This article by Jerod Dinkin originally appeared in February's Horseplayer Monthly magazine. To read that issue, or any of the previous issues, chalk filled with handicapping articles and stats, please click here. It is 100% free.
Over the years, with the popularity of handicapping tournaments increasing, there have been a number of “how-to” type articles dealing with proper strategy. Even with the best strategic guidance, there is no magic bullet to guarantee success, and akin to the regular day-to-day pari-mutuel endeavor, no easy solution to the puzzle. Besting a field of relatively equally matched, veteran contest players requires a lot of skill, luck, and preparation. However, there are simple steps you can take to put yourself in a better position to succeed by “controlling what you can control.”
I played basketball under a legendary coach that preached that the difference between winning and losing often came down to three points, all of which are in your control: (1) Conditioning (2) Preparation (3) Effort. Our team succeeded largely by being in better shape than our opponents, preparing to take away what they do best, and putting forth maximum effort. Sometimes, you can do all of the above and still lose, but you only want that to occur when the other team is simply superior despite execution of those core principles. While contest play is vastly different than athletic competition, certain tenets hold true. In general, you can “control what you can control” in the contest world by sticking to the following:
1. Completely understand and master the rules of each contest you enter prior to plunking down your hard earned cash for the entry fee
This seems like advice akin to telling the new owner of a computer that the first step is to plug it in, but you would be shocked at the number of contest entrants that make inexplicable decisions where the only logical conclusion is that the player didn’t grasp the rules (or was drunk or perhaps a combination of the two). The modern day tournament scene has a variety of formats with differing rules. Whether online or in person, read through the Official Rules from start to finish. Contact tournament officials with any questions to assure your assumption of the rules is in fact correct. Often times, the Official Rules contain vague language that requires clarification.
2. Keep your emotions under wraps
Again, seemingly straight forward advice, but how many times have you gone on emotional tilt? How many times have you missed that 15-1 horse that wins the first contest race and gone straight in the tank? Each time you fly off the handle or get down on yourself, it’s an advantage to the other contestants. Every single person out there has had a tough photo go the other way, been between two potential plays and selected the “other” horse, and had one or more other players pass them in the final contest race with a complete stab they only selected due to their place far back in the standings. The more time you stew in your own pool of self-pity the worse off you’ll be. Additionally, no one wants to hear your bad beat story. We’ve all been there, done that (it’s also the single worst part about sitting at a poker table; the under/over on how quickly you hear a bad beat story is three and a half minutes). Don’t be that guy/gal. Be a man/woman, take accountability, and recognize that no one put a gun to your head and made you select that horse (well, it might happen at Thistledown).
Make your selection, let the cards fall where they may, and turn the page, win or lose. The next race is coming up and those with a clear head have an advantage.
3. Don’t forgo any potential advantages to the field
Tournaments are hard enough to win without spotting the field certain advantages. For instance, if you partake in an online contest where you have the ability to make picks one minute prior to post for each contest race, be present to do so. If you don’t have the time to participate and be there for each and every race, don’t enter the contest. If time constrained, either find a format that requires all plays to be made prior to the first contest race or pass altogether.
4. Value / Fixed Loss
This doesn’t pertain to contest advice per se, rather the concept of a fixed loss is included as an item under your control because handicapping contests provide a unique cost structure that is good for those that often struggle with sticking to their bankroll in ordinary pari-mutuel wagering situations. You know going into each contest the exact amount you will spend for the day and often contests will run from the start of east coast tracks until the end of the west coast races. Even the most disciplined long-term profit seeking handicapper struggles with playing too many races in their typical pari-mutuel day at the races / day in front of the computer. Contest play helps those that struggle with “over betting” enjoy a day of entertainment at a known cost.
Another point on the subject is that value, when taken in context of the tournament world, is less black and white versus that of the typical pari-mutuel endeavor. Each individual will assess the experience at the NHC, HPWS, BCBC, and other live contests in a different way that is beyond pure dollars and cents and therefore have a different tolerance for the fees and potential takeout concerns involved with qualifying for them. The camaraderie, experience, and challenge of the NHC, for instance, will equate to differing levels of comfort on how much to spend qualifying, depending on the player. Quantifying personal satisfaction is uniquely individual and completely subjective. Luckily, in this age of high takeout on much of the pari-mutuel front, there are contest opportunities out there with zero takeout. Yes, you read that correctly – no takeout (this article will include a warning for lawmakers and horsemen from the state of Pennsylvania in order to avoid heart attacks. Ideal takeout for that group of usury experts is 30%).
With that said, please keep the following in mind: When taking part in a live contest with no takeout, do not use your online ADW to make non-contest wagers while at the venue. Not only is it bad form, but the host venue relies on your handle to make sense of putting on the event in the first place. In an era where the horseplayer is rarely treated like a human being, these are select contests where we are actually catered to quite nicely. In addition to zero takeout, these rare events also tend to provide a free lunch and past performance materials.
In order to ensure these contests continue, please show your support by putting your non-contest dollars through their windows.
In summation, while much of the above advice seems simplistic and obvious, sometimes the key to success is getting back to basics and not beating yourself. Come prepared, organized, well versed in the rules, and keep a clear head. You’d be amazed how those simple points can put you over the top in the contest world where infinitesimal margins determine the difference between success and failure.
Good Luck and Good Racing