03/03/2014 2:16PM

A time and a place to play the favorite

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We all know this, but it bears repeating: There are no sure things, at the racetrack or in life. For every one bettor who proudly proclaims a certain odds-on horse can’t lose, there are four busted-out gamblers living in furnished rooms near racetracks around the country. Put another way, “Ain’t no man alive who can pay the rent at 1-5.”

Odds-on shots present a unique challenge in handicapping contests. They are generally avoided like the plague by seasoned contest players. Ken Massa, founder of the software group HTR and accomplished tournament player, explains, “Some players say they’re taking what the race gives them, that’s usually the attitude. But that’s a bad attitude to have in tournaments, believe me. Because every time you think ‘this chalk is a sure thing,’ you’re going to get snake-bit on that.”

Is there a case where Massa would play the favorite? “I wouldn’t put in the favorite under ANY circumstances, because it won’t hurt you. There’s no point in it. I’ve never gotten anywhere by having the chalk, even accidentally – you know like when you scratch and they give you the chalk or something. It’s never helped me. I’d say let the favorite beat you and go with something else. There must be a 4-1 shot in that race that has some chance to beat him. And since 6-5 isn’t going to hurt you, why not take a shot with the other one, in case the favorite stumbles or something?”

Massa’s logic makes a lot of sense – players who rely on heavy chalk consistently are doomed. There are some good players who will play super short in contests with lots of mandatory races. The idea is that in that format the odds-on horse can represent a “separator” between you and a tightly bunched field, particularly later on in the contest. This can be dangerous for the reasons Massa mentions above, but there are times when it makes sense. They don’t come up often, but they do happen.

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Let’s say that you and one opponent have both hit the same two price horses and now there are two races left in a contest. This penultimate race features an odds-on horse you like. From tracking your opponents’ tendencies, you know there’s no way they’ll play chalk under any circumstances and you really like the chances of this favorite. In that case, why not play it? When you get down to the end, having any lead, even a 10-cent lead, becomes a significant advantage, so why not make a contrarian chalk play and try to grab the lead?

Another instance where playing heavy chalk might make sense is jockeying for position in the last third of a contest. If you’ve done your homework and you know you have a decent price or two coming up in the last two races, gaining extra spots on the leaderboard can become really important – you don’t want to get blocked by other players playing the same prices in the later races. If there’s a circumstance where you love a heavy favorite and you can leapfrog up several spots in a tightly bunched field, feel free to take a shot.

In one contest this summer, the leader was way in front and there were six players all vying for the minor awards. I was in seventh. Everybody in two through six pretty much needed a cap horse – and there were only four cap horses, none of whom were too appealing. Meanwhile, there was a strong-looking even-money shot in the race who would give me enough points to sneak second place and a $2,000 payday. If I went for the win, I estimated my chance at about 1 percent to win the $5,000 first prize. First of all, I’d have to pick the right 20-1 shot. And because the five people ahead of me also were likely going to play a 20-1 shot, I’d have to pray I didn’t get blocked, an extremely likely scenario. So what’s better? A 1 percent shot at $5,000 (expected value $50) or a 45 percent shot at $2,000 (expected value $900)? I went with the chalk. The favorite won and I got paid. And no matter which capper I’d picked, I would have been drawing stone-cold dead.

Many tournament vets will bristle hearing these examples and (correctly) point out that most of the time a play on heavy chalk is a wasted play. If you’re going to play low, you’d better have a good reason, and it should be noted that a tolerance for playing low can be a bad habit that stifles your creativity in other races.

But still, it’s helpful for players to look at all scenarios and realize that almost every strategy has a time and a place. The right answer to most handicapping contest questions isn’t “yes” or “no,” but “it depends.” It just goes to show that there really are no sure things, not when it comes to horse races, and not when it comes to handicapping contest strategy.