By Nicolle Neulist
Wednesday evening, I scrawled those words on a Microsoft Paint file in which I had been taking notes to organize my handicapping for Friday’s NHC qualifier at Hawthorne. No, I didn’t have a hot tip on a horse by that name. After all, Analysis Paralysis had not raced since a longshot victory at Emerald Downs in late August. She wasn’t entered Friday.
No, analysis paralysis merely described my state of mind for the last several days.
I had been playing online contests for over two years, since the autumn of 2014. There was a time when even a six- or eight-race game seemed like a lot to conquer, but those times were behind me. $2 mythical contests were old hat, as were survivor-style games. But, Friday’s NHC qualifier at Hawthorne would be the first time I set my fears aside to play a live bankroll contest.
I was scared, but committed. After all, I had purchased my NHC tour card earlier this month just to play in this contest. Even with the rookie discount, why would I waste $25 on the card if I was going to lose my nerve?
It would be the first time I could select from any race at any track during the contest time frame.
That runs counter to my usual play. On a normal day at the track, I pay attention to the Chicago oval and a few big stakes races. That’s it. Focusing on such a small slice of the racing action allows me to give due diligence to the races I care most about. Even in my experience with optional races, the range from which I could choose was not so broad. For example, I have played Huddie twice — and, though every race is optional, players must pick eight races a weekend from Saratoga. We know how many races we have to play, and which track.
The Hawthorne contest format felt dauntingly open-ended. In a sense, I envy the folks who can show up to the track, buy a racing form, and pore through it for action all day long. If I were that kind of horseplayer, the ability to select any race at any track would have felt familiar. Instead, the volume of available races to play made me a recluse for the days leading into the contest.
It would be the first time I would put $300 through the windows in a single day.
For as much horse racing as I watch, handicap, and follow, I pick my spots and bet peanuts. I’m still the two-dollar bettor everyone loves to hate. Though I regularly make small wagers, I lack the temperament to bet big money. I like win bets, doubles, exactas. If I can compile a minuscule Pick 3 or Pick 4 that has a chance of hitting, I’ll take a shot. Anything more than five or ten bucks — maybe twenty or twenty-five for a huge carryover and a mandatory payout — and it’s too rich for my blood. If I can’t whittle the ticket down to that, it’s the wrong spot. I’ll find another race or sequence tomorrow, maybe next week.
Friday, I had to find at least $300 worth of spots to pick. Though it felt like I had a lot of races in which to do it, the races were in such a short period of time, and I had a short period of time in which to do my analysis.
When I wasn’t expressing my anxiety by hyperventilating or scribbling rhyming words in my notes, I tried to take a methodical approach to the volume of races. I saw two paths forward: trying to handicap every race in a slapdash fashion, or thoroughly handicapping the races I would be best at. Though the latter left me with a fear of missing out on something (what if I would have found a fantastic longshot in a sort of race I didn’t normally like to handicap?!), I decided the latter strategy would put me in a better strategy than the former. Though I would enter the contest with fewer opinions, the ones I did enter with would be more informed.
I looked at all of Hawthorne, of course, since I know the track and the horses. Some races were inscrutable; others revealed horses I wanted to play.
I compiled a list of extended one-turn races and handicapped all of those, since I feel comfortable identifying value in horses for the course and distance. I scoured Friday’s races and handicapped races with esoteric conditions, since I enjoy finding clever price horses in those races. Even if the horse I landed on did not fall squarely within the parameters for why I targeted the race in the first place, these avenues at least got me focusing on individual races instead of spending the entire week in a state of analysis paralysis.