June 22, 2001

Contesting the Issue
So, you wanna to win a handicapping tournament, contest, competition?

OK. Or maybe you just want to have a respectable showing, say, in the top 5 percent or thereabouts.

You can do either any number of ways, but perhaps the best thing to remember is, hey, it's not going to be easy.

At least that's according to the player we interviewed for this segment. This player, who spoke to us on the condition we would not reveal his (or her) identity, was forthright in saying that sleep was but a luxury in the most recent three-day tournament in which the player participated.

"The tournament was The Orleans National Handicapping Challenge last October, and my traveling partner and I arrived in Las Vegas via automobile at a late hour, around 1 or 2 the morning of the first day," the player said. "Being that it was my first tournament, I wanted to get off to a good start, so I just pulled out my handicapping materials and went at it."

The player said some advice was sought prior to the competition, but in the end, the player kept his (or her) own counsel.

"One guy told me to concentrate only on full-field sprints, since the pace was honest and there was more chance for an upset. Another said to wait until I could see the odds and make decisions then.

"I figured that they both made sense, seeing as how there would be no time to look at every single horse and every single race, and that value, or prices, would be very important."

In the Orleans tournament, players had to make 10 picks each day of the three-day event. Points were accumulated on the basis of a mythical $100 win bet on each selection, with a mutuel cap of 20-1 after the first $20 bet, meaning that superlongshots would be counted in full only on the proceeds of a $20 bet, with the remaining $80 of the bet returning a "capped" $1,600. Players selected their own races from six tracks from across the country -- Santa Anita, Belmont, Keeneland, Calder, Hawthorne and Lousiana Downs.

With approximately 60 opportunities from which to choose, the player understood the time constraints involved.

"First post for the East Coast tracks was 9:30 Vegas time, which gave me no more than eight hours to check things out. I couldn't possibly spend just eight minutes a race and look at everything I wanted to. But I didn't want to wait till the actual races to determine my plays: What if I I was done in by late scratches or my horses didn't have enough of a price? Then I'd be stuck maybe forcing a play or two at the end of the day.

"Instead, I narrowed down the opportunities by eliminating all the New York turf races -- since I didn't know which of the 15 horses entered would be running, and I'm a raceshape-type handicapper, that staved off a few potential headaches.

"Then I eliminated Southern California. With such short fields and probably most of the players already familiar with the circuit, I thought I wouldn't be able to get an edge going there.

"That left Calder, Hawthorne, Louisiana Downs, Keeneland and the dirt races at New York. Still quite a workload.

"Then I looked at every horse that was a certain price or higher on the morning line. Why bother stretching for 9-5 or 5-2 shots?

"That kept me up most of the night, though I did get a couple of hours of sleep, I think. Maybe I hallucinated it."

The player's method was to determine the probable pace of the race and then estimating what sort of final-time figure would be required to win.

"Thankfully, most of the longshots hardly measured up on the final-time guideline. It made things easier.

"But when a horse showed it could meet the final-time requirement with some frequency, I then subjected those prior good races to the pace standard."

Unlike other pace handicappers, however, the player made an important distinction.

"Most pace guys are wanting their horse to be able to run to the pace of the race at hand, but that's not realistic, especially for closers. So they mark those horses down. That's not fair. Closers do win sometimes, and they're often doing the best running late.

"So I tend to weigh the pace demands of the race against the running style of the horse. The best horses are versatile -- they'll lead or press or rally into any kind of pace and consistently throw their number. But so many horses, especially the cheaper ones, are one-dimensional.

"Basically, it led to more eliminations -- speed horses that were outpaced, or closers who weren't getting a fast-enough setup to win."

Even then, the player said a horse had to survive a few more tests.

"Basically, the trainer was the final screen. If the horse was just off the layoff or off the claim, the trainer had to be good in the appropriate category. Otherwise, no dice."

Eventually, the player had settled on a handful of horses -- more than the requisite 10, fewer than 20 -- from which to choose.

"Seeing that longshots were so important to winning, I used the morning line as a final elimination, the higher the price, the better."

