There has been an explosion of daily horse racing contest sites in the recent years. Most of us have played freebies and low-cost “feeder” contests on sites such as Derby Wars, HorseTourneys, DRF Tournaments and NHCQualify. Many of us have participated in live contests at tracks or off-track betting parlors. As someone who has made a profit betting the races for quite a while, I often ask myself why I do so poorly in horse racing tournaments.
The answer is that I did not deviate from my normal handicapping and wagering strategy. The original point of the blog I started 2011 was to document my trials and tribulations as I tried to find my way into the NHC finals. I was not alone in this quest here in New Jersey and found some comradery with fellow Monmouth Park denizens Terry and Bill, both of whom have made it to Las Vegas in the past couple of years. Yet, some of the best handicappers I know struggle in contest play.
Recently, there were many great comments on the Facebook thread from my article “Can You Make a Living Playing the Races?” This got me to thinking, what is the difference between everyday handicapping and contest handicapping?
The first published book I remember about contest play was “Handicapping Contest Handbook” by Noel Michaels, published in 2005. While most of the book recapped prior NHC tournaments and provided information on venues that offered qualifying events at the time, there are about 40 pages that discuss strategy. While I agree with many of the 20 Steps to Tournament Success, in some cases you must play outside of your comfort zone.
With the varying formats that are now available, you must make sure that you understand the rules going into the contest. Some contests require all selections be placed before the start of the first race, others allow selections up to post time. Some contests will provide mandatory races that all entrants must play, others will allow the entrant to select a number of races out of several tracks to plays, and still others will have some mandatory races, along with the ability to select from a number of races for the remainder of the session.
Some contests are set at $2 to win, or $2 to win and place, while other contests allow variable wagers to win, place or show.
A factor to consider is how do you arrive at your daily plays? Do you look to pick one horse per race or do you look for a group of contenders per race? In most races that I play, I will establish what the likely and alternate pace scenarios are. While I like to play daily doubles and other multi-race wagers, in a contest you must select only one horse to play. Do you take the most likely horse or the horse with the highest odds? Some players will avoid favorites, yet if you feel that, based on your fair odds, the play is an overlay, should you still play it?
Contests demand riskier play than daily betting. You will need to play some longshots in races where you may feel that, while they are a contender, they are not your top choice. Daily play is a grind. There are days when I handicap a race card and find one or two plays and days when I find none. Contests will dictate that you go beyond what you would play to hit the minimum number of plays. While your handicapping approach may not change, your gambling strategy must adapt to find value in a 10- or 12-race contest.
Compared to your normal handicapping, trying to find a high percentage of winners at a nice price is not easy. There is a certain amount of luck required to stand out from the other entrants in a contest given this sample size.
A perfect example of risk equaling reward was in the free DRF Tournaments contest on July 30, 2016. At one point, I had managed to climb to within $5 of making the top four. The ninth race of the ten-race contest was the Jim Dandy. I had assessed that Laoban had an early speed advantage, but questioned his ability to be able to finish the race. I passed on him and went with Governor Malibu. While I did collect $5.60 on the race with Governor Malibu, I missed out on the $73.20 that Laoban returned to win-place. That would be the difference in the contest. I finished in 184th place out of 1,984 entrants. Had I gone with what I deemed the riskier play, I would have finally punched my ticket to the NHC Finals in Las Vegas.
At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself whether you want to be a successful horseplayer or you want to win a contest. It is hard to do both if the contest play deviates from your normal strategy. You must take risks that you would not take in your regular course of handicapping. Don’t abandon your daily handicapping and money management methods, but consider changing your mindset for the short-term in a contest scenario.