11/30/2016 2:09PM

When to change horses in midstream

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Handicapping contests offer horseplayers a chance to solve multi-level puzzles, especially as one approaches the endgame. You don’t only need to try to pick the horse that’s going to win, you have to make sure the horse in question will get you the points you need in the context of the contest and you have to consider the possibility that someone in front of you will play the same horse and leave you blocked. It’s a rotten feeling to play a horse late that you love, only to see the player just above you play the same one, leaving you drawing stone cold dead.

Saturday’s BCQualify contest on DRF Tournaments provided another interesting twist to an already complicated puzzle. Ten races in, with two to go, the leaderboard looked something like this:

John Nichols $64.80

Michael Ray $62.00

Curtis Meyer $56.80

Sally Goodall $50.90

Dave Gutfreund $50.10

Then came Del Mar sixth race, the now infamous 2016 running of the Jimmy Durante Stakes. During the race there was debris on the course that created interference for 10 of the 13 runners. In the immediate aftermath of the race it seemed likely that the race would be declared a no-contest. But Gutfreund said it best: “You never know what’s going to happen with the Southern California stewards.”

Nichols’s top pick in the Jimmy Durante was Journey Home, but he made a switch before the race. “I was playing in another online contest" -- in which he was doing well -- "and I almost never do this, but I kept [Journey Home] there and switched my pick" in the BCQualify contest, he explained. “That way I was going to win one or the other.”

The plan worked out for Nichols, who ended up with a significant cash in the other contest. The Del Mar result did change his plan for what to do in the last race in the BCQualify contest.

“I thought it was going to be a no-contest at first,” he said, “but I watched the replay and saw everybody steadied a little bit but nobody took the worst of it. Since Journey Home was the best horse either way I figured they’d leave it.”

He’d originally selected McCraken in the Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill but switched to Total Tap to give himself a chance to win.

Michael Ray was playing in partnership with Chick Matties. Ray was handicapping the Del Mar races, Matties was making the picks for Churchill.

“We didn’t consider that the Del Mar race would be a no-contest,” Matties said. “I originally had McCraken at Churchill, but after the Del Mar race we figured we were far enough ahead that we had the protection of McCraken anyway.”

In other words, if McCraken won, they’d still qualify, so why not change the pick to a horse that could potentially hurt them? That’s what they did when they switched to Warrior’s Club.

Meyer went with eventual second-place finisher Defiant Honor in the Durante. He got place points but still had to reach for a longer price in the Jockey Club with Wild Shot. He got place points again, but not enough to put him up in the prize pool.

Things really got interesting in the battle between veteran players Goodall and Gutfreund. Goodall was nursing an 80-cent lead and both picked Journey Home.

“After the race it felt like my head was about to explode,” said Gutfreund, who was furiously making two sets of standings trying to figure out the right strategy: one set if the Del Mar result stayed, the other if it was called a no-contest.

“If Del Mar was a no-contest I’d be drawing dead with McCraken at Churchill, and I might be drawing dead anyway if Sally picked him and blocked me.”

This is where Gutfreund’s skill as a poker player – he cashed for over $150,000 in a Heartland Poker Tour event back in 2014 – came into play. “I’ve played with Sally enough to know she wasn’t likely to take a short-price in the last, so I figured taking McCraken and hoping the result stood at Del Mar was my most likely way to get a seat.”

As for Goodall, Gutfreund was right in his guess: “I was back and forth between McCraken and Uncontested, but I hoped no one would have the guts to go with a 4-5 shot, but Dave did,” she said.

In the end, Gutfreund knew Goodall better than Goodall knew Gutfreund and that made all the difference. “Honestly, I was happier about making the right call in that crazy situation than I was about winning the seat,” he said.

Gutfreund’s achievement in this event is particularly notable. Back in January, after finishing fifth at the NHC, he won a seat to the 2017 event in the very next qualifying contest. Last month at the BCBC, Gutfreund finished sixth, and now he’s secured a seat for next year as well, once again in the very next qualifying contest.

The final scoreboard looked like this:

Michael Ray $88.30

Dave Gutfreund $82.10

Sally Goodall $76.90

Joel Wincowski $71.10

James Riley $70.50

Ray and Gutfreund got their full $10,000 BCBC seats with Goodall, Wincowski, and Riley getting partial $2,500 buy-ins. The latter two had Journey Home and collected in the Kentucky Jockey Club, but not enough for the big prize but sufficient to leapfrog into the top five and get a nice reward.