On the first morning of the tournament, the player said he then had to keep his emotions in check.

"Since it was my first tournament, I didn't know what to expect. I was blown away. The 2000 Orleans tournament turned out to be the largest ever in Las Vegas.

"The final count was 936 contestants, I think, and it took one huge ballroom and two fair-sized ones to accommodate all the players.

"I normally don't like crowds, and this particular crowd was made up of a lot of 'hacks' I personally couldn't stand. In fact, one of them is busy boasting about how well he did in the tournament, using it as a marketing tool. I laugh at him now, but we'll get to that later."

With a constant buzz and chatter to have to deal with, as well as the presence of what the player called "millions of mopes" to overcome, the player assumed a new persona.

"I just was going to adopt this kind of class snobbery I had used to good effect as an adolescent. Most of those hacks were simply talking off steam, playing the machismo card and all that. I wasn't going to be intimidated or swayed. In fact, as a result of that tournament experience, I thank God for all the exposed chest hair and gold chains I see in the club house and Turf Club at the racetrack every day!

"So I pretended I was like a pro golfer, dignified and all that. I was wearing golf shirts all three days anyway."

After the players first few selections failed to do any meaningful running, all at big odds, the player settled in and made some observations.

"I was really, really lucky. As fate would have it, our table included a past winner of a Vegas tournament, plus two guys who had just qualified for the DRF/NTRA Handicapper of the Year tournament. So I just soaked in their experiences and advice.

"They were all impressive handicappers, and even better gentlemen. I was fortunate there weren't any hacks talking off steam around our table."

Fate also intervened when one of the player's 10 earmarked selections was scratched from a race at Hawthorne.

"I was cursing. I had to scramble to find an alternate. I had run out of top-notch candidates, and was plucking away at my second-tier hopes.

"At Louisiana Downs, I found this maiden that looked like the least of the remaining evils, and the price was good, so I bet him in the contest.

"I wasn't at the table at the time. I was walking down on the casino level, in the racebook, actually, and I'm just shuffling around checking things out when I hear the racecaller saying the name of the maiden at Louisiana Downs, that he's drawing off.

"I couldn't believe it. I was, like, freaking out. I checked the ticket in my pocket and there it was. I sprinted up the escalator and into the room and was pumping my fist. The horse had paid around $90.

"I was trembling uncontrollably. I was thinking I had gotten some day money or something. One of the guys said I was in first place. It was totally freaky.

"Then one of the guys sat me down to the reality, and I became a close-lipped golfer again. He said that with so many people in the tournament, more than a few had to have gotten the same longshot. And he was right."

On the first day, the player understood how right that guy had been. With no other winners on the day, the single big-priced horse was good enough for a placing no higher than the top 50.

"That put it into perspective, and I knew I had more work to do.

"That night, I did the same as the late night before, except I threw in Santa Anita. I found a handful or horses and actually got about six hours of sleep. Actually, my roommate and I had found this liquor store on the casino floor of the Barbary Coast where we were staying, and the price of Heineken was irresistible, like four bucks for a six-pack. Too bad he called it quits after only one bottle, and we were back down there to get him some Pepcid a couple of minutes later. That also gave me occasion to buy me a small bottle of Bailey's, which greatly assisted in the handicapping process."

On the second day, the player was going through a zero-for-eight spell with his longshot selections, and visibly sulking. The golf-player mode was still on, but the previous day's fist-pumping demeanor of Tiger Woods had given way to a John Daly-like fat-mouthed pout.

"It was bad. I was drinking Bailey's every few minutes, like it was a milkshake. The good thing was, they feed you well at these tournaments, and we were in the same room as the buffet table, so lining the stomach was not a problem. That plus the effects of the negative-ion airflow in the casino helped ease any potential symptoms of the massive alcohol ingestion.

"Then in the last race of the day at Keeneland, my longsot came home, closing into an honest pace. It was another $30 number, and it was another profit for the day."

Still, it wasn't enough to keep the player from sliding into the 60s in terms of his standing.

"I was aware that might have happened, but I was just glad to get out of that day without losing too much ground. I'd have to pull out a really big day on Saturday, the final day."

