The Program: Tournament Handicapping Workshop

The Program: Tournament Handicapping Workshop

Mike Spector

Source: NTRA

Source: NTRA

The dream of holding one of those big cardboard checks after winning a horse racing tournament is a driving factor for many horseplayers today as the popularity of tournaments have grown in recent years.

Still, the challenge to ascend to the top of the handicapping throne is daunting to most players, whether they are new to the tournament world or have dabbled in contest play often.
There will be a slew of handicapping seminars during Equestricon to help players at all levels sharpen their games and the “Tournament Handicapping Workshop Presented by the NTRA" and hosted by Daily Racing Form’s (DRF) Peter Thomas Fornatale will indeed be one that can help players get that big cardboard check one day.

[BONUS: All Panel and VIP Passholders will receive free NHC Membership and a free entry into an Equestricon-exlcusive NHC Qualifier!]

“Whether you’re a cash player thinking about getting involved with contests or your main goal every year is to qualify for the National Handicapping Championship (NHC), there will be something for you (during the workshop),” said Fornatale.

Panelists at the Tournament Handicapping Workshop will include some of the biggest names in the game with 2012 NHC Champion Michael Beychok, 2014 Horseplayers World Series Winner Christian Hellmers, and 2015 NHC Tour Champion Jonathon Kinchen taking questions from Equestricon attendees.  The 2-hour workshop will be held on Monday, August 14, starting at 10 a.m., at the Saratoga Springs City Center.

Getting Involved

Both Fornatale and Kinchen encourage players to get involved with tournament play as a way not to only get indoctrinated into horse racing, but also for many other beneficial reasons.

“The great thing about contests is that the barrier to entry is so small, in terms of money, there really is nothing to be intimidated about,” said Fornatale. “In contests, there’s really (no) limit to what you can win, but there is a limit to what you can lose. That to me is what can make it very empowering. It’s a very safe way and great way to learn the game and compete against the best players without a lot of risk.”

In the past, players would need to either go to a race track to participate in an on-site tournament or attend one in Las Vegas. With the advent of many tournament websites, though, including one from Equestricon sponsor NTRA, which allows you to qualify for seats at major tournaments including the NHC, it's now easier than ever to get involved in the tournament scene.

“The easiest way to get involved, in my opinion, especially in the win/place format, is to just start playing little $10 to $15 tournaments on-line,” said Kinchen. “Play in a little tournament here or there and get your feet wet to get used to it. That’s what we try to encourage people to do and will definitely be a part (of the workshop).”

“The on-line contests are the perfect way to start. You can get a whole day of action for as little as $10," said Fornatale.

Tourney Strategy

For those that are more advanced and already playing in tournaments, the strategy used to win a tournament is one of the main attributes that delineates it from normal cash play at the track.

“(During panels), we get a lot of strategy questions about how to handle two entries or what would you do in certain (tournament end-game) situations,” said Kinchen. “That’s one of the most interesting parts of tournament play – the end-game strategy.  A lot of the strategy part of the game, in terms of tournament play rather than the handicapping portion, are fun to talk about.”

There are many different types of tournament formats including the mythical win/place format or cash tournaments. Contests can have different rules for maximum caps on payouts, also, so it's important to know the rules fully before strategizing.

Source: NTRA

Source: NTRA

“Strategy changes in different formats and it can be subtle,” said Fornatale. “The specific rules of a contest might mean you target completely different kinds of horses.  I don’t think you can apply a ‘one-size fits all’ strategy. The first thing you want to do is to really look at the rules of a given contest and come up with a game plan to win that specific contest.” 

Additionally, for those interested in learning more about tournament strategy, Fornatale will be signing copies of his book "The Winning Contest Player" in a separate session on Tuesday, August 15, at Equestricon.  The book has been touted as the "bible" for tournament players and includes stories and strategies from well-known tournament players like Beychok, Duke Matties and Paul Sherman.

“The best part about the book has nothing to do about me and everything to do about the (approximately) 20 generous and successful contest players who were willing to share their insights,” said Fornatale. “A new player can save him or herself an awful lot of time by listening to the wisdom of these veterans (in the book).”

More Than Just the Money

There's something more to tournament play and contests that is not evident on the surface of these spirited competitions, though.

“The #1 thing that I hear about the appeal of contests, more than the money and the strategy, is the idea that as horseplayers we can have these opportunities to meet up with like-minded individuals and talk horses. It just creates an incredible atmosphere that I think puts the hook in players as much as anything else,” said Fornatale.

As a perfect example of this, Kinchen has become close friends with Fornatale through his activities in the contest world. Kinchen points to his new connections in the game as one of the main benefits of tournaments.

“The greatest single thing about tournaments, in my opinion, is that when I started playing in tournaments in 2014, I had one friend in racing,” said Kinchen. “Now I look down at my phone and have 150 people’s phone numbers and a group of about 15 to 20 people that I call friends for the rest of my life, because I was playing in tournaments and stuck in rooms and cities with people that have something in common with me.  That’s why I think tournaments are so great.”

Kinchen will be part of the opening Sunday "Handicapping Workshop" and the "Big Scores on Big Days" panel on Monday at Equestricon. With all his early success in the tournament world including a cover photo on the DRF before the 2016 NHC, Kinchen has stayed grounded and humble about what's most important in the game.

“Outside of the excitement and fun of seeing your name on the leaderboard, the extra money that you can make and taking the pari-mutuel competition to another level, the personal part of adding all these people that will be friends with me for the rest of my life, that’s one of the biggest reason to get involved in tournaments.”