03/15/2017 1:21PM

Circumstance often dictates contest strategy

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When I was writing "The Winning Contest Player," I really enjoyed playing in live-format contests. The game-within-a-game aspect was very appealing. In most races, decisions are very straightforward: If there is one horse you like, you play it. But when there is more than one possible play, that’s where the fun begins: Which one does it make sense to play based on the circumstances?

It’s considered axiomatic in contest play that if you like two runners equally, you play the one who is the longer price. But when you like the shorter runner the same as the longer one when considering relative value, that’s where things get really interesting.

There are several factors to consider. For one, what is your position in the contest? With a sizable lead, I might be apt to enjoy a version of “the protection of the chalk” and go with a longer-priced horse. With a slight lead in a competitive race, it might make more sense to lean to the shorter end of the odds spectrum.

The size of the field is also a factor. In a big group of players, I am likely to be more inclined toward taking a longer price because it’s a lot more likely to take a bigger score to win. In a contest like the new five-player winner-take-all credit builders on DRF Tournaments, I might just go ahead and put the shorter price in.

It can also be a real advantage if you know the tendencies of the people you’re competing against. This can most definitely inform decisions you make, especially late on in a contest. This is where the horse racing tournament world intersects with the poker world where you can play the other players as well as your cards.

Tourney veteran Mark Maguire likes to tell a story about a match-up contest he played against a certain racing pundit. The pundit had recently written a piece about a certain trainer he liked. It got to the last race of the match-up and it was tight: Maguire held only a slight lead over the pundit. Maguire was tickled when he saw that his opponent’s pet trainer had one of the logical contenders. Maguire played that horse, and as he figured would happen, so did the pundit. The contest was over as a result of the block and Maguire sent the pundit a message. It read: “Thank you very much.”

What happens if you fall behind early? Many players will immediately switch to playing longer-priced runners, often to a fault. Yes, the straight math dictates that it’s easier to get one or two long-priced runners than three or four shorter ones. And if you legitmately like bombs, you should absolutely play them. But some players go into “stab mode” too quickly, reaching for prices they don’t like, rather than trying to chip along with horses they actually like and grind back into the picture that way.

Once it gets late enough in the contest, it will make sense to play the board. This drives a lot of contest players crazy, but it’s just part of playing in mythical online contests. On the plus side, this aspect of contest play at least keeps things a little interesting until the end.

When making your final decision about whom to play, here’s the question to ask yourself: Which of these runners will make me feel sicker if it wins and I don’t have it?