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John Pricci

HorseRaceInsider.com executive editor John Pricci has over three decades of experience as a thoroughbred racing public handicapper and was an award-winning journalist while at New York Newsday for 18 years.

John has covered 14 Kentucky Derbies and Preaknesses, all but three Breeders' Cups since its inception in 1984, and has seen all but two Belmont Stakes live since 1969.

Currently John is a contributing racing writer to MSNBC.com, an analyst on the Capital Off-Track Betting television network, and co-hosts numerous handicapping seminars. He resides in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Most Handicapping Contests Are Flawed


Saratoga Springs, NY, June 27, 2012—In the interests of full disclosure, I might be the world’s worst handicapping-contest player.

Back in the day, the granddaddy of all contests was the “World Series of Handicapping” at Penn National Race Course.

The contest was held each fall, its timing corresponding to baseball’s fall classic. In 1986 I remember seeing a baseball go through the legs of poor Bill Buckner. The WSH was a 3-day contest and, for my money, there never has been another like it.

I went 0-for-14 years those weekends at the quaint racetrack nestled in the Blue Mountain foothills.

I haven’t played in many contests over my career but the fact remains I only hit the board once; a Connecticut OTB two-day contest at the New Haven teletheater. I collected a piece of the purse for either a Top 5 or Top 10 finish; can’t remember.

I read that a gentleman named Michael Emanuele won Belmont Park’s 2012 Summer Handicapping Challenge playing in his first-ever handicapping contest. Good for him.

In the final race of the contest, “it came down to two horses,” Emanuele said in a NYRA press release, “and we made the right decision. I got lucky.”

Emanuele, as it turned out, wisely saved his largest wager for the final race on the day at Monmouth Park and made his big bet of the day on a longshot named Black Ana Splash, who won paying $34.

The 3-year-old maiden-claiming filly allowed Emanuele to leapfrog 12 contestants going into the contest’s final race to win the prize and entrance into the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship.

While the result was stunning for contest-maiden breaking Emanuele, it was nothing new in the handicapping contest world. Invariably, contests are won on the last day, in the last race, most often when some implausible longshot jumps up and upsets the field.

This is fine, of course, since the idea of playing the races is to end each betting session with a profit. And it wasn’t as if Emanuele wasn’t playing well, ranking 13th of 248 players going into the contest finale.

But let’s call these contests what they are; money management contests that come down to the final race when any player within hailing distance can get lucky and win it all. Just don’t call it a handicapping contest.

Not that handicapping contests should be, necessarily, but they often bear no resemblance to actual betting on horse races.

In the real world of the horseplayer, there’s always tomorrow. In fact without the promise of tomorrow, there would be no horse industry, period. It’s an old racetracker’s line that a trainer would never die if he had a 2-year-old he thought could win next year’s Kentucky Derby.

No serious horseplayer, or a weekend warrior that takes handicapping seriously, would come down to the final race in the midst of having a bad day and tap out on some wild longshot. Horseplayers, even rank and file bettors, know when to fold ‘em.

But not a contest player who’s already paid his entrance fee and has nothing to lose by throwing a Hail Mary bet into the parimutuel end-zone.

Yes, the winning contest player still must choose the right longshot. But picking a longshot is a lot easier when the player has no other choice. He’s not considering any of the top three choices that ordinarily win about 70 percent of the time.

Of the contest formats currently in use, the one that best resembles real world conditions is the live money contest, where you pay an entrance fee but must also commit additional dollars for wagering into your own account. Bettors amassing the largest bankroll win the contest, too.

Betting real money most closely resembles a real world handicapping session when players simply try to assess a horse’s real chance of winning or finishing in-the-money at proper odds.

Just as we believed that the Derby graded-earnings qualifier needed an overhaul, so do handicapping contests. Final race luck should be taken out of the winning handicapping equation, or at least minimized, to reward those handicappers who made good, consistent selections throughout the course of a contest.

I don’t profess to know the answer, but some format that reflects the ability to make profits and pick winners should be put in place.

Perhaps a weighted points system would work, one that takes into account payoffs that fall within a certain price range:

Winning horses paying 8-5 or less could be worth, say, 3 points; from 8-5 to 3-1, 4 points; from 7-2 to 6-1, 5 points; from 6-1 to 10-1, 6 points, with anything over 10-1 worth 9 points.

This way, both consistency and degree of difficulty would be rewarded--but only when the player makes an honest assessment of any horse’s real chances of victory. Good handicapping, the art of picking winners consistently, would matter.

Isn’t trying to pick winners consistently--without going on tilt--what good handicapping and playing the races is all about?

Written by John Pricci

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