06/14/2016 12:13PM

When favorites are better than a poke in the eye

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An interesting question appeared in my Twitter direct messages the other day. It came from Dan Hubacher, who was playing in a mythical online contest on Belmont Day. I’ll let him take it from here:

“I was sitting in first up $12. There were three races left, ending with the Belmont. I didn’t take Frosted or Flintshire figuring the payouts would be low. My selection missed the board in both but I still had a $2 lead heading to the last. My pick in the Belmont was Stradivari. Of course I get jumped by two players to come in third. I was kicking myself after because I didn’t take Flintshire and his $6.20. Did I play it right and was this just a bad beat? Or did I play it incorrectly?”

Before I answer here, let me first praise the question. Too many horseplayers would automatically assume that they played it wrong simply because they didn’t get the result that they wanted. Dan’s willingness to step back and examine the process behind his choice speaks very well of his potential as a player. All successful bettors, whether we’re talking financial markets, sports, poker, or horse racing, are focused on whether or not they made the right decision, based on the situation before the fact, not whether or not they got the right outcome.

On to the specifics: I think Dan played it the way the vast majority of tournament players would have. There is a real antipathy among many dyed-in-the-wool contest players about playing chalk. Their logic is similar to what Dan says above: The favorites won’t hurt them that much so it’s okay to leave them out. There are a lot of great players – two-time second-place National Handicapping Championship finisher Roger Cettina comes to mind – who would rather walk across a bed of hot coals barefoot than play the favorite.

However, there is another approach, and it’s the one I’m inclined to take. There are situations – Flintshire being one (as you’d know if you listened to last week’s DRF Players’ Podcast where I simply think certain horses still represent good value, even at their low odds. With these “tent pole” type of favorites, I’m okay accepting a lower number, because we’ve seen numerous instances over the years where $0.90 ends up costing a player six figures in a contest, let alone $6.20.

I’m not saying my way is right and the anti-favorite thinking is wrong. It all comes down to your own handicapping style and your own strengths and weaknesses. Some players are good parsing the lower end of the odds spectrum. For this group, I think it’s okay to go as short as you want as long as there is value within the context of the situation. Other players are going to do their best work at 4-1 and above and if they worry too much about the lower-odds horses, they are going to cost themselves longshots. That’s no recipe for success. Another group of players might feel overly compelled to use too many favorites if they allow themselves to use any favorites. A heavy reliance on favorites can work in certain formats but it’s not going to win you $800,000 at the NHC. Whether or not Dan made the right choice comes down to a simple maxim, “Handicapper, know thyself.”

I write all the time about Paul Shurman’s handicapping contest wisdom, “Play who you like.” I think this is a clear case of that. Dan, if you couldn’t see beyond Frosted and Flintshire, you should have played them. If you genuinely liked others better at their prices, you played it exactly right and got unlucky.