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Improving Your Tournament Play
By John Angelo
True Renaissance man Benvenuto Cellini wrote in his My Life of “... laughing over those great blows that Fortune strikes, for good as well as evil, and which, whenever they don’t hit the mark, are just the same as though they had never happened.”

The good news is that any handicapper can hit the mark with a few longshots and win a tournament. The bad news is that any handicapper even able to recognize a mark in the grandstand can win a handicapping tournament.

Fortune may indeed have its slings and rubber arrows but the honor of Handicapper of the Year is now bestowed annually to the lone horseplayer who can rise to the top of the financial heap at the two-day DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship held each January in Las Vegas.

The 230 or so horseplayers that will load into the starting gate in 2005 for a shot at the title of Handicapper of the Year, which is formally presented at the annual Eclipse Awards ceremony, and over $200,000 in prize money are more “earned black type Stymie” than “purchased pinstripe George Steinbrenner.” The age range of the 2004 field was 23-year-olds and up, topped by 85-year-old Martin Kasich of San Francisco. No supplemental entries are allowed. The field is composed entirely of those who qualify at DRF/NTRA sanctioned handicapping contests around the country over the past year and the previous year’s winner of this championship.

If knowing how to read a condition book makes a good trainer, then knowing how to successfully maneuver through the 80 different sets of rules for the approximately 100 qualifying tournaments makes a good tournament player.

“Familiarize yourself with the rules” is Rule #2 in Noel Michaels’ “20 Steps to Tournament Success.” Rule #1, in this writer’s opinion, is to get a copy of Michaels’ indispensable book, Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Tournament Player’s Guide to the DRF/NTRA National Championship (DRF Press), in which the 20 steps are laid out.

“The book was a big key for me,” said George Elliott, winner of the 2004 Sports Haven Handicapping Challenge, one of the premier tournaments in the East. “There’s pressure to get on the board, but I stayed with my picks and didn’t get down on myself” (Rule #20).

Elliott pulled down the top purse of $50,000 in New Haven in only his third tournament and that after losing his first six and last nine of the 20 mythical $200 wagers (win, place or show) required in the two-day event. Elliott’s four winners, including 23–1 Joe’sdancing Angel in Aqueduct’s first race on the contest’s second day, were good enough to best over 300 other entries, though the contest came down to the last Santa Anita race with Elliott and eventual second-place finisher Mike Latella both playing 6–1 Borego.

Elliott and Latella observed Michaels’ Rule #19: “Save some ammo for the end.” (Plays are referred to as “bullets” in tournament lingo). Eventual third-place finisher Ken Kingsbury was already back in the barn with no bets left. Latella smartly employed Rule #18 — “Adjust late in the contest” — to nip Kingsbury for the second Las Vegas qualifying spot as his bet of $150 to win and $50 to show on eventual second-place finisher Borego gave him enough to nail Kingsbury by $60. Elliott’s final bankroll of $11,480 was typical of the approximate tripling of the bankroll it takes to win a tournament with an across-the-board betting format, though there’s nothing typical about pulling into your driveway with a four-foot-long cardboard check.

Welcome to the ever-expanding world of Thoroughbred handicapping tournaments. No experienced horseplayer should toss out any knowledge gained over the years, but tournament play is as different from day-to-day pari-mutuel wagering as that Renaissance man is from Homer Simpson.

“The general consensus is against uniform rules at handicapping contests,” Michaels, the online editor for Daily Racing Form, explained in an interview. “The NTRA wants tracks to be able to devise contests that best suit the wants and needs of their customers. The many different formats give handicappers options to choose from when selecting contests they want to play in and travel to.

“The perfect format for a handicapping contest has yet to be devised and probably never will be. Therefore, you must face the fact that luck will eventually enter into the game.”

This writer has pondered the ins and outs of the myriad tournaments and, while greatly indebted to Michaels, will ponder a few further rules for consideration.

1. Tournaments, as they now stand, place a premium on picking winners between 7–1 and 20–1. NBC analyst Bob Neumeier was right to the point in a recent phone interview: “Many of these events have turned into handicapping longshot contests,” he said. “You have to be able to identify live longshots. Tournaments without a cap (which is typically 20–1 to win and 10–1 to place) are simply a joke.”

This lesson was brought home early in tournament history when the top 19 spots in the 281 player initial Sports Haven Handicapping Challenge in 1997 went to the 19 players who tabbed 105–1 Frisk Me Now in Gulfstream Park’s Hutcheson Stakes.

