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:
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.