Contested results

Somebody emailed in to ask about the best strategy to be used in winning a horse handicapping tournament.

Here’s what you do.

Pick winners.

Horse handicapping tournament strategy runs contrary to private handicapping strategy. Off the contest record, sitting there with the past performances and a cup of coffee, a handicapper’s goal oftentimes is to hang in there. Some of the best days I have ever had at the race track involved breaking even. Hitting the late Double in a quadruple photo finish to put you up $10 for the day, occasionally it doesn’t get much better than that. But breaking even can knock you way out of a contest.

Contest money can be like bitcoins. It’s worth what somebody will award you for it. I have seen handicappers start with $200 in contest money and wind up with $5,000 in contest money, and win a pat on the back. You can be brilliant for much of a handicapping tournament and still go home broke and depressed.

I have entered a number of horse handicapping tournaments and have won none.

I witnessed one tournament that was won by a woman who used no past performances, no research, just a program.

The best I have done was finish one place out of the money. That was like suffering a concussion. I actually had to be helped to my vehicle. Demonstrating astute handicapping skills over a three-day period, I accumulated a tremendous amount of contest money and was knocked out of the payoff list by a player who put all he had left on the longest shot in the last race of the tournament, a joke that paid off.

Most contests are to handicapping as the ball is to roulette.

You have to beat other horses and other handicappers.

Freaky stories dominate handicapping tournament lore. I witnessed one tournament that was won by a woman who used no past performances, no research, just a program. As contestants poured over materials, this woman sat smiling, hands folded in front of her, her work space as clear as her strategy. At each post parade, she would walk calmly to the rail and wait for the word. She said the Lord told her which horse to bet. And she won the tournament going away, collecting dozens of thousands of dollars. As the defending champion, the next year she tapped out on the first day.

At another tournament, math great Andrew Beyer entered and found a terrific long shot shipping into the tournament site, which featured cheap live races. Beyer’s horse was listed on the morning line at something like 30-1. A contest rule stipulated that each tournament player had to make public his or her bet at around ten minutes to each post time. This was before rampant simulcast wagering. This was at a small track where odds were set by those on hand. Naturally, most in attendance on this night wanted to see what Andy had bet. And upon observing the long shot pick, just about everybody at the race track went to the windows and bet that horse with all the money they could shake loose, knocking it from 25-or-so-to-1 to next-to-nothing-to-1. I even bet $20 on it. Contest wins were paid at closing track odds. The long shot turned short shot won by a block and paid chicken feed. Beyer should have won this tournament but was done in by weird rules and a greedy public.

There’s nothing esoteric about strategy for horse race handicapping tournaments.

Most handicapping contests are won by somebody who hits a 15-1 shot.

That’s because it’s easier to pick one 15-1 winner than it is to pick five 2-1 winners.

The whole question about how you get to winners is an essential to the game.

It brings us back to the “value” versus “winners” handicapping styles.

Picking winners is handicapping.

Picking value, or prices, is wishing.