06/29/2016 1:16PM

Gilbert moving up the ranks of contest players

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Over the last few years, a number of active and retired military men have made their mark in the contest world. Add another name to the list in Robert Gilbert. A 65-year-old from Yardley, Pa., Gilbert is retired from careers in both the U.S. Air Force and as a high school teacher. Last Saturday, he qualified for the National Handicapping Championship for the third straight year in an NHCQualify event on DRF Tournaments.

Gilbert’s horseplayer origins are familiar. “My father was interested in horse racing and took me to all the tracks in Southern California at an early age,” he said. “I loved the environment, reading the Racing Form, and the challenge of finding winners.”

It was a different world back then. “People actually went to the track, handicapping tools were few, and all bets were placed with a live person who gave you a fancy color ticket,” he said.

Gilbert had heard about contests for a long time but never got involved until he saw the “Horseplayers” TV show, starring DRF’s own Matt Bernier, among others. “The cast’s pursuit of an NHC entry sparked my interest,” he said. “The show and the fine cast were a boom to the tournament business.”

Indeed they were. Gilbert’s form at the NHC is improving. Last year, he made the semifinal round. At the NHC, only the top 10 percent of players advance to the third day. He ended up 37th overall. In 2016, he’s already won an entry to the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, meaning he’ll be playing in the two most prestigious contests of the year, an achievement for any contest player, let alone one so new to the game.

He likened his handicapping process to a Rorschach test. “To me, past performances have become like looking at abstract art or those inkblots psychologists use – you see what you want to see, or you see too many things, or you’re not sure what you’re looking at is real,” he said. “I like to look at a number of different sources and try to reach a consensus.”

His approach to contests is equally intellectual. “In live contests, I try to play the contest vs. the races,” he said. “I have a rough idea of potential horses in each race and decide based on my position and the current odds.”

Gilbert has noticed the contest truism that a price early is worth more than a price late. “I find it better trying to hit a price horse from the beginning because I like playing from ahead rather than from behind,” he said. “If you hit, you can play better horses. If you’re behind, you can keep trying to find a price.”

And late in contests, many players will settle on the same longshots in hopes of moving up the leaderboard, whereas earlier in a contest, fewer players are likely to have your longshot. The other thing about contest strategy is that hindsight is always 20-20. “Unfortunately, you never know the right strategy until afterwards,” he added before acknowledging the role that randomness plays in any one given contest. “Luck is the most important variable.”

A different kind of luck worked out for Gilbert last Saturday – Lucky Town, a cap horse, in Belmont’s 10th race. “I needed a big price to have any chance,” he said. “Lucky Town had big odds, hadn’t raced much, was on Lasix for the second time, and the trainer looked like he was experimenting, trying to find the right mix.”

After Gilbert got lucky with Lucky Town, he was in first, but there were a bunch of other players within striking range. He was in that enviable position where all he had to do was pick the winner, regardless of price. “I took a chance and played the favorite, Taman Guard,” he said. “He looked the best on paper, had Mike Smith aboard, and favorites win 33 percent of these races at Santa Anita.”

In the end, Gilbert got the victory and will be headed back to the NHC, with both eyes on a spot at the final table this time. Sure, luck plays a major role in contests, but with his sharp approach and game-plan ability, Gilbert is the type of player who makes his own luck.

Friday feeders

There are four contests on DRF Tournaments on Friday, including a new winner-take-all credit builder. They all will be using the all-in format.

For $26, you can try to finish in the top 10 percent and advance to the Sunday, July 10, NHC qualifier.

For $21, you can try to finish in the top 10 percent and advance to this Saturday’s BCBC qualifier.

For $15, you can play in one of two credit builders. The first features a field limited to 11 players, and the winner will receive $150 in credit. It may have filled by the time you read this. The second allows 35 entries and has a purse of $500 to be divided among the top three finishers ($250 to first, $150 to second, and $100 to third).

Here are the races for Friday’s contests (all times Eastern):

3:47 Churchill 7

4:09 Belmont 3

4:19 Churchill 8

4:26 Gulfstream 7

4:41 Belmont 4

4:51 Churchill 9

4:58 Gulfstream 8

5:13 Belmont 5

5:23 Churchill 10

5:30 Gulfstream 9