Thursday, August 30, 2012

When To Play (Contest) Defense

I started a nearly two-week vacation last Friday on a decent hoof, winning a $195 NHC qualifying tournament credit by virtue of a fourth-place finish (out of 60) in a $20 NHC "pre-qualifier" at

The decisive call proved to be 16-to-1 winner Sam Hillic in Race 7 from Monmouth Park ($46.60 combined win and place earnings on a notional $2 WP bet), but a runaway win in the fourth race of the eight-race contest on 5-to-2 Storm Da Chaser in Race 8 from Calder padded my bankroll by another $12.40 to vault me into third place at the halfway point.
Cliche: Defense wins championships

With four races to go, however, including three from a typically deep-fielded Saratoga, I was not entirely secure about my position despite a sizable bankroll edge over many competitors in Friday's contest.

Yet, as unlike many days where I have little advance prep time, I had Friday afternoon all to myself (kids on a sleepover, the wife out after work) to engage in serious handicapping and noticed that scratches pared several of the late-card races, and the contest finale (The Ballerina Stakes) was a mere six-horse field featuring Turbulent Descent (9-to-5 morning line) -- a virtual shoe-in to win versus a so-so field.

Time to buckle my chinstraps and play defense.  

The premise of my handicapping is, typically, to identify playable long-shots, but on Friday I angled especially high on the odds board in hopes of preventing other contest players from jumping the leaderboard with horses 10-to-1 or above.  Two of the last four races (7, 8 and 9 from Saratoga, and 9 from Monmouth Park) were especially conducive to this strategy.
  • Saratoga, Race 7 -- Sally's Dream scored at nearly 9-to-1 on a nice ground-saving ride by Rajiv Maragh, while Rosie Napravnik (consistent with other times I have landed on a Rosie-run horse during the Saratoga meeting) ran my selection, 23-to-1 Grisaille, 3-4 horses wide and finished in seventh.  The $26.10 combined win-place payout would have been nice, but I remained in the top six.
  • Saratoga, Race 8 -- Really a dumb, contradictory decision on my part, but I felt like Silver Timber (1.9-to-1) was simply the best horse in the field and went with my gut, rather than making my alternate choice, Chernobyl's Hero (20-to-1), my top selection and recognizing the value of the big long-shot.  Silver Timber petered out in the stretch, while Chernobyl's Hero lost by a mere neck to 6-to-5 favorite Isn'tlovejustgrand.  The outcome was not damaging, as none of the top eight in the standings had Chernobyl's Hero, but I was kicking myself nonetheless for picking a chalky horse. 
Entering the finale, I sat in fourth-place behind Maurice Colpron ($84.20), Tony Calabrese ($71.40) and Paul Shurman ($65.60), but my $64.80 bankroll was $15.50 ahead of the next player (Harvey Sides) and $18.20 ahead of sixth-place Thomas Blosser.
  • Saratoga, Race 9 -- After 8-to-5 morning-line favorite It's Tricky scratched, Turbulent Descent appeared the standout of the six-horse Ballerina.  Considering I only needed to finish in the top six to win a $195 Horse Tourneys credit, I threw out three horses -- Turbulent Descent, Nicole H (4-to-1 morning line) and Derwin's Star (5-to-1 morning line) -- since players trailing in the standings could not conceivably win enough with any of those horses to pass me.  I focused my handicapping, instead, on Island Bound, Belle of the Hall and All Due Respect -- 10-to-1, 15-to-1 and 20-to-1, respectively, on the morning line.  I settled on All Due Respect, who got little respect from the bettors and went off as the second-longest shot but seemed logical, as I saw it, considering the horse's front-running style in a race lacking a pacesetter.  I thought the other horses were stalkers and closer-types, which absolutely played out as All Due Respect easily held the lead most of the way before fading to third.  No harm done, considering the 1-to-2 favorite won and Derwin's Star paid just $5 to place.  

The last race outcome did not shake up the standings among the top five, though Sam Rivera moved up three places in the standings to sixth, courtesy of Derwin's Star.  I suspect that Friday's contest winner Maurice Colpron considered the same strategy as me heading into the last race, as he also played All Due Respect, but you had to go further down the standings to find others making the same play.  

Now, had Friday's contest been an actual NHC qualifying tournament, and I were 80 cents out of third-place (typically the top 3 finishers in HorseTourneys' NHC qualifiers reach the annual National Handicapping Championship), I almost certainly would have played Turbulent Descent, but the circumstances validated an approach of hunkering down and playing some defense.  

The is often fruitless to play favorites in the latter stages of handicapping tournaments featuring compulsory races.  Friday was but one such case, though I encourage you to chime in with your own late-contest thoughts or strategies in the comments below.


  1. Bill,

    I employ a similar strategy late in handicapping contests. If you are playing in a feeder contest or first round contest and are merely trying to move on there is no point in picking chalk to move up a spot or two.

    Your final race strategy was the best approach and the point you made about picking the favorite if it had been a NHC qualifying contest was spot on. Had I used that strategy I would have qualified for the NHC in 2008.

    In the last race of a NHC Qualify contest I passed on class dropper Vacare, who was in questionable form but outclassed the field. I went with second choice America's Friend who faded in the stretch. The person one spot behind me picked Gotta Have Her, who dead heated for second giving the guy $3.40, which put him $1.00 ahead of me for the final NHC spot.


  2. I don't understand if this had been an NHC qually and you were sitting 4th, $.80 out of the 3rd and final qualifying spot, why you would play the big fave? End game strategy is always interesting but wouldn't you think that the person in 3rd would play the big fave and you would need to play other than the fave or risk being closed out by their selection?

  3. Anonymous (please share your ID, to be more personal), I can only control my selection. Based on a past contest where I was in a similar situation, I was a spot "out of the money" going into the last race and landed on a second-choice horse (somewhere around 2-1 or 5-2, I don't recall exactly) that seemed to make a ton of sense and ultimately won, and surprised that no one ahead of me went with the same selection. That call moved me up not only 1, but 2 spots. Remember, too, that I was only $6.40 out of second place. Now, granted, Turbulent Descent produced only $5.40. However, it would have taken the two players right above me to pick the same horse, which isn't necessarily a given; and slightly higher odds could have put me as high as second place, depending on how others went. However, in my case here, I only had to worry about the players below me in the standings, since I had a big enough cushion to "go long" with a horse as a defensive measure.