And he did, though the price was sleep, if not steep.

"That last night, I pulled out all the stops. I just went into a handicapping zone. And the funny thing was, my roommate and I had walked all around Las Vegas for the better part of the evening. We took in all the new properties, and while part of me was preoccupied with starting the handicapping, I think the physical exertion and the diversion were good. Because when I finally got to the handicapping around midnight, I was locked in. I mean, I knew what I was there to do. And the Bailey's helped, too.

"Saturday was a good day for the races. It was the last Breeders' Cup preview day at Belmont, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup looked interesting, especially with Albert the Great at a fat 8-1.

"The pace looked all the way like Albert's to control, even with Skimming in there, and a couple of other horses in there were tired, like Lemon Drop Kid and Behrens.

"Albert the Great had to be one of my keys."

The other horse the player settled on wasn't much as much a horse as a race.

"It was the middle of the card at Santa Anita, one of those full-field low-level claiming sprints that any horse could win. I thought two or three could do OK in it, at good prices, and since it was toward the end of my contest day, I monitored the prices. I knew I had to take the biggest one.

"I was already zero-for-eight through the day, and while I monitored the odds for the Santa Anita race, I put in the bet for Albert the Great.

"At Santa Anita, the horse I ended up playing was Grayzee Guy, a total speedball with one of my favorite jockeys, Martin Pedroza, riding."

The rest is memorable, if only to encourage horseplayers that good things can and do happen.

"I'm sittng there at our table, and Albert the Great is on the lead, nursing it, and you know when you watch a race with a frontrunner, especially a longshot, there's that point where the announcer gets excited and says the horse is scooting away and you can see as they turn for home that's the case.

"So I dropped the golf-player mode and started screaming for Chavez to 'hang on, baby! hang on!' and the other players at the table are laughing and encouraging it, too, even though they just have a rooting interest. That was class. And Albert the Great held on.

"Then a few minutes later, Pedroza got Grayzee Guy out to the lead, nursed him and niggled at him in that patented Pedroza way, and this time, when Trevor got at that point of the call when he gets excited about a frontrunner edging away, I was screaming, 'Come on, Monkey Man, come on!'

"The guys at the table were not understanding, being from the Midwest and Northern California. They just kept hearing me screaming, 'Monkey Man! Monkey Man!', which is the unflattering nickname some of the Southern California sharpies have given Pedroza. I figured I'd get my $500 in tournament fees worth of whooping and hollering, at least, if I wasn't going to get back any prize money.

"And as he's done so many times throughout the years, Pedroza kept riding hard through the stretch, and Grayzee Guy held on, about a length in front. At 12-1 or so."

Ending the tournament on a strong note, the player still wasn't sure if he had gotten any kind of prize money.

"At the start of the tournament, they said that the prizes had been extended because of the record turnout. Even though I was profitable for the third day in a row, I knew a lot of the people ahead of me would be bombing away, and there had been some even bigger prices at other tracks throughout the day.

"I was already on my way back to Southern California to take care of some pressing business, but I found out from my roommate that I had done enough.

"He told me that I had a pretty good placing, in the mid 40s, and the prize money was in the $1,200 range. So it was a top-5-percent effort.

"I was stoked, believe me. Since it was my first tournament and I didn't know to expect, and there were so many self-righteous hacks around, it was pretty good. As it turns out, that guy who is busy marketing himself finished out-of-the-money, somewhere in the 90s."

The player, who has witnessed the sharp handicappers in the various monthly contests at Cynthia Publishing, has some advice for his fellow players.

"As for the science of picking winners, I'm the wrong person to ask. Remember, I could pick only four winners from 30 selections in The Orleans tournament. And four winners in the Cynthia monthly contest would get me bupkis.

"For the ROI contest or longshot contests, definitely look for value before the fact, good prices on the morning line. You need to have a horse with ability, or at least a horse that can overcome its lackluster recent efforts. Personally, I can't bet on a horse that hasn't shown its ability. You get somewhat lower prices that way, but I need that confidence going in. Yeah, first-turf horses and first-claim horses win and defy their ability, and they pay huge, but that's not my style.

