Tournament play not just for the wise guys

Every serious horse racing fan and player should take the plunge in a handicapping tournament.

Updated: July 1, 2004, 11:38 AM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

Every horseplayer -- at least once in his or her jaded recreational life -- has been appalled by the stupidity of the person standing nearby who just hit a major payoff. The nature of the beast mandates that you feel superior to that person in knowledge, but simply short on lady luck.

It's that kind of mentality that puts your name among the entrants in a handicapping tournament. So with $80,000 on the line recently, I decided it was time to put my years of racetrack savvy to the test for the first time. After all, I've probably spent half that much over the years in dry cleaning bills, trying to scrub the Daily Racing Form ink stains off my shirt cuffs. I don't think the advent of the internet and downloadable past performances has done much good for the dry cleaning industry, by the way.

And so they came to Windsor Locks, CT, to play. Nearly 250 of us. The good folks at the Autotote Bradley Teletheatre just outside Hartford hosted a top-shelf event. The contest proved highly organized, accommodating and folks there were genuinely happy to put on the show. A smoke-free OTB site didn't hurt the atmosphere one bit either. As I looked around, there were far less fat, old guys in Hawaiian shirts than I expected. The stereotypes were dropping like flies.

Every tournament has its own format. On this weekend, we had 10 plays to make each day of the two-day event. With racing from Belmont, Churchill and Hollywood on the tourney menu, that meant a total of 51 potential races from which to choose. In other words, you're playing 20 races and sitting out 31 races. That's truly where tournament life gets interesting.

You need to maximize your scores with only 20 plays. I scoured the nation for advice on tournament play before making my contest debut. I chose only to ask players who weren't in this particular tournament, because of lingering doubts that any of my would-be competitors would actually fork over useful info to someone who could rip the first prize from their wallets. My sage tournament veterans advised that I needed to seek and destroy races only where I could find a horse at 10-to-1 odds or higher that I wanted to play.

It's eat or be eaten; so you're left with an interesting dynamic. If you're playing the race, you're screaming for a big-price horse. If you're not playing that particular race, it's time to become the world's biggest chalkhead. You don't want your competitors nailing a 20-to-1 shot, so you wind up rooting (but not aloud) for the race favorite to clunk home.

Rooting out loud for the 3-to-5 shot in a handicapping tournament is a tell-tale sign that you're either a rookie or a complete moron. Note to self: screaming, "Get up with this 4-to-5 shot, Bailey", is a sure way to get dirty looks from those around you. It's kind of like what you KNOW happens on the PGA Tour. Phil Mickelson is giving Tiger Woods mojo in his mind and rooting for a slice, but just can't visibly crack a smile once it happens.

Day one of the tournament got off to a rousing start for me in Belmont's third race. Gold Joy, a horse that I played last month in the Flash Stakes at Belmont Park, was back in the Tremont Stakes for another crack at heavily favored Primal Storm. With only four entrants in the Tremont, I figured the race would be a "sitter". But as post time approached, Gold Joy's odds kept drifting upward, all the way to 14-to-1. And so I dove in, betting the tournament's maximum of $200 to win.

Gold Joy rocketed from last-to-first in the final sixteenth of a mile to win. It was the same move I saw him make in the Flash Stakes just a few weeks prior. The problem that day was that he made the move AFTER the finish line&after he had crossed the line third by 10 lengths. Track announcer Tom Durkin even offered to those listening that day that Gold Joy would be a horse to watch out for next time. Luckily for me, few either saw or listened to the Flash. Only two players in the entire contest tabbed Gold Joy - and I was one of them who collected on the $31.40 mutuel. Honestly, I didn't look at the names in the field before the contest began. It's not like a traditional sports tournament where you try to zero in your competition and work out the brackets. Every one of the players entered in the contest thought they were the No. 1 seed. I dare you to find a serious horseplayer who inwardly will concede anything less than that. Do you think anyone was really trembling that I might have had a big secret up my sleeve?

But now the leaderboard had substance: I had $3,140 written next to my name. As a rookie who had some early success, I became obsessed with it for the remainder of day one. Much of that day, my total remained among the top three of all contestants. I bounced back and forth from my table to the leaderboard, looking over my proverbial shoulder after each race to see who was making a move. In the interim, I became the champion of every 3-to-5 shot from New York to California to Kentucky.

Day one culminated with rousing upsets by 40-to-1 shots in the last race at Churchill Downs and the first race at Hollywood Park. That shook the leaderboard like Mount St. Helen's. With two races remaining at Hollywood, I was out of selections and decided to call it a day. I had fallen from third place to forty-third place faster than you can say, "Get up with that 4-to-5 shot, Bailey".

Still, 43rd wasn't shabby among 241 contestants. The positive bounce in my step made handicapping at the hotel Saturday night even more entertaining than usual. I wanted desperately to find horses I liked at Hollywood Park. With its later post time, Hollywood picks would provide me a chance to watch the tournament unfold and make a late splash.

But alas, things rarely work out on paper in this game. The Hollywood Park program looked like a series of slam-dunk favorites in smallish fields. Finding a 10-to-1 shot or more? Fuhgeddaboutit. So it was off to Belmont and Churchill for the bulk on my 10 plays on Sunday.

Let's make a long story short. Sunday's racing provided absolutely nothing to my bottom line. A rough day of handicapping reared its head and the strength of my two-day point total would fall to its final resting place of No. 74 when all the shouting was done. Out of 241 players, I'll take it. Truth be told, several players with published handicapping books finished below that mark.

A few quick things I learned by playing in my first tournament: you have to change the way you handicap races and you have to back up your wagers at the windows.

On the first point, tournament players are not looking for the most logical winner; they're looking for the most playable illogical winner. So what if trainer Carl Nafzger was 0-for-50 with first-time starters? His baby in Churchill's final race Saturday had a win-early pedigree. That 40-to-1 stunner brought many from the ashes to the penthouse.

Secondly, bet the races on the side as if you were not playing in the tournament. Even if your tournament does not offer exotic plays like exactas and trifectas, it's wise to saunter up to the windows and stay true to your everyday wagering forum. For me, I loved a 32-to-1 bomber on Saturday at Churchill. The thought process was: if he wins, I'll probably have a super chance to cash in the Top 20 of this entire tournament; if he runs well and loses, I'll be sick if I don't get a little piece of the action. An exacta back-wheel (all with my horse running second) provided a strong winning wager and covered my expenses for the weekend. Had I not decided to go to the windows, the weekend could have been a complete wash.

Every serious horse racing fan and player should take the plunge in a handicapping tournament. Most tracks and off-track betting shops offer some sort of contest throughout the year. A win in your local tournament could land you a spot in Las Vegas next January for the sixth annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship. Hopefully, I'll be seated next to you & and for your sake, hopefully be able to contain myself from rooting aloud for 4-to-5 shots.

Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.