Friday, July 31, 2015

Handicapping Contests A "Bettor" Alternative

Similar to both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, I find American Pharoah unbeatable and, therefore, better used atop higher-denomination exacta and trifecta bets and strictly for use as a single in multi-race exotic wagers.

You may read a lot of handicappers (or mainstream media posing as handicappers) over the next 48 hours coming out of the woodwork to make a case for early-speed types Upstart and Competitive Edge or, if the race falls apart under ridiculously fast fractions, late-runner Keen Ice.  

I would tread carefully banking on what many say and think most of the competitors do not belong in the same discussion let alone on the same track, since it's pretty clear that American Pharoah is infinitely better than the 7 rivals entered for the $1.75 million Haskell.

That being said, there are three primary wagering-hub alternatives to betting on the race that should draw one's attention to enjoy the action on Sunday.

"What's A Handicapping Contest?"

Finally I am back in my wheelhouse, talking about my favorite extracurricular activity and less about hotels, restaurants and New Jersey Transit trains.

Simply put, in a handicapping (a.k.a. picking winning horses) contest, players pay a fee -- but some are free -- to compete in a field of other contestants for a share of prizes ranging from straight-up cash to entries to the $2.5 million National Handicapping Championship (NHC) in Las Vegas.

You might (or might not) have read that I qualified for my first NHC last season.  It was the thrill of a lifetime and a decent achievement for a weekender to compete against professionals, and a place I am attempting to revisit through this year's qualifying season.

The typical contest emphasizes picking winners and uses a pre-set selection of races from one or more tracks in which each player make a notional $2 win/place wager on one horse.  

If your horse wins, you get the dollar value of that horse's real win/place payout; pick the runner-up and get that horse's place payout.  Player with the highest total bankroll at the end wins.

Simple, right?

There are a host of options to choose from this Sunday and I'll highlight those worth considering.

Free Contests - Haskell Challenge

If you have never played a single handicapping contest, Monmouth Park's "Haskell Challenge" is probably the best place to start.

Free to enter at
In the Haskell Challenge, there's no cost to enter, and you will try pick a winner for all 14 races on Sunday's program, and Monmouth Park provides free "past performances" that you can use as a guide to make your selections. 

Here, your mythical bets are $2 "across the board" wagers on one horse.  

If your horse wins, you collect the combined win, place and show values and move up the leaderboard.  Pick the second-place runner and you get the place and show payouts.  Pick third and get the show payout.  

Scoring is cumulative over the 14 races, with the winner getting a sweet prize package for two to the 2015 Breeders Cup in Lexington, Kentucky's Keeneland Race Course.

Second- and third-highest finishing bankrolls win $500 and $200 cash, respectively.

NHC Tour-Focused Contests

If you have never heard of the "NHC Tour," a $50 annual membership gives the more-frequent contest players the opportunity to qualify for the $2.5 million NHC Championship, which is a 3-day no-entry-fee handicapping contest in Las Vegas.  

Most NHC Tour-focused contests require an entry fee, ranging anywhere from $40 to $3,000, depending on the host site.  

However, NHC Tour membership also includes access to 5 "free" members-only online contests where the Top 4 finishers earn spots in Las Vegas.

This weekend happens to be one of those freebies.  

It's never too late the join the NHC, so if you want to play on Sunday fork over 50 bucks to become a member and gain access to the contest.

Sunday's contest is hosted by and features 10 races from 5 different tracks, including Woodbine, Saratoga, Del Mar, Ellis Park and Monmouth Park.  

Consider the 8th contest race -- the Haskell -- a "free square" (akin to a bingo card) and pick American Pharoah for a small notional return, or roll the dice on one of the bomber long-shots, and try to connect with some prices in the other 9 contest races.  Good luck to those who enter!

Cash-Prize Contests: Derby Wars and

Federal laws allow for fantasy sports websites to legally run cash-based handicapping contests, so there's nothing offshore or suspicious about it. 

You've probably seen a zillion TV ads for FanDuel or with the snooty pitchman for Draft Kings, but there are horse racing-focused fantasy/contest sites worth attention. 

If you're interested in small-ante tournaments as low as $1-$3, or are a higher-stakes sort willing to pony up $375 for a shot at $5,000 first-prize, then visit Derby Wars.

The Derby Wars interface is probably the most interactive on the market, offering in-game chat between contestants and other user-friendly features.

Derby Wars is one of several NHC qualification hubs as well, although the less-than-favorable percentages (1/100 for the August 7 and 14 qualifiers) to get through Derby Wars and to Las Vegas in January keep me away from using the site more often, but I know the site is good and several people who prefer playing for real cash prizes instead of entries to NHC or other big tourneys. 

For reasons expressed above, as an NHC Tour member my loyalties are more with, which is the most prominent NHC qualifying hubs for online handicapping contests but also has cash-prize tournaments for multiple players and, similar to Derby Wars, head-to-head action. 

Recall that, Thursday, I addressed the "takeout" theme.

Whereas 19% for Monmouth Park's daily doubles is among the best in the industry (i.e., the track keeps, as profit, 19 cents of every dollar bet), the typical contest charges a mere 9.1% takeout.  

In essence, far more of players' contest entry fees go back to the players, which is why you should pay attention.  

For example, in Sunday's $850 "pick and pray" (i.e., enter your selections on all 8-12 contest races before the first goes off and let it ride), it costs a mere $12 and the top five finishers come away with respective cash winnings of $400, $200, $150, $75 and $25. 

Higher rollers can spend $190 to enter a 44-player tournament where top prize is $3,750 and the takeout is 10.3%. 

Options Abound

Sunday provides a good opportunity for prospective players to kick the tires on the nascent handicapping contest circuit and view wagering from a completely different perspective.

Strategies vary by player, but most will agree that in addition to needing a bit of good fortune in the race outcomes, it's important to sprinkle in some long-shot selections along the way; playing all favorites is not going to work, much as I would argue with Sunday's Haskell Invitational and is primarily the reason the Haskell is, in my view, not a great "win" bet scenario.

American Pharoah's probably going to be bet down to 1-to-9, so a $2 win bet to win 10 cents of profit just is not worth it (see more from Thursday's blog on the on-track betting menu). 

On that note, in my upcoming and final pre-Haskell blog, I will break down the Haskell 2015 field and propose some real-money betting thoughts for Sunday.

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