10 WINNING HANDICAPPING TOURNAMENT TIPS
By Noel Michaels
Director of player development for OTB Nassau County (NY) and ace handicapper for the Race Palace and author of Daily Racing Form's ® "The Handicapping Contest Handbook." He's also authored "Winning Angles A To Z" Reach him online at OTBLearningLabs.com or call toll free 1-866-903-6449
Here are 10 important tips to help you successfully compete for big bucks in handicapping contests.
1) Choose your contests wisely
The first fundamental thing that any successful handicapping tournament player must do is choose the right contests to play. What makes a particular contest right for you? Some factors every tournament player should consider when picking their spots include the contest's proximity to where they live, the contest's rules and format, how much the contest costs to enter, and whether or not the contest's prize structure includes a take-out, or if all entry fees collected get returned to the top finishers in the form of prize money. Last but not least, players will want to consider whether or not the contest is a qualifier for the National Handicapping Championship, or at least the Horseplayer World Series.
Give special preference to playing in contests that are close to home, and finding the contests that return 100 percent (or more) of their entry fees to the winners in the form of prize money, and even give serious consideration to traveling out of town in order to participate in these events. Tournaments with no take-out are - and always have been - added-money events that offer their entrants better odds than a typical day of betting at the track (where else can you play horses without a take-out?). When you add-in all of the value-added perks like free meals, free admission, free parking, free past performances, and free gifts that are offered by many tournaments, these zero take-out contests can easily be considered the best horse racing bets offered by anyone anywhere.
2) Arm yourself with information
The is no such thing as too much information when it comes to preparing for a handicapping tournament. The players with the best information, and the best ability to use that information, have an edge on their competition. Go out of your way to get the best pp's (DRF, BRIS, etc.), load up with results charts from all applicable tracks, and it can't hurt to read "the sheets", or order one of the computer programs that are available geared specifically for tournament players.
3) Play to your strengths
Tournaments usually offer a variety of races and racetracks to bet on, and any tournament player would be foolish not to cherry pick a contest's available races for the ones that are the most appealing to them personally. For example, if you are basically an East coast player, it cannot hurt to concentrate on Eastern races from places like New York and Florida instead of trying to pick a bunch of races from less familiar tracks in California and the Midwest. Also, you usually will have a wide range of races to play in most contests, so why not focus on your strengths. If you're a handicapper who excels in turf races, why not concentrate primarily on turf races? If you like maiden races, then play only maiden races, if you like sprints then play sprints, etc., etc., etc.
4) Look for live longshots, overlays, and value horses
Handicapping contests have become synonymous with longshots because it is extremely difficult to win a tournament without the help of at least a couple solid winning longshots on your ticket. It doesn't take a math degree to figure out why it works this way. A player who plugs along all day with a very solid five winners from 10 bets with an average win payoff of $6.00 per winner will accumulate a contest total of $30. This player's $30 advantage will be instantly wiped-out, however, by just one 15-1 winner paying $32 on another player's ticket. Tournaments can have fields of 100, 200, 300, or even 500 or more players. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to separate yourself from the masses by simply plugging away with favorites, even if they happen to win.
Generally try to limit your tournament plays to horses that will at least return double-digit payoffs of $10 or more (at least 4-1 odds). Preferably you will want to look for horses that pay at least 10-1 odds, and you will always want to look for at least a few "cap horses" in every contest you play, meaning a 20-1 or better horse in a contest with a 20-1 odds cap, or a 25-1 or better horse in a contest with a 25-1 odds cap.
5) Play wide-open races with big fields
With such a high premium put on longshots in handicapping tournaments, it helps to know where to look for the most likely places to spot longshots, overlays, and value. Without question, the best races to play for tournament purposes are wide-open races featuring big fields or 10 or more horses. In big, wide-open fields, the favorites in the race could be in the odds range of 7-2 or 4-1, with the mid-range horses likely to be sitting at juicy odds anywhere from 6-1 to 12-1. If you pick the right races, you could be getting the very live fourth or fifth favorites in a 12-horse fields who are sitting in a prime odds range that you're looking for in a handicapping contest.
6) Seek out beatable favorites
One of the best ways to identify live longshots is to find races where you can take a strong and confident stand against the likely favorite(s). Every time you find a questionable, beatable favorite in a race, a red flag should instantly go up for you in your Daily Racing Form, indicating that the race in question would be a good race for you to key on for one of your valuable tournament plays. If you hate the favorite, chances are your selection in that race is going off at odds that are acceptable in a handicapping contest.
7) Set a target score and play to reach your goal
Exactly how do you know when to play a horse at 4-1 odds, and when you need to play a cap horse at odds of 20-1? The answer to this question is absolutely fundamental to know for any player who wishes to be successful in handicapping tournaments. You must set a target score for yourself in a tournament, and then be willing to tailor your plays in order to enable yourself to reach your target score. The best way to set a target score is to know what it has taken to win that specific contest in past years. Get the contest's recent results and shoot for a score that's equal to an amount that has previously won that event.
If a contest's past results aren't available, use some general guidelines to determine a target score. For win-only mythical money contests, shoot for a score 2 ½ to 3 times your starting bankroll. For win-place contests, shoot for a score 2 times your starting bankroll, and for win-place-show contests, shoot for a score 1 ½ to 2 times your starting bankroll. For real money contests, go for a score equal to a 3-1 parlay. For example, if you start with a $200 bankroll, a winning score should be roughly around $3,200.
8) Handicap early, decide late
Preparation is key when it comes to handicapping contests, and there is no such thing as too much preparation before a handicapping contest. Have a look at all of the races involved in the contest, and make yourself a hierarchy of races that you think might be playable. In most cases you'll want to stay away from making hard-and-fast, set-in-stone selections whenever possible. Instead, try to identify as many realistic contenders as possible in the races you like the best. Once you've identified all the possible contenders in a race, wait for a look at the actual odds and letting the tote board guide your plays. If you've identified three contenders going off at odds of 2-1, 3-1, and 10-1, play the horse with the best odds, or at least pick the horse that is the biggest overlay.
9) Watch the scoreboard and save some bullets for the end
If you play well enough to be in contention at or near the end of a handicapping contest, how you handle your final plays could make the difference between winning and losing. In contests with a leaderboard that post scores, it is of utmost importance to save at least some of your bullets for the late races. The reason for this is simple, the later it is in the contest, the clearer it will start to become how much money you are going to need in order to win. If you need to make up a $20 deficit, there's no sense in betting 5-1 horses who will not return enough money even if they win. Conversely, if you only need $5 to move into the lead, there's no reason to stab at a 20-1 longshot with little chance.
10) No guts, no glory!
Always bet the max and play to win. If you're playing in a mythical money contest, you literally have nothing to lose by shooting for the moon. Remind yourself that your bets are imaginary, and you can't lose money on an imaginary bet! Even if you're playing in a real money contest, never be afraid to unleash your bankroll and bet it all if that's what's necessary. Contest prize structures are notoriously top heavy, and if you're not doing anything it takes to win, you might as well be throwing away your entry fee.
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