06/21/2016 9:40AM

Fornatale: Late decision to play leads to paid vacation

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Every year, right around this time, Joe Koury, 52, and his family spend a week on the beach at Ocean City, N.J. Koury’s been very active on the National Handicapping Championship Tour so far in 2016, but for this week, his initial plan was to back off on his contest play and relax.

Koury is part of a group text along with two other active contest players and friends, Brent Sumja and Mark McGuire. Saturday morning he received word from McGuire that DRF Bets was running a contest that afternoon.

“I wrote back that I was going to have to sit this one out,” Koury said, figuring he’d still be settling in at the vacation house.

As it turned out, there was no traffic, unpacking was a breeze, and he the Koury clan had already finished their pizza lunch by 3:30. “I said to myself, ‘Let me see how that contest is going.'”

It was around the fifth race at Belmont, and no huge prices had come in yet. Koury decided to take the plunge.

The DRF Bets contests use a quirky format. Two NHC seats are usually on the line. DRF Bets contests cover three tracks and all plays are optional. This weekend the three tracks were Belmont, Monmouth, and Santa Anita. Players must make 10 wagers across the three tracks, $10 to win. The wagers are real – you get to keep winnings, and losses are deducted from your account. But the bankroll is fixed – that is, you can bet only $10, unlike in a live-bank event where you can reinvest up to your entire bankroll at any time.

Because it’s a real-money contest, there is no cap on what a winner will return. Most shrewd players realize that typically you need to hit the highest price in the day’s sequence to have a chance to win.

The other odd thing about the DRF Bets contests is the tiebreaking procedure – and because it’s a win-only format, ties are not at all unusual. In case of tie, the winner is the person who signs up for the contest first.

Koury knew he was at a slight disadvantage in that he had no shot to win any tiebreakers, having signed up halfway through the contest. But he had a plan.

“It’s a format that rewards playing 30-1 shots,” he said, “but I also know that you have to have some other winner as a separator.”

After his first eight plays, Koury still had a goose egg despite trying some lower prices along the way. He had a couple of seconds, but those do you no good in the win-only format. Sarah Wiener sat atop the standings with $382. The next race was the Rainbow Stakes at Santa Anita.

“At that point I was down to just playing odds,” he said, “and I always like to play Edwin Maldonado on a bomb. He’ll ride the hair off a horse and he brings them in.”

Maldonado’s mount, Mr. Roary, ended up going wire to wire at 38-1. Eight players, including Koury, used the horse, and they ended up in an eight-way tie for the lead at $390 because they were all on zero heading in to that race.

This is where the strategy got interesting. There were three races left in the contest. The Summertime Oaks, with lock of the year Songbird, was second of the three. The DRF Bets contests doesn’t allow you a way to see who has how many plays left.

“My first thought was to just go ahead and take Songbird to break the tie and hope the other players were out of bullets,” Koury said.

Meanwhile, he was continuing to chat with Sumja and Maguire on the group text. Over the years, Sumja, the 2013 NHC Tour champ, has given Koury a lot of credit for helping with strategy at key moments in tournaments. On Saturday, Sumja returned the favor.

He suggested that Tengas Ransom, an even-money shot at Santa Anita in the race before Songbird's, was a better play. He pointed out to Koury that two other players were bound to take Songbird and he’d lose the tiebreaker. Tengas Ransom would surely be a longer price.

Tengas Ransom won and paid $3.80, returning $19 to Koury and giving him a clear lead. Next up was Songbird, who romped. To his shock, not one player picked her. Perhaps they were all out of bullets at that point. Or maybe there was a game theory situation where players with bullets left were all worried, like Koury, that they’d come out on the wrong side of the tiebreaker. The last race was won by a seemingly have-able 5-1 shot in a wide-open race but, once again, the leaderboard did not change.

In the end, Koury secured his second NHC seat for 2016. The tiebreaker and second NHC seat went to Norma Mendoza. Koury’s short-term goal is to finish in the top five of the first-half of the NHC Tour and win either $10,000 or a seat to the Breeders’ Cup Challenge.

Also this weekend in the DRF Tournaments, Sally Goodall, Jim Meeks, and Eric Moomey won NHC seats in an NHCQualify event. Todd Cady and Brian Chenvert won Breeders’ Cup seats in a BCQualify event. And the final seat for next weekend’s Santa Anita contest went to Bob Turner.

Check out the new DRF Tournaments platform for contest action from Wednesday through Sunday every week.