2. Stick with your specialties within the context of looking for competitive fields with vulnerable favorites. This former public handicapper prepared for the Saratoga meet by compiling or accessing detailed trainer stats and camping out in front of a replay monitor. It pays to be a contrarian here. I believe studying a head-on replay of a full field on the grass is more valuable than the Beyer figure earned by the winner. or the sheets supplement the Racing Form for many players. Jim Mazur’s “Progressive Handicapping” ( might give you a horse of a different color as he provides daily analysis for several major tracks, primarily through trainer angles.

3. Consider using a partner. Leave your ego at home. Find a compadre you can trust. Use your name on the entry for your first tournament together. Register in his or her name for your next endeavor, and work just as hard. I am primarily a trip handicapper, a degree earned through my chart-calling days. It would make sense to pair myself with a figs or bloodlines aficionado (though with a last name of Angelo, I am allowed to claim a Renaissance foundation sire). These events can be nerve-wracking. “Plays well with others” looks good on any report card.

4. Tournament winners can come from anywhere. The 2004 Handicapper of the Year, Kent Meyer, an avid horseplayer, qualified through a preliminary tournament at Bettor Racing OTB in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The 2000 Flamingo Reno Winter Challenge was won by Audrey Louie-Sellers. She hadn’t been to a horse race in 30 years but took home $56,855 thanks to her backing of jockey Shane Sellers throughout the tournament. Herman Miller, the 2002 Handicapper of the Year, earned the last qualifying spot in the last DRF/NTRA preliminary tournament. Angela Daniels, who finished second in the 2003 National Handicapping Championship, earned her qualifying spot by besting a field of 2,617 in the Great State Challenge Online Handicapping Contest.

“Since the DRF/NTRA’s national handicapping contest has existed, we’ve noticed that players are traveling from farther and farther away to play in the NYRA contests,” said Jeff Scarfo, marketing manager of the New York Racing Association. “It’s not uncommon for players from Georgia, Florida, South Dakota, California, Illinois, etc. to make the trip to New York to try to win a qualifying berth for the national tournament.”

5. The better tournaments return all entry fees to the winners. That means a zero percent takeout, wonderful news for any horseplayer. Toss in a free Racing Form and program, comp meals and discounts on lodging, and it spells an end to a handicapper’s Rodney Dangerfield days. No wonder guys are piling into their cars and logging more miles than Seabiscuit.

6. Check American Turf Monthly or with NTRA or DRF online for upcoming tournaments. Many accept a limited number of entries and do fill up fast.

7. Avoid distractions. Use discretion in making real money wagers that aren’t tournament related. Few tournaments use exotic wagers as part of their format. Missing a juicy exacta or Pick Three by a nose may be costly in two ways if you let it get to you. Elliott made no personal wagers on Day Two of the Sports Haven Challenge. Jon Trader, who shows a win and a place in two Suffolk Downs contests, wagers only on the contest races. (Suffolk Downs uses a format where all contest wagers are turned in before the first contest race.)

“If you are handicapping other tracks and making wagers while handicapping contest races, that can only confuse the task at hand,” Trader said.

“When only 10 or 12 contest plays are called for in a day, handicapping 40 races may be counterproductive,” Michaels writes.

8. Make a morning line for the toughest races. It’s more important to identify realistic odds for the contenders in a deep field than it is to focus on a single longshot. Playing a horse above the 20–1 odds cap may be the smart play if your line tabs him at 10–1.

9. Tournaments work on a learning curve. Check with after the Derby entries are drawn for a free shot at $5 million. All you need to do is select the correct order of finish of the entire field. The contest was amended this past year, giving out a separate prize of $25,000 to the person who could come the closest. Only one person in approximately 250,000 entries got to fifth-place The Cliff’s Edge. Check for a Breeders’ Cup related online contest.

10. Finally, the times, whether they’re in fifths or hundreds of a second, are a changin.’ I couldn’t resist asking two of the people who would know best, Noel Michaels and Bob Neumeier, how they would structure a handicapping tournament to maximize skill and minimize luck.

“If I were the commissioner of handicapping tournaments, I would cap winners at 10–1,” Neumeier explained. “This would place a premium on handicapping the 4–1 to 10–1 horses that are the bread and butter for every good horseplayer.”

Michaels’ ideal tournament would have a player’s bankroll be 50 percent mythical and 50 percent real money with $20 win-place bets. Hence, a 10-race format would call for a $200 entry fee and a $200 voucher.

“People will be less likely to stab at longshots when it’s $20 bets in real money,” he said.

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