testing the contest waters again…

I’ve dabbled in a bit of contest play over the last nine months or so, but have not become a regular contest player.  I tried again last night, and learned a valuable lesson.

I tried a DerbyWars head-to-head for the first time.  I’ve played a few larger-group games on there and on Race Track Warriors, but I decided instead to do something small.  With fewer opponents, I figured, I would be a little less nervous to try a new strategy.  I played an $11 head-to-head game, covering the last six races at Mountaineer last night.

When I have played in contests, either in one-day format or a longer-running type (like Public Handicapper or the Rockin’ Ry games on Facebook), I tend to swing for the fences.  Even if there’s a horse who looks very solid, I have always tended to toss a first or even second-choice horse in favour of the enormous bomb with an outside chance.  Sometimes this works, in cases like Fixador in the McKnight last year.  Usually, it fails miserably.  I get beat, often by the horse I thought had a solid chance, and have nothing to show for my valiant longshot try.

Last night in the head-to-head, I decided I was going to ditch the Always Be A Hero mindset.  I was going to handicap the races, and identify who I thought had the best chance to win as well as who my bombs were.  I would watch the tote, especially for races in which I thought two or three horses had similarly good chances to win.  However, I would not so scrupulously avoid chalk if it was early and I honestly thought a shorter-priced horse had a great chance to win.  I would play a longshot if I actually thought they had a great chance to win or place, based on my handicapping.  Otherwise, I would stick to my traditional, solid handicapping, and only resort to bombs for the sake of bombs if I was in a big hole late.

This approach worked well:

How I learned to stop worrying and play my opinions.
How I learned to stop worrying and eat a little chalk.

Through the six races, I had four winners, a second, and one finish off the board. This was small-ball at its finest: three of my winners went off favoured, though some of them only gained that status after I had to have my picks in.

A couple of those favourites, Papa Dolce (first contest race) and Takeittothehouse (fifth contest race), were very strong opinions based on their being first-time runners at Mountaineer, coming from harder circuits and running for connections who do very well with those first-time Mountaineer types.  They seemed so much faster and better than their foes on paper that I found no good reason to oppose them.  They both rewarded me with open-length victories.

Uluru, in the fourth contest race, was a pace play.  On paper, she looked like lone speed in a paceless affair.  She won, though it was ugly: more pace pressure than I expected early, and she wouldn’t switch leads late.  However, she held off my second choice in the race, 5/1 shot Emotional Trippi.

Appealing Yankee, the winner of the second contest race, went off the second choice.  He had already shown that those two-furlong dashes at the Mountain were his bag.  I expected him to go off favoured, but Illinois-bred speedster Bad Boy Peter (first time Mountaineer) took a bit more money, going off 8/5 versus Appealing Yankee’s 2/1.  Bad Boy Peter’s early speed was good enough that I considered him if he were going at significantly longer odds than Appealing Yankee.  But, for a similar or (as it turned out) longer price, I decided to back the one with proven form going a quarter of a mile at Mountaineer.

Super Cobra, my pick in the last, was also a second choice.  I wanted to beat the Charles Town shipper Chase N Maddie, and had a very weak opinion between Super Cobra, Allegheny Shine, and Fiddler Blue.  I had liked Allegheny Shine a bit better, but the early odds were too short on him compared to what

The longest shot I played all night was Amabile in the third contest race; she went off at 8/1, and just did not fire.  Even so, my handicapping had a sound foundation.  I picked an off-pace type who had shown some form over the track, since I figured the chalk needed an easy lead that she would not likely get.  Wheres Your Sister went off at 4/5, got pressed early, and faded to third.  It built my confidence to have chosen to swing against chalk there and see my reasoning bear out.

What did I learn from all this?  Play your opinions.  Don’t always try for the home run.  Swing for the fences when there’s real value in a long shot, or when hitting a bomb is the only way left to win.  But, hitting a few chalks when you think they are truly the goods will do you far better, at least in the opening stages of a contest, than grasping at straws and always trying to be a hero.

I don’t expect things to go this well for me every time I play the Mountain, but I see myself taking a few more swings in these head-to-head night games very soon, and continuing with the outlook I had yesterday.

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