05/17/2017 12:49PM

Live-bank event conundrum: Sit or get in the pot?


To sit or not to sit?

That can become the key question for the leader – or for any player in a payout position -- at the end of a live-bankroll contest like this weekend’s Preakness Challenge at Santa Anita. Do you hope you’ve done enough and let others come get you? Or do you fire away and try to move the finish line?

In order to reasonably answer the question, more information is needed. The specifics of the prize pool will come into play for sure and all players should examine the payout structure as soon as it is available. In an event with a top-heavy prize structure (an outsized return for the outright winner), being aggressive, even from the top spot, makes a lot of sense. That score going into the last race becomes a target for everyone else playing. In a full field of top contest players, someone behind you is going to hit something, so you better be prepared to improve your score in the last race, even if only by a little.

One famous instance of a player choosing not to sit came at the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge in 2013. Kevin McFarland had a significant lead going to the last but he bet aggressively anyway. He ended up missing. Had he simply stayed put, he’d have won. But this was method, not madness.

For one thing, McFarland knew that many in the field would be firing their whole bankrolls in the last. That’s the strategy that produced both of Patrick McGoey’s BCBC wins in the previous two years. But there was an added wrinkle here as well. McFarland believed (correctly as it turned out) that favored Game On Dude was going to be off the board, triggering huge payoffs. He bet the race as he would have in real life but he didn’t connect and neither did anyone else. Second place finisher Bob Trainor got the win because the amount of McFarland’s bet dropped him out of the top slot.

Many players in McFarland’s shoes would have at least kept the back door to victory open, by wagering one dollar fewer than the amount between first and second, Jeopardy! style, but that was of no interest to McFarland. “It matters how you win,” he said. “I didn’t want to back in to victory; I wanted to win like Secretariat in the Belmont.

If you’re looking at a flatter prize structure, as is common in Keeneland’s live-bank events, a different strategy probably makes sense. At Keeneland, the different between first and seventh can be somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000. That’s not nothing, but a far cry from the tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of dollars it is in some events. At Keeneland, many of the good players in behind are going to be shooting for seventh, not first. If I’m leading in the last, and assuming I’d made all my mandatory plays, I might just put the stick away and wrap up.

At the recently concluded Grade One Gamble at Keeneland, Jonathon Kinchen was in an interesting spot. He was roughly $400 clear in first. He didn’t have a strong opinion in the last, but decided to take $399 (he watches a lot of Jeopardy!) and play it in exactas. Kinchen ended up getting split in his exactas -- the dreaded imperfecta. Blaise Brucato hit the race, and he just nosed out Kinchen. The finish was close enough that if Kinchen had just sat on his hands in the last he’d have held on to win.

Of course, just because these players’ decisions not to sit didn’t work out in these instances doesn’t mean they made mistakes. Plenty of good plays just don’t work out, and some players will just be more inclined than others to take risks in those situations. The best advice is to let your opinion of the race in question be your guide, but that’s not always possible. There are instances in contest play where you’re better off manufacturing a handicapping opinion and using good contest strategy than you are having a great opinion but ignoring strategy.