As for handicapping in general, the player says he learned a lot about his game and the game as a whole.

"I remember reading in different places that hard work counts most in handicapping. And as a result of the tournament experience, I think that became truer for me. If you stay focused and engaged, and patient and enjoy it, you should do OK. Looking around the room, and at the track, most of the people were enjoying the girlie bars and table games in the evening, when they might have been studying.

"And the format of the tournament, 10 selections a day, made life easy. If you think about the product we get nowadays at the track or racebook, it's so easy to lose concentration and get seduced by all the races going on. As a result of what happened at the tournament, I've become more disciplined and less distracted by meaningless races.

"I'm also becoming less a slave to 'value,' the way I originally learned it. Watching the toteboard like a hawk all day long might be fun for some people, but not for me. By demanding a hint of a price on the morning line and fastening on one or two horses a race, in only a few races a day, I get enough of a mutuel to be profitable, without having to sacrifice all the sights and scenes and socializing that can go on at the track.

"However, I still will not resign myself to accepting short prices, especially since I'm picking my spots more than ever. With just a handful of opportunities on any given day, it's got to be more than a $6 or $8 mutuel. If I'm taking a swing only a few times a day -- or more if I decide to play multiple tracks - I can be aggressive in a conservative way, namely getting good prices to win once or twice a day.

"I know that I don't have to be Mr. Consistent to win at the races. One big price is enough, as long as I'm not playing every single race on the card or chasing or getting off the program."

As for handicapping and wagering, the player is insistent.

"There are plenty of ways to analyze the races, but none of them will point out a live longshot in every race on the card. The way I see it now, two or three plays on a card is probably my upper limit.

"I like visualizing how the race should shape up, and handicapping is like stock-picking. Some horses or issues look tantalizing, but eventually they'll be losers. There has to be a well-defined boundary on which horses you'll consider for inclusion.

"Pace and speed speak best to me, but even then, I'm looking at those things dynamically, not statically the way a lot of handicappers do. For most, pace and speed become an exercise in looking at merely one race, rather than the whole record. I think that can be dangerous.

"Trainers are more important than people suspect, but I use them only as a filter. To me, one huge maneuver seems out of context, especially without the backing ability level by the horse. Jockeys don't count, and track bias is something I've heard about, though I find hard to quantify or to be so dominant as to render handicapping to a single factor tied to that bias.

"The way handicapping is now, traditional exotic wagers like the exacta and trifecta have the highest takeout rates. Beating them consistently is a grind, and hit-or-miss. You're dealing with such small percentages that one year could be wildly positive and another year dismally negative. Also, exotic pools are not as likely to absorb the size of a big wager. It's been shown that amounts as small as $1 or $2 can negatively impact the price on an exacta or trifecta.

"On the other hand, the pick 3 takeout seems to be shrinking in a lot of places, and that becomes a good bet, especially if the takeout sticks close to the takeout on the straight wagers, as it did at Sam Houston earlier this year.

"Win betting is predictable, and while not exciting, is most likely to reflect a handicapper's real ability level."

As for other contest formats, the player recommends a game plan be drawn out and adhered to.

"Especially if the contest format is strictly picking winners, the player needs to stick to his guns. That's when 'liking' a horse is very important. When contests are real-money affairs, I don't think mega-longshots should deter him from taking the plunge. With most competitors trying to stay conservative, the effect of one of your well-placed longshots can be devastating your fellow players.

"Mental organization and psychological compsure are key. As in golf, you play the course, or the contest format, and let the other guys beat you. If you focus on the other guys, you won't beat them, but you'll probably wind up beating yourself."
June Contest Update

So now you're equipped to beat the June Triple Crown Sweep Edition of the Big-Prize Handicapping Contest.

Enter today and you still have a chance to claim a big prize in the legendary Exacta Box Division, or warm-up in the Winners Only and ROI divisions in time for serious participation in July.

Any way you slice it, it's lots of fun, and it can be rewarding, too. Check it out by clicking here.

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