Tournaments: Skill, Luck or a Little of Both

March 2, 2016

Let me start by saying I am a fan of handicapping tournaments, and anything else that promotes The Sport of Kings as the skill game it is. I think a long inherent problem in our game has been the industry’s failure, as a whole, to promote what handicappers do as skill. Poker capitalized on such marketing and they took off while we floundered.

Tournaments have helped to change that. There seems to be a large growing segment of horseplayers who participate in tournaments, almost on a year round basis. I think this is good and I hope the trend continues, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t.

I’ll be the first to admit tournaments are the sole area within The Sport of Kings where I would not classify myself as an expert or professional. I’ve played in very few. Three I think. Two qualifiers for The NHC where I finished pretty high on the list but failed to qualify. I was one winner away in both and I would be remiss if I did not add I hardly studied the rules or knew the format. There was a good reason for that which I’ll get into momentarily. The other was a qualifier for the new Kentucky Oaks-Derby cash tournament, where I finished 21st out of 120 who were in that round.

I went in knowing this was not my forte, made all my picks in the morning, did not watch the leader board, and made only one change when a friend sent me a message one of my selections was scratched. Over the years I may have possibly played in another tournament that escapes my aging mind, but these are the ones I remember and they are it for the most part.

Most of my life I have been a professional handicapper and horse player. In my definition, that means I worked hard enough, and was successful enough, to fall into that maybe 5 or 10% of regular players who beat the game and are able to make a living at it. My outlook was, and to some extent still is, how can I pull myself away from a day of betting, to make a series of mythical $2 win and place bets to qualify for some other event down the line. Losing that focus could cost me a six figure day today. It’s been hard to get past that but I must admit I am exploring the possibility. I will also say while I’ll share my opinions on tournaments, and formats, and what they equate to, I welcome the opinion and thoughts of others, especially those who specialize in them.

As a professional, I’ve always said the one benchmark that determines if you are good, is if you beat the game. It’s all that matters. I still feel that way but tournaments and their popularity and benefit to the sport are making me take a second look. To be a professional handicapper, and beat the game, takes hours, dedication, work, and of course good handicapping and knowing how to bet and create value. I don’t know the same can be said for all tournaments. I’m not saying it can’t, I’m just opening the door for some exploration and discussion.

Let’s begin looking at the tournaments I don’t see myself gravitating to and why. If I can win well into the six figures over the course of a year, then calling me The Eclipse Champion Handicapper adds little to that feat. Bragging rights have ceased to impress me long ago and today I prefer remaining silent on my biggest days as opposed to boasting or openly celebrating them.

$10 Pick 4 singling Palice Malice at 13-1, that's how it's done
$10 Pick 4 singling Palice Malice at 13-1, that’s how it’s done

Not long ago I singled Palice Malice in the Belmont Stakes on a $10 pick 4 ticket. I also hit the pick 6 that day. I posted both tickets on Twitter. I doubt I’d do that today. For years I enjoyed when people who knew me at the races, would comment they could watch a head bobbing stretch duel with me and not know if I was alive for 50k or didn’t bet the race. My point is beating the game is what matters. The glory and bragging rights are for others. What makes it somewhat different is Past the Wire and my desire to share some of my hard learned lessons and rewards with those who read and enjoy it and even learn from it. The last “big” pick 6 I hit paid 146k, I walked out of the track silently and expressionless with a paper bag that had no more room in it. That was four days after I hit the pick 6 because I had to come back to allow the track  to gather the money to pay me. The point is the accolades don’t matter anymore. While nice, they don’t really count.

