By Nicolle Neulist
Come the beginning of the NHC qualifier at Hawthorne on Friday morning, I felt as prepared as I ever would. I had my tablet, loaded with marked-up past performances. I had my laptop, with a spreadsheet of every single contest race sorted by post time. The spreadsheet noted which races I planned to play, and how I planned to play them. It had empty fields for how much I bet on races, and how much I got back. This would allow me to keep track of my score. It would also allow me to track how close I was to achieving the tournament’s only major requirement: putting the entire $300 live bankroll through the windows.
All $300 I needed to play went through the windows. Only $70.40 came back out, but at least I learned a few lessons in exchange.
Everything I read before the tournament told me money management was important in live-bankroll contests. In the abstract, I thought I knew what that meant. My goal was to play my opinions, and not bet just because I hadn’t had any action in a while. I had grand plans of playing my stronger opinions more strongly, and playing my weaker opinions only if I got a big enough price on them.
Those sound great as guiding principles, but such vagaries compensate poorly for nerves and inexperience.
Much of my play earlier in the day centered around win bets. Instead of varying based on the strength of my opinions, I got stuck playing $10 win bets. Any less seemed like peanuts given the size of my bankroll for the contest — how would I ever make up ground on the Big Bad Leaders? But, any more seemed exorbitant. What if I was wrong, and blew a large swath of that bankroll on a bad opinion?
Much of that fear emanated from the volume of races I handicapped. Though I did not have the time to handicap every single race at every single track, I handicapped several dozen races over the course of the day. With so many races from which to choose, I struggled to compare the strength of my opinions. I had never handicapped that many races in preparation for a day at the track. I had spread myself out to so many tracks and spots that I did not feel supremely confident in any of my picks. Improving this will only come as I get more comfortable with open-track format contests, and with assessing my confidence in selections spanning several dozen races instead of eight or ten.
At one point early in Friday’s contest, I ranted about how nice it would be if I had been able to play Chip Control™ games at TTE before attempting my first live money contest. (I can’t, since I work here!) Through my contest experience, I was used to having to play every race the same way. Chip Control™ contests allow players to build live money skills by letting them focus their bankrolls where they have the strongest opinions.
I also need to have more confidence in constructing and playing exotics. I did hit some trifectas during the course of the tournament. I almost never play trifectas, so the fact that I could construct and hit them at tracks I do not often play, provided a small boost to my confidence. But, I figured out too late in the day that I needed to be focusing more on a big hit from a deeper exotic, instead of making smaller win or even exacta plays. I adjusted and played a few more trifectas and superfectas later in the day, but the damage was done. I had a ton of bankroll remaining that I had to play — but limited time to adjust my strategy, look back at the races, construct those tickets, and put them in.
Instead, that should have been my strategy from the outset. When I got a good handle on a race, when I had a horse or two on whom I felt comfortable keying, I should have constructed those exotic tickets in advance. I had done that in a few cases, including in the Churchill 3rd where a trifecta I had scrawled on my past performances actually hit. I loved Bad Student, knew he would be chalk, and had strong enough opinions about the rest of the horses to build around him accordingly. But, I did not plan enough exotic tickets in the days leading up to the contest. I got off-put if the ticket was more than I was used to playing — and instead noted the horse or two I liked in anticipation of a win bet, and moved on to the next race.
By the end of the contest I was playing some bigger exotic tickets, since they were my only hope of punching my ticket to Vegas. But, tickets constructed in advance with a cooler head will do better in the long run than those slapdash superfectas I played late in the day. Next time, I will err on the side of constructing more exotic tickets beforehand, and choosing my plays from there.
I also learned an embarrassing and expensive lesson about the importance of checking my work.
I liked Valentine Boy in the Turf Paradise 6th: he was getting back on dirt, taking a drop in class, and his connections were strong. 5/1 was fair. I scanned my card at the betting machine, and put in my $10 to win. The horses loaded. The gate shook, the feed was too fuzzy for me to tell who caused it, and then they were off. I felt waves of pride and relief when Valentine Boy held off a rallying God of War to win the race. The race went official, and Valentine Boy paid $13. I went back to the machine to check my score, and the ticket recap told me my bet was not a winner.
Valentine Boy was the 8. I had a $10 win ticket on the 7. The 7 was Good Company, a chalk I did not like. (When reading the chart, I also learned Good Company was also the horse who made me sweat by being so fractious in the gate!) A few races later, when betting another 8 horse, I found out that the left side of the “8” button on the old, finicky betting machine was reading as a “7”. My failure to check my ticket meant that my good handicapping went to nought.
Would that have won the contest for me? Certainly not, as it took a score of $2,689.70 to win a berth to Vegas that day. Pressing the right button for Valentine Boy would only have raised my score to a paltry $135.40. But, it drove home an important lesson: execution matters. I can plan well, I can steel myself to make bigger wagers — but I also need to execute them properly.
Nothing will help me keep all of this in my head more than playing more live contests. Though I was well-beaten in my debut, I got some education, and will be able to approach next time with a cooler head and a surer hand.