08/17/2016 12:10PM

Shurman, Carson best of frenemies


Paul Shurman and Scott Carson first met at a Belmont Park handicapping contest, circa 2004. The two friends hit it off, and, as it often happens in the contest world, started to sit together regularly at events around the country at places like Arlington Park and Keeneland. Shurman had more tournament experience than Carson and became a mentor to him.

“Paul has great opinions and I’ve learned a little bit from him,” Carson said. “There have been times I’ve been in the lead in a contest and said, ‘Paul, what do you think I should do?’ ”

“Maybe years ago I was able to help a little bit but he has the strategy down now,” Shurman said of his former protégé, who went one better than him in last week’s Battle of Saratoga contest.

Shurman has earned his reputation through years of dedicated play. He has qualified for the National Handicapping Championship 15 times, finished in the top five at that event three times, and was the winner of the 2010 NHC Tour.

“Paul is one of the guys I fear most in any tournament,” Carson said. “I’ve been to more than one contest where his name isn’t in the top 10, then some 20-1 comes in the last leg and he inevitably has it and gets the seat to Vegas.”

Last week at Saratoga, it was Carson who ended up with the NHC seat and the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge seat. Shurman, already double-qualified for the NHC, settled for purse money.

Midway through Thursday’s contest, things didn’t look so good for Carson. “My opinions stunk – I hadn’t cashed a bet in a day and a half and was down to $80,” he explained. “I said out loud to Paul and Mitch [Schuman], ‘I think I need a new hobby.’ ”

Carson stayed the course and got his bankroll up to a respectable number heading to the last race. “We had both hit the last Gulfstream race and we discussed who we liked at Saratoga,” Shurman said, “but we didn’t know how each other were playing it.”

The leader had around $5,000, so Shurman set a target of $7,000. He explained his approach in the last leg of live-bankroll contests. “My theory is it’s always easier to win just by placing a win bet if you can,” he said. “I had $900 so if the horse I liked was 8-1 or 9-1 a straight win bet gets me to $7,000.”

In this case, the win bet wouldn’t have been enough, so he focused on a partial win bet along with exactas. The ability to see the probable pays allowed him to bet perfectly where if he was right he’d hit his target amount. If he’d had less bank, then he would have had to play trifectas, a dodgier proposition in terms of likelihood and also disadvantageous because you don’t have a probable pay screen to guide your betting. The latter can still work, however. Mark D’Amato hit a cold trifecta in the last to win Wednesday’s contest.

After the race, when his key horse won, Shurman thought he was in good shape. “I went to Scott and asked him what he had and he told me he hit a $500 exacta. I said, ‘What?!’ ”

Ironically, had Shurman been out of contention himself and in a position to advise Carson he would have proposed a different strategy. “I’d have told him it was a terrible bet,” he said. “A $500 exacta was overkill. He could have played two $250 exactas and gotten a winning total.”

It didn’t matter in the end. “He blew me out of the water,” Shurman said, “and it worked out great for him because he ended up with $14,000 instead of $8,000.”

Carson was obviously thrilled with the result but also understood that he could have played the contest more efficiently. “My takeaway is find one or two races that I really feel very strongly about and to go deep where your opinion is strongest, even if that’s the fifth race,” he said.

Being on the lead is often big disadvantage in a live-bank event. “Everyone is shooting for you,” Shurman explained, “and in a 200-[player] contest someone will play a combination to beat you.”

As a result, in a live-bank contest you want to be in range of the lead but not on it. As Shurman said, “There is no defense in live bankroll tournaments.”

This differs greatly from mythical-money events where you want to be on the lead and you can take control of the situation.

This was Shurman’s fifth second in a NYRA contest, but he was unfazed by the result. “I’m happy to come in second,” he said. “I easily could have been fourth or fifth, depending on what other people played in the last.”

The reason for his equanimity is that, like a lot of the most successful gamblers, he focuses on the decisions he makes, not the outcomes he receives. “I would have been upset if I made a mistake or missed something but I’m happy with the way I played it,” he said, “and if I had to lose I’m happy Scott won because at least now I’m going to get a dinner out of it.”