Finding My Foundation
By Nicolle Neulist
So far, I have focused on the difficult parts of my first live contest. Preparation felt overwhelming. The contest required wagering beyond my usual comfort zone. I did not adapt as quickly as I could have. Meticulous handicapping fell victim to fear and bad data entry.
That’s not to say I did everything wrong. I made a few good decisions along the way that create a foundation for moving forward.
For one, I made my spreadsheet. Hawthorne supplied a list of available tracks, noting which races at each track could be played. But, splitting it race by race was helpful, and I will keep doing that in any contest where I have to follow multiple tracks. Having the locations and times of every single race in front of me, along with notes of which races I hoped to play, helped me stay on target. I greyed out the rows of races that had already happened, and it kept me focused on what came next.
It wasn’t perfect; the Fair Grounds 8th got lost in the shuffle, and I missed playing an exacta with Running Mate (the horse to beat) and Divine Kaleb (the condition book horse). I got distracted by another track, and looked back at Fair Grounds just in time to see Running Mate and Divine Kaleb cross the wire first and second. But, I would have missed a lot more races had I not used the spreadsheet to keep myself on track. I have saved that spreadsheet, and will continue to use it going forward.
However, I will make the spreadsheet earlier. This time around, I made the spreadsheet on Thursday night — after I had done most of my handicapping. The idea sprung from anxiety over how I would follow all the races. It helped. It could do more. Through the preparation process, I could make notes in that spreadsheet instead of only making notes in PPs, and having to go back and copy those notes into the spreadsheet. It could also help me identify which races to focus on in the first place, as it contained the distances and levels of races. Next time I will start building the spreadsheet as soon as the races are drawn, and make it more of a living document than a last-minute compilation.
I also chose to minimize distractions. I got to the track early on Friday, went to the press box, and spent most of the day parked there.
Most of the contest players gravitated toward the Gold Cup Room. I considered wandering that way, but I didn’t want to spend my first live contest distracted by crowds, by cheering, by a social experience. I instead wanted to play the contest from a familiar place, and I find nowhere at Hawthorne more familiar and comfortable than my seat upstairs. I knew the people. I knew the cadence. It is my usual home base at Hawthorne.
It would have been fun to meet other people who were playing the contest. But, I would have spent the entire contest intimidated by the fact that I was playing against people with far more knowledge and experience than I had. I felt pangs of that in the abstract, no matter what. I did not want to have that in front of me.
In the future, when I have better charted the territory of live contests, I hope to meet other players in person. I would love to hang out, talk shop, and make plans for a drink or dinner after the races are over. For my first contest, though, I am glad I stayed in a familiar environment. It allowed me to focus on as many fundamentals as I could grasp. I could puzzle things out where I felt at home.
To say things were quiet and home-like does not mean I was alone through the day. Though I deliberately separated myself from the other contest players, I had moral support. (Thank you, Jim and Ron!) If I needed to steel my nerves when wagering, briefly celebrate a score, wax philosophical about my error, or grumble about a bad trip, I could.
Once I get more experience, I will probably get a lot out of sharing a room with other contest players. But, as a nervous live contest newbie? I am glad I played it from a familiar place, around familiar people, where I could keep as cool a head as I could muster given the circumstances.
Finally, I do not regret focusing my handicapping efforts to just a subset of the available races.
Before the contest, I feared missing out on good spots. But, during the actual contest, the races I had skipped rarely crossed my mind. I focused on steeling my nerves, playing the races I had handicapped, and adapting to key changes such as scratches and weather changes. That was difficult enough with about three dozen races that I had handicapped well enough to feel comfortable with. Had I come into the contest with a hundred even shakier opinions? The contest would have given me whiplash.
When I gain more experience with live contests, I may be able to expand my scope. In time I may be able to handicap more races, construct more tickets, and target plays more accurately. But, I don’t have to do too much, too soon. Before trying to handicap more races, I should focus on getting better value. My next step is not to start handicapping more races, but to draft more exotic tickets in advance that reflect my opinions about the race.
My first live contest did not lead to a Vegas berth, or even a positive tally at the windows. But, I found a few things I did right and a few more things on which I can improve. It gives me a foundation from which to build. Though I did not punch my ticket to the NHC last Friday, I will have a better shot to do so next time.