11/10/2017 3:56PM

BCBC rule change paved way for winning strategy


At the heart of the controversy surrounding the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, which has held up the distribution of purses pending an investigation, is a rule change. But first, you need to understand something about the BCBC and why it was invented.

Ken Kirchner, who was the founder of the BCBC and a wagering consultant for the event from 2009-15, explained, “The purpose of the tournament is to have players bet. The whole point of the BCBC was not just to reward horseplayers with the biggest live-money tournament in racing … it was also to drive parimutuel handle.”

He also pointed out that asking players to bet $7,500 over the weekend isn’t exactly a hardship.

“You’ve got 13 Breeders’ Cup races plus full fields on the undercards,” he said. “It’s not a burden to ask players to bet on 10 of those 22 races when you’re betting on the best of the best.”

Back in 2015, rules regarding minimum wagers were strict. A player missing a minimum bet on Friday ($600 on five races) would receive a 5,000-point penalty off of his or her final score. If one missed a Saturday minimum ($900 on five races), that would be cause for disqualification. This rule cost Nisan Gabbay – this year’s unofficial winner – back in 2015.

Gabbay failed to get a bet in for the Juvenile on Saturday, in a year when he said he planned to make a significant final bet on an exacta in the Classic with American Pharoah on top of Effinex, an exacta that would eventually pay $76.40.

“I would have won the tournament,” Gabbay said. “Instead, I got shut out in the line. That’s where that largely came from. We didn’t think you should be DQ’ed just because of bad luck.”

Gabbay also said that he and his partner Kevin McFarland believed that players should be freed up to pass races so that they could make sizable bets late in the tournament without risking their bankrolls with spot plays at the minimum earlier on the card.

“You should be able to bet the entire amount [of your bankroll] on the last few races,” he said.

Kirchner said that since the tournament’s inception different groups of players had lobbied for different rule changes – the addition of horizontal bets, for example. A small group of players, including McFarland and Christian Hellmers, had been lobbying for a removal of minimum bets as far back as 2012. He added that the more stringent rules were in place despite the knowledge “that there was already a body of evidence out there that the winning strategy might be to sit on a bankroll to make big plays at the end.”

The new rules allowed players such as Gabbay and Hellmers and approximately 10 others to sit on their bankrolls on Day 1 for an insignificant penalty of 1,000 points per race to be deducted from their final score. On Day 2, players missing minimums were deducted just 2,000 points per race from their final scores. Many tournament players assumed that the money also was deducted from their active bankrolls, but it was not. As the current rule is written, to not play on Day 1 is an advantage (note that second-place finisher Ron Ferrise also didn’t wager on Day 1). And with so few in the field understanding the new rule, the advantage was outsized.

Breeders’ Cup officials did not return calls Friday seeking comment on how the rule changes impacted the tournament.

National Horseplayers Championship Hall of Famer Paul Shurman, one of the most respected tournament players in the game, emphasized that the new rule’s meaning wasn’t clear, in part because it was so antithetical to the entire raison d’etre of live-bank tournament play.

“The entire premise of BCBC is that you have to bet $600 on at least five races on Day 1 and at least $900 on at least five races on Day 2,” Shurman said. “That’s what players understood the requirements were and that’s how players handicapped and played the contest.”

He estimated that 98 percent of the players in the BCBC played the contest as it was initially intended. “Many played races they didn’t like just to try to get the requirements out of the way. How many players lost $600 or $900 playing that amount of money on odds-on favorite to show and lost it because the horse ran out of the money?”

The presumption that players had to make those wagers was reinforced by the fact that “after penalty” scores posted on the BCBC leaderboard at the beginning of Day 2 showed players who made no bets with $2,500.

“Why would anyone assume, and how would anyone know, that those players actually had $7,500 to bet with, not just $2,500?,” Shurman said.

That presumption was of course also reinforced by the fact that the new rule runs directly contrary to the interests of the BCBC.

“It doesn’t make sense that the BCBC would institute a rule that would decrease the amount of money a player had to wager,” Shurman continued. “Theoretically, nobody had to make a wager on Day 1 or until the end of Day 2. There is really no penalty.”

In the end, a small group of advantage players lobbied for a rule change that they then exploited to win more than $500,000 at the world’s richest live-bankroll tournament.

That attitude seems to be the prevailing one, with more players questioning the way the contest was run as opposed to the validity of Gabbay’s win.

Professional horseplayer Sean Boarman was playing in just his second live-bankroll tournament.

“I’m done with these things unless something big changes,” he said. “It’s a million-dollar tournament, and they run it like a neighborhood poker game.”

– additional reporting by Matt Hegarty