5 Tournament Tips to Keep You Relevant (and Sane) When Life Gets in the Way

by Ross Gallo

I’ve been a professional handicapper for over 30 years, playing tournaments for the last 15.  I’ve qualified 10 times for the NHC, finished second on The Tour in its inaugural season, and am a member of the NTRA Player’s Committee.  In recent years however, my time has been at a major premium.  I recently married the love of my life, and have a brand new, BIG family who I adore as well.  In addition, my son is 11 now, and there is kick boxing twice a week, jiu jitsu another day, band practice, concerts, homework and much more.

It occurred to me that there are many of you out there who love this game, love to play tournaments, but are in the same or similar situation as I am. With the current tournament landscape being so internet heavy (online tournaments far outnumbering brick and mortars), it is still possible to play and compete even when your schedule says “no.”  Recently, a perfect example presented itself to me, and the idea for this article was borne.

On November 29th, Twinspires held their annual monster NHC qualifier*. The top 20 earn a spot, and the next 30 receive Horse Player World Series packages.  Fifty trips to Vegas in all, and I didn’t want to miss it.  Being the Saturday after Thanksgiving (why schedule a tournament like that right after the holiday?), Maria, Ethan and I were visiting her family in New York.  It was a great time, as Ethan hadn’t seen snow since he was age 3 (we live in Florida).  Thus, sledding was a big deal and the food and company were spectacular.  But I had to play in the tournament and Maria is always very supportive, which is huge for my state of mind.  I appreciate that very much by the way, but how could I hope to be competitive under the circumstances?  Here are a few things that helped me, hopefully they will you as well.

Turf scene_promo_smallerGet your handicapping materials as early as possible.  Under normal circumstances, I can handicap a tournament the day before rather comfortably.  When you know you’re going to have time issues, getting your choice of handicapping products as early as possible can get you an important head start.  DRF PP’s, the sheets, HTR, BRISNET, et al, often have their info available two or three days in advance.  And while you may not know the exact tournament races that far out, most of the time you know the tracks to be used, so if there is a big field turf race or major stakes, you can be fairly certain they’ll include it.  You should be able to figure out at least half of the races they’re going to use.

Maximize your time. If you’re flying, the plane is a great place to handicap.  If your obstacles are closer to home, get up an hour earlier and get some ‘capping in.  Go sledding, take the kids to the movies, make dinner, put up the tree, but set aside a half hour here or there to do a race.  Or my favorite, wait until everyone goes to bed and handicap in the peace and quiet until you can’t keep your eyes open.  Sure you’ll have some bags under your eyes the next morning, but you may just find that 20-1 shot you dearly need.

Put all your picks in (but be ready with alternatives). Unless you’re playing a Pick and Pray (where picks must all be in by a set time), most, if not all, of the other online contests let you change your picks.  I know they suggest putting all your picks in for the day anyway, and this is probably good advice for any contest, but I’ve never liked the practice personally.  Doing so, leaves you open for taking a winner out (an optimist might think putting one in too, see below), and the last thing you need is something else to possibly aggravate you.  But in the case of limited time, I believe it is a wise idea.

Of course, if you’re absolutely out for the day, you’ll need to ‘Pick and Pray’ anyway, but with smartphones and tablets available to most players, keeping tabs of your picks is at your fingertips.  At the least, try to have a backup list of longshots and/or favorites to change to according to the circumstances.  Example: you only have a minute, but you check the standings quickly.  A bankroll of $90 is leading with two races to go, you have $30 and a 2-1 shot in the next race.  You have to change out of that pick to something longer.  A simple list of alternatives, especially for the later races, is crucial.

Keep handicapping on the fly.  Obviously if you’re totally off the grid, there is nothing you can do, but even if you get back to business with only a few races to go, keep working.  Your time was limited, so you certainly could have missed something.  Case in point from my Twinspires experience.  I had hit a 7-1 shot and a couple of places about two thirds of the way through the contest, and was wallowing in the middle of the pack.  There was a race coming up that I was okay with the horse I had put in already, but the following race was a big field, competitive turf race at Del Mar that I didn’t have time to handicap thoroughly.

I do a lot of tape work, so I watched a few races I didn’t get to.  Sure enough, jockey Joe Talamo was on a second time turfer who had broke his maiden in what, on paper, appeared to be inferior to some of the contenders.  I found the effort eye catching and at over 20-1 he seemed well worth a shot.  Got a perfect trip, came up the fence and won convincingly!  Now I’m in the hunt.  Without continuing to grind, I NEVER find that horse.

Don’t beat yourself up. This is good advice no matter the situation, but even more so when you’ve had little time to prepare and your margin of error is very small.  I got in front of the computer with 5 races to go, and was a hero with my change to a 20-1 shot winner.  I proceeded to hit a 5-1 in the next race to get to 21st place and less than $1 from qualifying for the NHC with two races to go.  I fanned the penultimate race, so it was a one shot contest and I needed about $6 to qualify.

My advance picks had me on a 7-1 shot, the 12 horse in a two turn race at Hawthorne.  After further handicapping I noticed the jockey was 4 for 74 and the trainer wasn’t much better. Thinking it would be very difficult for this jockey to work out a winning trip from out there, I changed my pick for the second time that day.  That didn’t work so well this time as the ‘4 for 74’ jock  rode like Javier Castellano and drew off, while the 3-1 shot I ended up on (with a supposedly superior jock) got stuck down on the rail, trapped behind horses the whole stretch.

I was understandably pissed, would’ve finished top ten if I left it alone, but my brother told me a long time ago “You plant your feet, make your pick, and whatever happens, happens.  Good or bad you have no more control over it.”   Despite the result, I think my logic was sound,  I finished up with a credible 39th place finish out of over 500 entries.  The HPWS package was not quite the result I’d hoped, but under the circumstances not horrendous, and I battled to the end.

This last tip maybe the hardest and most important to follow because you have to fight human nature.  We all feel that disappointment when bad things happen, but it is imperative to keep your focus if you want to have success in this difficult game of ours, and dwelling on adversity can even carry over to your next tournament if you allow it to.  Keep the demons at bay.

So there you have it.  When those inevitable times come up when your life is as frenetic as possible, but you still just HAVE TO play that tournament, hopefully these little suggestions will help you.  And who knows, maybe you just might steal one from the Shurmans, Weiners, Goodalls and Nilsens of the handicapping world.  Why not you, right?  Happy Hunting (winners) !

Editor’s Note: Ross Gallo is considered one of the top horseplayers in the country and is in select company, having qualified 10 times for the NTRA National Handicapping Championship.   His brother and nephew are also top-notch players, having qualified numerous times.

* the event was designed and created by the founder of AGameofSkill.com

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About Editor

Rich Nilsen is an 18-time qualifier to the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC), an event he has cashed in four times. He was the first player to finish in the top 10 of the NHC twice. A former executive with Brisnet.com and a member of the NHC Players’ Committee, Rich is a graduate of the University of Louisville Equine Business Program and is founder of AGameofSkill.com, a site devoted to horse racing education and promotion.

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