Lessons learned in Handicapping Contests

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TwinSpires Staff

February 18th, 2016


If the definition of insanity is “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” what is the definition of preaching one thing and then doing something else?

I spent a good portion of my January 22 Handicapping Insights column extolling the virtues of jockey Rafael Hernandez’s prowess on the Gulfstream Park turf course. I went on and on about how well he rides the turf and how he consistently brings home winners at huge prices on it.

Plenty of examples were given and some, I even bet.

So there I was last weekend playing in an online Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge. Saturday was terrible but I entered Sunday’s contest as well and felt pretty confident going in that I might be able to turn things around.

I only had a second-place finish ($7.40) in my first three picks and event four of the contest was race 9 at Gulfstream Park, a 7 ½-furlong optional claimer on the turf for older horses. My pick, CONQUEST BESPOKE (Speightstown), was coming off a good win on the turf up at Woodbine. He was almost 10-to-1, had Luis Saez in the irons and drew a good post for a stalking trip while clear on the outside.

He gave me a bit of thrill on the far turn where he loomed boldly but the field kicked home and Conquest Bespoke was not able to make up any more ground. JUST FOOLIN AROUND (Keyed Entry), who looked like he was going to be swallowed up by the outside closers, found another gear in midstretch and spurted away to win by three-quarters of a length.

A sinking feeling of gloom set in when I looked at my BRIS Ultimate Past Performances and sure enough, Just Fooling Around was ridden to a $69.20 victory by none other than Rafael Hernandez. He was a horse, despite the odds, that I dismissed since his recent form just didn’t stack up and he had never shown a front-running ability before.

But in a contest where you are looking for price horses with a chance, the presence of Rafael Hernandez should have set off more alarms than it did. But, January 22 was a long time ago so how could I be expected to remember what I wrote?

Years ago, I used to do a handicapping seminar at Saratoga Race Course at 9AM. Each morning, after a bad day of picking horses, I would show up bummed out about yesterday’s results but the regulars would be happy since they would spread my picks out and hit multi-race wagers.

What I would tell them is “Do what I say, not what I do.” If only I could follow my own advice.

A couple of points about handicapping contests. They are a great mental challenge and very draining. Not only do you have to do a lot of work but each day there are 12 last-second decisions you have to make no matter how much prep work that you did.

When you make a mistake, alright, a blunder, like I did, it is nearly impossible to recover from. I had eight more selections to make on Sunday, but it would not have mattered if it was eight hundred. It is very tough to recover mentally from a mistake that in all likelihood will prove to be fatal. Knowing that a single mistake can prove fatal, it affects your decision-making process trying not to make one.

While it’s nice to win and take down the big prize, like my friend and neighbor Paul Matties Jr. did a few weeks ago at the National Handicapping Challenge with the $800,000 first prize, I maintain that if you are ahead of the game, cash out.

Too many bettors get ahead, and then the delusions of grandeur set in. Like any good bank robber, you take the money and run. You don’t have the teller go into the vault and empty it while you are waiting. The reward of money in hand is far greater than the risk of being caught.

A humorous aside: When I was a kid in Staten Island, someone in the neighborhood robbed a bank. Not content to have the teller fill her cash bag, he climbs over the counter to get more money, climbs back over, slips and falls. His head hits the marble floor that banks used to be known for and woke up in police custody.

Before betting or playing in a tournament, do you have any goals? If the goal is to have one big score and bragging rights for the rest of your life, have at it. You will have many days of losing and perhaps your ship comes in. Chances are it won’t and your bankroll will vaporize. Others show up with an expendable amount of money and are willing to lose it to have a day’s entertainment. Nothing wrong with that as long as that is your plan.

But what if you get way ahead? Where does it say that you have to bet it all since you were willing to risk the original amount anyway? Playing with house money is great as long as you don’t give it all back to the house.

If you are in this game to make money, shouldn’t you quit while you’re ahead? Each bet is a negative sum game and if you are ahead financially, it is a tremendous achievement. Each time you bet, you are bucking the odds.

Case in point: A friend of mine qualified for the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge a couple of years ago. With his $7,500 bankroll, he had a good first day then spun his wheels the second day. He resisted the urge to go “All In” and went home with $19K.

There’s a word for someone like him: “Winner.” Don’t fall for the trap of taking down the house. It’s not worth it.