03/03/2014 1:16PM

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.

zeakman1398 More than 1 year ago
Peter, I've officially read every blog of yours I can find. I'm a relatively young player, who's been at it for a while and am growing increasingly interested in tournaments and contests just based on life circumstances. I have an account through drfbets. Before I get going, I'd like to try some different formats. Anyway you could identify some trusted sites I could visit to explore options?
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Thanks so much for your support -- I really appreciate it! The best way to get a complete list of sites offering contests is to pick up a copy of book, The Winning Contest Player.
zeakman1398 More than 1 year ago
Thanks Peter, and I certainly plan to do so... but I was referring to a website that lists upcoming tournaments open to the public! I never use acronyms during typing (i.e. lol), but I'm certainly tempted to in this case.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I don't know of a specific website that lists all the contest sites out there but I think you can find the info you want with a little judicious googling. I don't want to plug one of my friends' sites without plugging them all. I do list them all -- as far as I know -- in the book, though, which is why I mentioned it.
Russ Jenkins More than 1 year ago
Personally, i think there's a huge difference in a contest between a favorite that's 8-5 to 3-1 and one that's 1-9 up to say 4-5. If i love a 3-1 horse and he's the favorite, so be it. For me to play a horse that's 2-5 in a contest, it's gonna take some very special circumstances like the ones Peter mentions.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Absolutely right, Russ. Tx for commenting.
Nicholas Briglia More than 1 year ago
Much of this holds true for any type of betting. Odds on horses are mostly a waste of bullets. Either beat 'em or pass 'em. Obviously, in a mandatory race in a contest you can't pass so you must be able to find something in the race that has some kind of chance.
Jerry B More than 1 year ago
Thats kinda the problems with these contests , I hear players complain about mandatory bets etc , that they are forced to make a play they would never make normally , yet they might bet an odds on favorite to wrap up a tournament , and thats hypocritical because I know no one that really thinks he can make money at the races who would ever make a flat win bet on an odds on favorite with real money.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think there could be another time to play a favorite. if there's a 6 horse race, and 3 of the choices are in the 2-1 to 3-1 range, and the other 3 are all around 12-1 to 20-1. If it's toward the end of the contest and you're near the top of the leaderboard, the chalk isn't a waste.
Russ Jenkins More than 1 year ago
Good article; i pretty much agree with all of your reasoning. Usually a bad idea to play the heavy chalk, but in the instances you mention, it can make sense.