Fear and losing in Las Vegas

Kenny was a contestant in the recent Daily Racing Form/NTRA Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas.

Updated: February 6, 2002, 7:50 PM ET
By Kenny Rice | Special to ESPN.com

I was in Sin City and committing the cardinal sin of sports gaming: playing with scared money.

What's worse, it wasn't real money. It was merely a voucher, used in place of $2 win and $2 place "wagers." All I had to do was mark the track, the race and the horse.

Such was my tournament debut as a media participant in the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas. A contest that required me to bet on 30 races, out of a possible 148, over the course of two days.

More than a week has passed and I've gotten most of the ink of half a dozen Racing Forms off my hands. And while I have fond memories of one of the best-run events I've witnessed in my 20 years of covering the sport, I would say without hesitation that if I had it to do over ... well, I would definitely change my approach.

It probably wouldn't guarantee a higher finish (although it would only take a few dollars to improve my standing), but there would be satisfaction in knowing that I had played like a competent sports gambler, faithfully adhering to the mantra "Be true to your system."

My philosophy changed midway through the first day. Sharing a booth with me in the MGM Grand sports book was my ESPN colleague and good friend, Randy Moss. In the adjacent booth was Mr. Daily Racing Form, Steven Crist, our team captain. The crème de la crème of handicappers were flanking me. I felt like the actor looking for his big break in a scene with Pacino and DeNiro.

Earlier in the day, I had lost three races in photo finishes, missing out on victorise by 11-1, 5-1 and 7-2 horses. I became paranoid -- I was certain this hadn't happen to anyone else. I did pick a couple of winners, but nothing dazzling.

Then I looked away from my Form and up at it.

The digital board, usually reserved for sports-team odds, was used to display the names and earnings of all the players in the tournament. There, next to my name in red lights, the palty sum of $28.00. I certainly wasn't the lowest ranked up there and was ahead at that time of some really outstanding players, yet I was transfixed. "I should have more," I said repeatedly to myself.

I also noticed that a Penthouse Pet, who had never been to a racetrack in her life, was leading all of the media members! Now normally, I'd be suspicious of such an occurence and wonder what was up her sleeve, but I'd seen the pictures.

The day continued, and like Ray Liotta near the end of the movie "Goodfellas," I was franticly searching everywhere for a winner, even though I'd spent most of the previous night checking and rechecking each race. I had been prepared -- hours ago. But now I was sure everyone was watching me, and worse, laughing at my puny returns.

Randy broke into my self-absorbed moment to ask if I'd bet the Gulfstream race, the one I'd felt really good about ... the one that was at the eighth pole with the 9-2 shot I'd picked pulling away to victory.

To quote Homer Simpson, "D'ohhhh!" I hadn't even taken my voucher to the window!

What had I done to reach such a pathetic state of mind? I had forgotten even the most basic rules one must follow at the track.

First among them, don't look back or to the side. I was told long ago by a very good handicapper to approach playing the horses like playing golf -- play the course not the player. I had to pick my races no matter who else was winning theirs. Oh yes, and pay attention!

Also, don't spread yourself too thin. Normally, I rarely focus on more than three tracks at a simulcast center or sports book. But in Vegas I was bouncing from coast to coast. Some of that couldn't be helped because each day at the tournament required participants to play eight required races, each at a different track.

But that left seven races each day that I could bet when and where I wanted (provided it was an NTRA track). So, instead returning to three tracks that I knew well, in search of winners that would pay a big price for those seven optional picks, I was trying to sort through 40 to 50 races from all over the country. No wonder I was crazed.

Day 2, I promised myself, was going to be better & but it wasn't. I had show-finishers in three races. Then, I swung for the fences -- the ones in straight away center in Yankee Stadium. The result: four more races with "0-fer" results.

That strategy not working, I then tried for a base hits, connecting on consecutive mandatory races bringing in $10.20 each. Another good friend, David Bruner, stopped by to offer his congratulations -- at least I think. Perhaps he was just worried -- I still had that paranoid-Bogart-in-"Caine Mutiny" look.

The lessons learned on Day 2: I had passed on respectable returns trying to get 20-1, a bad strategy. I understand one has to hit a few over the fence to have a chance of winning a tournament, but going against a solid 5-2 is foolish. Either bet it or wait for another race.

Conducting an informal poll among some of the other tournament players, I found many other instances of woulda-coulda-shoulda. All agreed that they too had done things they wouldn't do with real cash at the track -- Captain Ahabs all searching for a Moby Dick. Finally I ran out of races (as well as movie and sports analogies). I didn't crack my goal of $100, but still managed come in with $75, finishing ahead of some other poor souls.

Which brings me to an unavoidable conclusion: Ego is much more of a deciding factor in tournaments like this, where you're comparing yourself constantly to other players, than a typical day at the track, where the most competition you might have is a buddy.

But my teammates, Randy, Steven, Mike Spellman (of the Arlington Heights Daily Herald) and Jerry Klein (of the San Francisco Examiner) never mocked me to my face. For that I thank them. I enjoyed their company immensely.

The tournament was fun, but make no mistake, in the end it was work -- 9 to 5 for two days without lunch breaks. There was commiserating and and high-fives; second-guesses and a few "worth a shot" encouragements from my teammates.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely. I insist that even the most casual player take a chance to make next year's DRF/NTRA tourney when the qualifying round comes to your local track. You'll have a blast, even if you get mad at yourself.

Do I hope to get another shot? You bet I do ... without fear.