The Art of Contest Handicapping
A champion shares his process
Level: Intermediate
By Ed DeRosa, Hello Race Fans Contributor

When is a 10-to-1 shot not worth $22? When everyone else in a contest uses that same winner.

Wagering on horse racing in North America is pari-mutuel. The bettors determine the odds, which are based on how much is bet on each horse (or combinations of horses in the case of exotic wagers).

Many horse racing handicapping contests, including the popular National Handicapping Championship and NHC Tour events, score using pari-mutuel results, but because the competition is only the other people in the contest, a $20 horse half the room has isn’t nearly as clever as a $15 horse who only you have.

NHC XIV is January 25-26 at Treasure Island in Las Vegas, and qualifying for a shot at the $1-million first prize has been going on since the day after NHC XIII concluded.

A lot has changed on the tournament scene since the advent of the inaugural NHC, which featured a $100,000 first prize; back then, participants could qualify only through brick and mortar locations such as racetracks and off-track betting facilities. Those locations are still a key part of the NHC Tour, but tournament play has really taken off online, including at TwinSpires.com where NHC XIII winner Michael Beychok parlayed a third-place finish in the TwinSpires Online Handicapping Series Championship into NHC glory.

The TwinSpires Online Handicapping Series has returned for 2012, and this year’s schedule features 34 seats to the NHC plus another 80 to the Horseplayer World Series, at the Orleans in Las Vegas. With the ability to qualify for a seat in Vegas for as little as a $10 buy-in, many more players are “trying” tournaments, but performing well in them is a skill honed through experience—just as handicapping and wagering in the pari-mutuel pools is. Picking winners is not enough.

“The best advice for playing contests and getting good at them is practice,” Beychok said. “Play as many as you can.

“It took me six years to qualify for the NHC because I played very few contests throughout the year. Once I committed to playing more, I’ve qualified every year since, so play more contests, as the practice is important.”

Of course, Beychok not only qualified in 2011 but also won NHC XIII and $1-million, and what follows below is a road map to tournament glory prepared (mostly) in the champion’s own words.

Start with the basics

Know the rules of the contest
What is the wager format? Is there a cap (limit to the score you can earn for each selection), and if so, what is the cap? What is the deadline for entering picks? Is it a pick-and-pray contest (all selections due before the first contest race) or is the contest set to close with each race’s post time or before (more real time)?

Once you have basic rules down…
The next step is working to determine what it takes to win or qualify. Is there a benefit to winning or are all the prizes the same? Is the prize structure firm, or does it depend on the number of players?

When competing in a standard Win-Place contest (as both the TwinSpires Online Handicapping Series and NHC are), the first step I take is to make a reasonable estimate as to what the winning score or qualifying score needs to be in order to “win” the contest. A win-place contest awards points based on the pari-mutuel payout for horses who win and place (finish second). So a horse who pays $4.80 to win and $2.60 to place is worth 7.4 points ($7.40 total).

To reach a target score, take an average of the past scores of the contest based on average score for each race multiplied by the number of contest races. A good rule of thumb in the win-place format contests is 12 points/race.

In the NHC, I was shooting to get to 220 points and thought that would give me a top 5 finish. Turns out it did, and I was able to get a bit higher than that to win, but the winning score there has been about 230ish over the past few years. Even with more players this year, the score was roughly the same.

Strategy

Take a good look at the races being offered and adjust your target score based on the field sizes and the likelihood of short-priced favorites in the races. For example, a contest flush with 6-horse fields and logical favorites might produce an average score of only 8 points per race. The reason you want to know the winning/qualifying score is that you will construct your plays to focus on this number, meaning that if you go scoreless after six races in a 12-race contest, you will need to change tactics and start expanding your selection process to include higher odds horses to meet the projected score.

The leader’s score should always be tantamount to your selection process because it defines the odds spread you can choose from when making selections. I call it “situational handicapping.” Your picks will vary based on the score situation. This is critical to my contest playing. For example, after five races of a 12-race contest, the leader has $32, which is well below the $12 average. This means that you can adjust your odds spread for selections to include shorter-priced horses because the total winning score should fall below average.

Or, and this is just as important and contrarian, it means one big longshot can propel you to a contending position. I tend to avoid horses below 4-1 early in a contest. The risk to reward for being right on a longshot early in a contest is high because it will propel you to a high position on the leaderboard and put more horses on your selection radar for later in the contest.

Handicapping for a Contest

Handicapping for a contest is different from for-profit handicapping because you can’t “land” on a selection without knowing the score situation. So, situational handicapping comes into play, and I recommend grouping selections into categories like low odds ($8-$12 winners), medium odds ($14-$25 winners), and “lobsters” ($25+ winners). Keep in mind a cap, if any. If there is a $40 cap on win payouts and $20 on place, then a 19-to-1 winner scores the same as a 50-to-1 winner in the win slot.

Allow yourself to handicap a selection based on odds alone. For instance, there may be five horses in the medium category, and if you needed a horse in that category based on score situation, who would it be? Your first read on this will be your best. I’ve found that while in the contest I can make a case for any horse, and it is best to have this case closed the night before or before the contest starts to avoid emotional and wish handicapping.

Actual Play

So, you’ve determined what a winning score will be and kept an eye on the actual score. You have grouped your selections. You are now deep in the contest—more than halfway through—and better yet, you’re in contention! It is now even more important to play a situational game, race by race, based on the scores. If you are $5 out of qualifying, find that 2-1 shot and go with it. Now is the time to select likely winners rather than value.

Play with the statistics on your side and don’t try to be a hero by landing a 15-to-1 shot. Once you are on the leader board, someone has to knock you off by picking longshots. Don’t be that person. Be the player who is cheering for the favorites to win. As my friends the Rotondo’s, say, “Get in the bomb shelter” and play the low odds horses. If bombs comes in, and they do, you will be better off adding a few dollars to your score anyway.

As a straight bettor, the 19-to-1 horse who will win 10% of the time is a MUCH better bet than the 2-to-1 horse who only wins 25% of the time, but if you only need a $7 payout to get the job done, then the 2-to-1 horse is absolutely the correct play. Unfortunately, the other situation occurs more often where you do have to be “that guy” cheering home a longshot—sometimes even a horse you otherwise never would have bet.

You’re deep, and you are deep down the leader board. Play the situation. Construct a series of plays over the next two to four races where you can get hot and win a few and put yourself in contention so that the final races allow you an opportunity to get lucky and qualify. You don’t need lobster after lobster—normally a couple $15-$25 horses will do the trick. Depend on your ability to pick winners. Either you will or you won’t, so if you do, make sure they put you in a position to win.

End Game

Finally, it’s the last race or the next to last race. Play the situation and determine what score is needed from you to make it to the top and figure out the horses that will get you there. If you blank on the first, you know the drill for the last: All hands on deck, and bombs away.

If you are in the lead or qualified, and can stand a favorite winning, take away one of the horses the people playing catch-up will use—like a $10 or $14 horse. Don’t default to playing favorites at that point.

You’re winning by $10, and the favorite is 3-to-2. This horse winning will not give any of your pursuers enough points to catch you, so why use him yourself? Now, whichever horse you select besides the favorite can’t help your opponents either.

Follow Ed DeRosa @EJXD2 & Michael Beychok @BeychokRacing on Twitter.

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