Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Charlie Davis's Reflections on NHC17

Horseplayers Association of North America board member Charlie Davis finished third in last week's National Handicapping Championship (NHC) and penned the following column about his experience and answered some questions about his preparation, handicapping and strategy that he has received since the event ended. 

This past weekend I came in third in the 17th NHC tournament. I had a blast, made some new friends, saw a bunch of old friends, and even made some money. Huge congratulations to Paul Matties, the champion, who is an incredible handicapper and contest player.

I want to mention the handicapping programs I use as they’re all invaluable. I use JCapper (a database program which helps me to automate my opinions and quickly look at a race), TimeformUS PP’s (which are by far my favorite PP’s that I’ve ever worked with), and OptixEQ (trip notes and other tools).  One of my strengths is that I know, and acknowledge, my weaknesses. I know I’m not great at trip notes, and don’t have the time to go through and make my own trip notes, so I’m pleased to work with the great team at OptixEQ who make standardized trip notes across the major circuits.

I also want to thank my family for putting up with the long hours and the travel involved in horse racing, and finally John Doyle who’s been a great friend and mentor.

I’ve had a lot of questions about why I picked certain horses, what my thought process was, how I prepare, etc. I figured I’d knock them all out here in one fell swoop. 

I know many people who prep for big tournaments different than they do on a normal day. That doesn’t work for me as I try to stick as close to a normal weekend as possible.  The night before I run through the cards, identify weak favorites, note races with big fields, and exclude races with short fields, dominant favorites, etc. I make sure to get a good rest, I don’t have more than a couple of drinks, and I eat well.

The real work starts in the morning where before scratches I take a look at weather and further refine the races I’m interested in. Then, once scratches come out, I start choosing my races and horses to play.  At this point I take a final look at the OptixEQ trip notes, take another look at the pace to make sure I’m confident in it, and then write down the horse(s) I’m interested in each race.

Before I go down to the contest room, I already have a list of the races I’m likely to play, spreadsheets built so that I know how many races are available, and it’s down to watching the odds and some final decision making in the 10-15 prior to each race. 

I start by having a goal, and understanding my strengths and weaknesses.  I have daily and overall goals and they allow me to set targets.  My daily goal was at least $100 a day, with $150 being my stretch target, and I wanted to be in first going into the final day. My overall goal was to be in first prior to the final table, and be first prior to the Santa Anita races at the final table.  I know I’m not very good at Santa Anita, and knowing that, I knew I needed to be in front going into those races.

I also am a big believer in the power of positive thinking.  The title of the document where I kept my notes for the weekend is “NHC Champion Interview Notes.”  I’ve seen many good horseplayers lose due to negativity and a lack of belief. Everyone I corresponded with prior to the tournament knows that I said I was going to win. I didn’t, but it helped keep me confident.  It’s not arrogance or a lack of respect for the other players.  Hell, I know a lot of those guys are better handicappers than I am. I had dinner with a good friend (and respected handicapper, who bet on Paul by the way) on Wednesday who said that Paul is the best handicapper he knows.  It’s simply that fact that if you don’t believe in yourself then your chances are slim.

A lot of people think these contests are just about handicapping. They’re not. You have to be able to handicap of course, but you also have to understand value, and not be afraid to have a poor score if the percentages don’t work in your favor.  Many of the best contest players out there either win or end up with really low scores.  Many big names didn’t make the top 10% this weekend and that doesn’t mean they aren’t any good. This is a game of percentages and you have to pick horses that offer value, have confidence in that pick, hope the percentages work out in your favor, and don’t second-guess when they do.

Dealing with Adversity:
I had two things that happened that could’ve put me on tilt.  On tilt in horse racing is different than in poker, but it basically results in a lack of confidence. Lack of confidence means you’re questioning your picks, changing things, etc.

On day 1, in the last race at Aqueduct there was a cap horse that I liked quite a bit. Thunderbumms was the name, and the horse had a bit of an excuse in his last, plus the price was great. I played him on my backup ticket, but not on my primary since there were a few others I liked better later in the day.  I still had four or five optional plays to make, as well as at least four mandatory plays to make at this point. I could’ve been upset and looked at what my score could’ve been, but that’s a great way to lose your confidence. I doubt anyone even knows that I had that horse since I didn’t mention it. As soon as you start talking about what-ifs, it’s impossible to recover.