Belmont Day Sweep, I likely would not post today
Belmont Day Sweep, I likely would not post today

When I look at the mythical $2 win and place format with multiple tracks and maybe 15 or so races, I get confused. It takes me 4-5 hours to handicap a card, and that is when I am in tune with and following the meet. I usually stick primarily to one meet at a time. Two, tops. When you throw in say 10 mandatory races, and 5 discretionary or optional races, I have to ask how does a true handicapper find the time to study so many races? How many races do they have to study to find the discretionary ones? In all my years as a professional I have a hard time answering these questions and I welcome any input. I have to wonder if these are primarily “system” players, or follow some handicapper’s longshots and hope for the best. Maybe I just take too long to study a card? I’m not sure of the answer and I am not saying these players are not good handicappers, I just don’t see how they can be truly handicapping given that format, and if they are that good, why aren’t they focusing on those 6 figure days and beating the game?

When things really get, shall we say, funny, is towards the end of these contests. From the little I’ve followed, and I’ll be the first to admit it hasn’t been much, one thing jumped out at me. These so called expert handicappers start watching the leader board, scouring for horses who if they happen to win will propel them to the lead or high up in the standings. Granted, it can be lucrative. Is it handicapping though? Are these horses these people would play with “case money’ or even real money? I’d guess no. Maybe they think they have a shot, and maybe they don’t and are just hoping for the best. In these tournaments however, they place their mythical $2 win and place wagers on horses they likely would never bet with real money. Fun: yes, lucrative, potentially yes, handicapping prowess, I’m not so sure. To retort, I’m not against tournaments or anything else that promotes the game in a positive way. It is also not my intention to question the talents or efforts of anyone successful and making money in these format tournaments, I just have a hard time grasping the handicapping aspect of it. I’d give the Eclipse to who won the most money off the smallest bankroll. Real money is a lot different than monopoly money.

Now we move on to where things get interesting, cash tournaments. Keeneland has one, and of course there is The Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge. Churchill Downs has added a 25k buy in cash tournament to be held over Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby Day. Now these peak my interest. In these types of formats, you play with a portion of your buy in cash, and you keep your winnings. Whoever has the most winnings, also gets the lucrative winner’s share of the tournament money. Sheer skill. May the best man win. Sure you can watch the leader board and take a wild stab in the last race or two, but you are doing it with real money and if you are in position to take it down with one bet, odds are you earned your way there.

My single issue with these tournaments is the buy in. If you want to avoid the steep buy in, which makes the most sense, you usually have to qualify in one or sometimes even two of those mythical $2 win and place games. I may just bite the bullet and buy in when I decide to play, or may just have to start getting used to those other formats. I’ll tell you this, once I start playing in these, I can’t help but think there is one or two with my name on it. Look out Tommy, we are going to have some fun.

I love the cash style. I loved Drosslemeyer in the Breeders’ Cup Classic a few years back. He won and I would have gone all in on him and I think that may have done it. Last year I thought the Breeders’ Cup Turf was a two horse race between Found and Golden Horn. Found, a filly, couldn’t warm Golden Horn up in Europe but here she was getting Lasix and he wasn’t. I thought that made the difference and that was an all-in for me. Golden Horn ran too good for it to be the give in the course. It was the Lasix. That bet might have done it and you can make those types of bets on those days in those races. Sure, now it’s just talk, but I’ll be coming. Maybe not this year, but soon. It’s part of the future of the game, as is exchange wagering. I can’t wait for that either. It’s just a matter of time.

High Five

A big high five to Chad Brown and his entire team for not only saving Lady Eli’s life, but having her on the work tab the other day. Prayers work, and some love, kindness and genuine caring doesn’t hurt either. Neither does some great Vet work. In nothing short of a small miracle, Lady Eli breezed three furlongs in 38 and 4/5ths at Palm Meadows.

Low Five

This is not directed at anyone or anything in particular but falls under that category of “Oh No”. Payson Park has been quarantined by The Florida Department of Agriculture as a recent arrival to the training center was confirmed to have the EHV-1 strain of the equine herpes virus. Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream Park immediately announced no horses from Payson Park will be allowed on the grounds during the quarantine, which I understand to be 21 days.

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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@PastTheWire Great read brought back some sad memories.The only race she lost killed her. Legacy. @jonathanstettin

Tim n (@CigarSire) View testimonials