Monday, February 03, 2014

Will Handicapping Contests Ever Resemble Real World Betting?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, January 30, 2014—Thanks to a controversial finish and lots of media outcry both pro and con, handicapping contests have been making front page racing news again. This was on my mind as I watched the latest National Handicapping Champion present a trophy at Santa Anita over the weekend.

If anyone is unfamiliar with the story, it involves the tactics used by the winner in the last race of the recent contest finals in which an attempt was made to either hedge his bet against his most serious challenger or, in some way, an attempt to manipulate the payoff on a rival’s horse by deflating the odds with a last-minute win-pool plunge.

I agree with those who posited that Jose Arias did nothing wrong; that it is part of a winning strategy that was within National Handicapping Championship rules. The last time I looked, there was nothing wrong about trying to take money out of a race by any legal means necessary, either parimutuelly or, in this instance, within handicapping tournament guidelines.

Hedging, or making “saver wagers” will continue given this same scenario unless and until the rules are changed to prevent this practice--which may be unenforceable--by not posting player’s selections until after the betting pools are closed. Hungry as all tracks and their ADWs are for handle, there probably will be no urgency to make changes.

Saver bets are, of course, something that’s done every day, the most common being to cover horses unused in the final leg(s) of horizontal Pick wagers either by wagering straight on longshots or taking favorites in top of “alive” horses in the vertical pools; exactas, trifectas, superfectas and the like.

But make no mistake: Playing in handicapping contests is not the same thing as conventional betting. By definition, handicapping is about picking winners, and a multitude of winners likely would carry the day even for the worst money managers.

Picking winners and making money often is a completely different mindset, especially in tournaments where money management and strategizing against a finite number of opponents often will trump handicapping prowess. Promoting handicapping contests is a sexy marketing stratagem; a money management contest is a non-starter, sounds too much like work.

In the real world of the horse racing, there’s always tomorrow. Indeed, without that promise there likely would be no industry. It’s axiomatic that a trainer would never die if he thought he had a 2-year-old capable of winning next year’s Kentucky Derby. For the horseplayer, it’s the promise of tomorrow’s past performances.

No serious horseplayer, or weekend warrior who takes handicapping seriously, would come down to the final race in the midst of a bad day and tap out on some wild longshot whose only attraction is the payoff on the odds board. Even rank and file bettors know when it’s time to just fold ‘em.

But the contest player who’s paid his entrance fee has nothing to lose by throwing a Hail Mary deep into the parimutuel end-zone. Yes, the winning contestant must choose the correct longshot. But taking a price shot is much easier when there’s no other choice; if he’s far behind but still dreams of wining, betting one of the top three choices that wins about 75 percent of the time doesn’t work.

Of the contest formats currently in use, the one that most resembles real world conditions is the live money contest in which bettors pay an entrance fee but must dedicate the majority of their fixed bankroll to that day’s wagering account, just as a conventional horseplayer might buy a betting voucher.

Betting greenbacks is as real as it gets, and real-world handicapping demands that players try to assess a horse’s real chances of victory at proper odds. Just as we thought that the graded-earnings qualifier for the Kentucky Derby needed overhauling, so, too, do handicapping contests. Last race “stabbing” should be minimized to reward handicappers who made good, consistent selections throughout the contest.

Rewarding consistent, handicapping excellence should be a value that’s put in place, as a teaching tool for neophytes or possible converts. This is how the game should best be played to achieve long term profitability, the long haul being important to health of the individual and the industry.

Maybe a weighted points system, one that takes into account payoffs that fall within certain prices ranges: less than 8-5 might be worth 3 points; 8-5 to 3-1, 4 points; 7-2 to 6-1, 5 points; 6-1 to 9-1, 6 points, 10-1 or more 9 points. This is just one example.

The above would reward both consistency and creativity once the handicapper makes an honest assessment of any horse’s real chances of victory and its odds; the definition of value. Good, consistent handicapping should matter. Isn’t trying to pick winners without going on tilt what this game should be about?

We’ve written about this before. At that time, regular contributor Top Turf Teddy thinks the answer is to simply multiply the number of winners by the dollar total accumulated. Indulto would like to see the most winners rewarded over a broad spectrum of events; races run over disparate surfaces, distances, and at different venues, since different conditions require different skill sets.

My good friend, the late, great Cary Fotias, had a different take. In 2012, he wrote here: “No format is perfect, or even close to it. I measure my performance in real life by the month, not a day or two. For professionals, this game is won in the long run. I've had three losing YEARS over the last two decades…

“It's nothing unusual for me to lose 20 bets in a row as I am usually betting on ’value’ horses at 4/1 or higher. While I prefer live-money contests, as they most closely resemble real-life wagering, they have their flaws also…

“My favorite event is the $10,000 Breeders Cup tournament. Of the $10,000, $7,500 is your live betting bankroll and $2,500 goes to prize money... Unless players have deep, deep pockets, they have to treat their bets with respect. For that same reason, several top tournament poker players can't cut it in a cash game…

If the DRF/NTRA want to better measure handicapping proficiency, they should run a year-long tournament consisting of, say, 10 races per weekend, every week. Each player would be required to make 400 bets over the course of the year. I say 400 because that allows 12 weeks off for those who can't make it every weekend and [permits] contestants to pass certain races, just like real life.”

Written by John Pricci

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