01/13/2017 2:51PM

Marlaire over the moon about NHC berth

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Retirement is treating Michael Marlaire well.

Marlaire was most recently the director of a NASA research facility in Silicon Valley, a 2,000-acre site. He worked as a federal civil servant for 30 years. He’s thrilled to be headed back to the National Handicapping Championship after running second on DRF Tournaments last weekend.

“This will be my third time at the NHC and we all know the third time is the charm, right?” He punctuated his rhetorical question with a simple exclamation, shouted by many a contest player in the wake of victory: “Vegas, baby!”

Marlaire’s strategy is simple but smart, and it led him to a lot of success in 2015, when he finished in the money on the NHC tour. “For better or worse I play the same strategy in tournaments, pick the 'best horse' to win, which many times may be the favorite,” he explained.

A lot of contest players are always focused on longshots and that strategy certainly pays dividends for some. Marlaire is a big believer in preparation and he handicaps not just the races, but the whole sequence, in advance.

“In particular, I look if there are any big favorites at the end of the day who probably won’t lose. If there are, I know that I’ll have to find my bigger prices earlier.”

As has been written many times, longer prices early in a contest are worth a lot more in reality than longer prices late, simply because fewer players will have them. Marlaire understands the dangers of getting left behind.

“It can be hard to come back,” he said, “because a lot of players will start playing every longshot. I don’t want to bet longshots at the end because that’s what everybody is doing.”

As with all aspects of market dynamics in general and horseplaying in particular, you never want to just follow the crowd, even if you are willing to playing some favorites along the way.

For Marlaire, who started playing contests in 2013 after being a racing fan for three decades, experience taught him his current philosophy. His first trip to the NHC came a year before his first qualification. He tried to get a spot via the Last Chance contest. It didn’t work out.

“I left totally demoralized and came back thinking ‘I have to change how I play these,' ” Marlaire says. “I was too quick to pick longshots. Since I went back to the way I usually handicap – looking for value and not necessarily looking for longshots – it's been very positive.”

Marlaire’s love of racing began in the 1980s when he was working in Washington, D.C.  Laurel Park had free admission and he and his wife went to check it out.

“It was just marvelous,” Marlaire recalled. “You'd bring picnic baskets. We really got into it and enjoyed it. This was prior to simulcasting so we just played Pimlico and Laurel.”

After moving west, he became a regular at the long-gone Bay Meadows, but these days he focuses more of his play online and in the contest world. For him, the pinnacle of the latter is the NHC.

“You knew somebody in that room is going to win close to a million dollars,” he said.