Playing What You Know
By Nicolle Neulist
Most of us have heard the old adage, “write what you know.” One thing I know very well is the extension of that adage to this game: playing what I know.
I live in Chicago. I go to Hawthorne and Arlington regularly and I follow that circuit closely. That is what I spend the most time handicapping, and that is the circuit to which the vast majority of my wagering (and contest-entry) dollars go.
In most senses, that works for me.
I just started handicapping regularly about three years ago. I learned to wade through PPs on the Hawthorne and Arlington track programs. I made my notes in the mornings, and watched the races in the afternoons. I had a limited amount of time to analyze the races, and it made the most sense to dive into the races I would see live later in the day.
I graduated from deciphering the track program to buying more extensive PPs a few days in advance. I graduated from handicapping only on the days I would physically be at the track to looking at the local cards every race day. Still, I focused on Chicago. I still had only a limited amount of time for handicapping, and it was more engaging to follow the horses I saw in person weekend in and weekend out.
The more I went to the track, the more I learned things that were not necessarily on the pages of the PPs. They only galvanized my local focus.
I started learning about physical handicapping, and about how horses should look. That tied in so well with my constant presence at the track: not only could I apply more general principles of physical handicapping, but I got to know these individual horses well enough to see whether they looked or acted better or worse than I had seen them before.
It was not just the horses – it was the people. Trainer/jockey statistics on past performances were helpful, though I could get them for any circuit. But, there was no substitute for following individuals over time. Showing up to the track helped me focus. It taught me how each jockey rode, what each trainer excelled at. It taught me who each trainer’s “A” rider was, and let me see if that was changing over time. On other circuits, what I knew about trainers or riders were statistics on a page. In Chicago it unfolded in front of me. It burned in my memory.
My focus on my home circuit boosts my confidence in playing the circuit. I wager on it every race day, and when I can find contests in my entry fee range that cover Hawthorne or Arlington, I jump right in.
But, my fervent local focus has hampered my contest play.
After all, many of the bigger contests exist outside my comfort zone. I don’t know the looks of the horses, the intents of the trainers, or the styles of the jockeys as well as I know them in Chicago.
Because of that, I am comfortable playing Hawthorne survivor contests on DerbyWars or entering whatever Arlington games I can dig up on HorseTourneys. But, it confronts me with a question: am I happy doing that, or do I want to “level up” and aspire towards bigger things like the NHC someday?
I can’t answer that yet.
I have occasionally pushed myself outside my comfort zone. I have been playing Public Handicapper since 2014, which helps keep me diving into many of the bigger stakes races. I played Huddie for the first time last year, and plan to do so again through this year’s Saratoga meet. That makes for a frenetic summer, but it gets me used to looking for value horses on an unfamiliar circuit. I’ve played the Wednesday Night Webcast game on DerbyWars a couple of times, and tried the occasional head-to-head Mountaineer game on an otherwise free night.
But, if I have to choose between playing Chicago and turning my eyes elsewhere? Nowadays, I stick to Chicago. I am not sure whether that is the right decision for the long term. Someday, I may set my sights wider. But, for now? It seems my time, money, and efforts are better used when I make a narrower focus. For now, I focus on playing what I know.