The second item was a bit harder to recover from. I had a horse that I was waiting for all day. It was Two Ten in the finale at Santa Anita. John Doyle brought this horse up to me first thing in the morning, and the OptixEQ Trip Notes for it were great. I knew all day long that this was going to be my final optional play as long as my position allowed it.   Well, coming into the final race I was behind first by around $4. The horse finished second (unfortunate at the time), but the $5.80 place price was enough to put me in first. Goal accomplished, I was in first going into the final day. Then I saw the scores and heard that I’m not in first, and I realize I never entered the play. I had it in my spreadsheet but never entered it into the contest.   $5.80 might not sound like a lot, but it matters, trust me. You’ll see how much it matters in the next section.

This one wasn’t as easy to brush off because it was a really stupid mistake. It could have been a very costly, stupid mistake.  Once I found out I wasn’t disqualified, I went and had a big glass of scotch, removed the $5.80 from my spreadsheet, and after about an hour, didn’t mention it again.  Thanks to Eric Wing for helping me keep positive.  

I’ve seen so many players lose the plot once they make a mistake or switch horses or anything like that and it’s important to me to keep that negativity out and stay positive.  When it’s a big one, scotch always helps! 

Final Table:
I started out with $10.40 to place on my first race, and then went blanks on the next four races. I was going for the win and was playing horses with a lower probability of winning, but I was passed by two other players during those races.  I was now left with the eighth and ninth at Santa Anita, a track I’m admittedly weak at.
In the eighth, I was between two horses, the #8 and the #1.  I didn’t like any cap horses and only liked those two horses.  Both horses had OptixEQ trip notes which led me to believe they’d improve. The #8 was 9-1 and the #1 was 3-1.  I absolutely loved the #1 but was leaning towards the #8 due to the price.  This is where strategy comes in. I figured others would be playing the #8 and other price horses to move up on Paul. I knew that I couldn’t make up ground playing the same horses, and there wasn’t a whole lot of downside if I did drop another few spots.  The difference between fifth (where I was), and third was $50K.  The difference between fifth and seventh was $16K.  I played the #1, who narrowly won the race over the #8, and those $13 put me not only in third, but within a $64 cap horse of the leader.  Not a huge score, but it made it so that the $5.80 from the night before didn’t hurt me!

In the ninth I loved the #7, but the odds wouldn’t help me move up. The choice was between protecting with that #7 horse so that the folks behind me couldn’t catch me, or playing a big price in hopes of catching Paul. 

I know Dave Gutfreund well and know that he’s extremely cognizant of value. I also know that the amount of money at stake probably (hopefully) wasn’t enough for him to play for position.  I assumed he would be going for a price, but as soon as the gates opened I asked right away! I was most concerned about him.

I’ve met Duke Matties several times and sat with him at a tournament, but I don’t know him as well. I do know that he’s aggressive in contests. I again assumed he’d go for the win, especially since I assumed his brother would be playing pretty chalky.

The way I handicapped the players in the last race was as follows:
Paul Matties: Horse he thinks is most likely to win.
Roger Cettina: Probably a mid-price horse of which there were many.
Duke Matties: Price horse.
Dave Gutfreund: Price horse.

Because of this, I went with my second favorite price horse, Soi Phet.  I thought others might go with Image of Joplin in hopes of lone speed, so went with the one I thought would be least used.  All of that was for nothing when Soi Phet didn’t figure in the slightest, and Roger in second used him as well, but I accurately handicapped those in fourth and fifth, so was able to retain third. 

I made $50K on a 3-1 shot, had a great time, and learned a lot about myself in the process.  It was a great tournament, and I have no regrets about any horse I played the entire tournament.  I’m honored to have been at the final table with such a great group of handicappers, and feel no shame in losing to Paul.  I guess my only regret is that my backers in the futures bet lost their money!

No comments: