Three days removed from my first appearance in the National Horseplayers Championship, the dust has settled and I am back in the real world. Back at home. Back at work. And beginning a break of indeterminate length from the contest circuit. As I mentioned in a previous post, a break seems like a good idea, even if it only lasts a few weeks. That said, applying some lessons learned last weekend is something I am very much looking forward to.
A couple years back, my friend and tournament veteran Rich Nilsen and I were on the phone talking about a bad wagering mistake I made. If memory serves, I had gone 5 of 6 in a Pick 6 somewhere, and missed out on a pretty big score. And the mistake I made was utterly inexcusable. The circumstances of that miss have since disappeared from my brain, but whatever I did was something I vowed to never do again. Anyway, Rich had an all-time great quote on this call. After I made some comment about the valuable lesson I was taking away from this beat not making me feel any better about missing out on the cash, Rich said “I’ve been there. You get tired of learning all the time.”
So it is with some mild sense of satisfaction that I can say to myself and anyone else who is listening (or reading this) that after my pretty decent showing at the NHC last weekend, I feel like I have finally learned some things for good. That is not to say that I am done learning. Or that I won’t constantly make changes and try to improve. Rather, some of my key takeaways from my 47th place finish are things that I know I will carry with me to every single contest in which I participate in the future. And they’ll likely apply to actual cash wagers as well.
For one, I have to pick my spots properly. Before every day of the NHC, I looked over the PPs for every available race. And if I felt a race wasn’t “in my wheelhouse”, I didn’t even look at it. $10,000 claimers at Tampa? Pass. Non-winners-of-one-other-than at Aqueduct with seven horses? Pass. I didn’t even give myself a chance to form an opinion or see something that wasn’t there. I stuck to turf races, maiden races that weren’t cheap, and any dirt race with nine or more runners. I never looked at a single race from Golden Gate all weekend. Instead, I picked out the races that I felt fit my handicapping strengths and were candidates to produce nice prices. This may seem like Contest 101 stuff. And to a more seasoned contest player, I’m sure it is elementary. But in the past, I have struggled to pass on anything I perceived as an opportunity. And I frequently wasted bullets or cash. No more. Those days are gone forever.
Second, I will never again be swayed off a horse because of early tote action. This almost hurt me twice on Saturday. In both instances, a horse I had identified the night before opened way lower than I had expected. And it was not until the last minute each time that I rushed to the machine to make my play after the odds climbed back up. Both horses won. Conversely, I DID pass on a horse because the odds were substantially higher than I had expected. This told me I had seen something that even the barn didn’t see, and I passed. That horse ran 2nd, costing me $22 in contest points. The lesson: Watch the board constantly, be patient, and trust your stuff.
Third, and I said this in the last sentence, trust your stuff. Don’t listen to others. If you see something, it might be something. More often than not, it will be nothing. But the next time, it might be a cap horse. That said, you have to be prepared to shift gears when the time is right. I hit the first race at Gulfstream on Sunday, and was feeling supremely confident. In race 2, a horse I liked at 6-1 was bet down to 3-1. I also liked a horse at 16-1 who I felt was a decided cut below, but not impossible. I bet the 3-1 horse who ran 3rd, while my 16-1 horse ran 2nd. That decision cost me. So trust yourself. And trust yourself enough to deviate from the plan when your experience tells you it’s the right thing to do. And when you make a choice that hurts you, you HAVE to move on. Don’t dwell.
My final takeaway is this: If you’re in the room, you have a shot. You are good enough. There may be better and more experienced contest players in the room or even at your table. But if you make every contest play while worrying about what better handicappers are thinking or doing, you’re beat before you even make your play. Prepare and execute. Don’t worry about others until you are at the final table and the contest becomes a chess match. I haven’t had to worry about that yet, but hopefully that time will come.