. . .
Bob Lunny More than 1 year ago
Handy Graph More than 1 year ago
At Charles Town it's often more profitable to spot the chalk horses that did not run at all. Those stables are worthy of note, too. Try to figure out the races they care about.
Josh Kamis More than 1 year ago
Best example I can give is longest shot on the board at 15-1 or higher wins easy in a 6 horse field. Why did he win?
Roger More than 1 year ago
Peter Merry Xmas to you and your family really looking forward to the book see you in Vegas in Jan…R
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Tx Roger! I look forward to meeting in person and I hope you like the book!
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I agree that odds changes often cause a conundrum for the contest player. Often I'll make a value line on horses I might bet in a contest and use that as a guide. For example, a 12-1 ML horse that I like, I might make 6-1 on my line. I'll use that 6-1 as a cut off. If the horse is 5 a minute before the off, I'll pass. If he;s 7-1, I'll still bet, But of course, there's a lot of feel involved as you don't know what price the horse will go off at. Syill, having your own line gives you an extra level of guidance at the least. . .hope this helps!
Lenny Mamola More than 1 year ago
I'll take 4-1 5-1 7/2 on any horse I handicap to win even if he's 2-1 and I feel he is a definite winner I just up the bet
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The one hurdle I just can't get over is odds changes. If I like a horse with a morning line of 12-1, that has dropped to 4-1, what do I do? I seem to usually switch my pick to a horse that had a morning line of 7/2 that I liked, but not at that price, that has drifted up to 7-1.