Playing the World Harness Handicapping Championship

Brandon Valvo scored a solid 4th place finish in the WHHC, here’s how he prepared.

When the FanZone approached me about playing in the World Harness Handicapping Championship and documenting my experience, I was surprised and excited. While I’ve been handicapping and betting races for about seven years and providing race analysis on industry websites for the last four years, I’ve never played in the WHHC. This is a new challenge for me, but after careful research and preparation, I think this article, combined with my tweets from the FanZone account the event April 29, will be a good starting point for aspiring contest players and bettors.

CONTEST OVERVIEW:

The WHHC is a one-night contest encompassing 10 races. Players enter by posting an $800 entry fee or by winning a qualifying tournament. The format is as follows: players choose six races and are given an additional four mandatory races to place wagers on. The minimum bet per race is $30 and the maximum $100 from a $300 starting bankroll. Contestants can make win, place, and show wagers only and may only wager on one horse in each race. The order of finish is based on highest accumulated pari-mutuel earnings.

This year, players can choose six of 10 races on the Meadowlands’ Saturday card  and must play the following races:

– Meadowlands, race 5

– Buffalo, race 8

– Hoosier, race 8

– Mohawk, race 5

The contest features a guaranteed $50,000 prize pool and returns $20,000 to first place, $10,000 to second, $7,500 to third, $5,000 to fourth, $2,500 to fifth, and $1,000 each to the sixth through tenth place finishers.

PREPARATION:

Researching the Contest

Immediately after finding out I would be playing in the WHHC, I researched prior year contest results to gain an understanding of what it takes to win. Here’s what I found:

Year Winning Bankroll
2016 $1,100
2015 $1,092
2014 $2,968
2013 $1,334

The average winning bankroll over the past few years for which data is available is $1,624 and in most cases, it took less than that to win. It is important to understand the contest you’re playing in so you can estimate how big a bankroll it will take to win and plan a roadmap of how to reach that number. I’m aiming for $1,250, a bankroll which should solidly place us in the top five and put us in the ballpark of winning.

It is also critical to know the rules of the contest inside and out before playing. Ignorance isn’t a defense if you inadvertently break contest rules. Breaking the rules will generally result in ejection from the contest and disqualification from all placings earned.

Handicapping

To play in a contest like the WHHC, I had to adjust my handicapping style. When I play the races on a daily basis, I don’t handicap entire cards in advance. Instead, I go race by race as the card unfolds, often looking at a few different tracks. This is fine for me as I’m not a big fan of multi-race wagers. It only takes a few seconds of looking at a program to determine if the favorite in the race looks vulnerable. If they do, I form my bets. If they don’t, I pass on the race. This won’t work for the WHHC, where it’s critical to know the races before walking into the track on contest day.

In preparation for the WHHC, I handicapped the entire Meadowlands card and examined each of the three mandatory races hosted by other tracks in advance. I noted which races looked like they had vulnerable favorites as those would be the races I’d focus on come contest day.

While I noted which races I am interested in and identified contenders in each of them, I didn’t make 1-2-3-4 picks nor did I plan my wagers in advance. In the contest, I’ll be evaluating my contenders against the odds on the board and only then will I make those determinations. I handicapped the races early, but will decide my bets late based on the odds.

STRATEGY:

While there are similarities between playing contests and everyday wagering, there are also distinct differences that have a profound impact on the strategy required. In everyday play, your objective as a gambler should be to maximize long term value. In simple terms, this means you should always make positive expected value (EV) wagers and should always pass on negative EV wagers.

Contests, on the other hand, are not long term. The WHHC is only one night and comprises just 10 races. Generally speaking, you should still look for positive EV bets, but there may be situations where it is advantageous to make play that has a negative EV.

For example, say you’re $1,000 behind the leader heading into the last leg. You like a horse who’s 15-1 and want to make a $100 bet on this horse to dig yourself out of your $1,000 hole. The only problem is, you think fair odds on this horse is 25-1. Should you make the play? Long term, everyday strategy says no because the horses is an underlay and therefore the bet carries a negative EV. In contest play, however, that $1,500 profit would put you in the lead, so you should make the play.

Recognizing this difference in objectives is key to being successful in a contest like the WHHC. Everyday play focuses on the long run and seeks to maximize value on every bet. Contest play is a short term exercise with a clear, known target: the top of the leader board. You always know where you stand on that board and what it will take to get to the top and you have to play accordingly.

WAGERING:

What Horses to Bet?

In general, I want to bet races with vulnerable favorites. However, it’s not enough to simply play against the favorite. For instance, passing on a 6/5 favorite for a 5/2 second choice doesn’t add much value in a contest setting. At those odds, you have to be right too many times in the night to hit the target bankroll. Instead, I’ll generally be betting horses who are at least 5-1 and preferably higher than 10-1. By doing this, being smart once or twice in the evening will put us in contention. I will address this further in tweets on contest day.

Win, Place, or Show?

The WHHC allows win, place, and show betting. This raises the question, should you bet to win, win/place, or win/place/show? Generally speaking, you should only bet to win. This rule applies to both contest play and everyday play. This can seem counter intuitive because the objective of the contest is to accumulate the biggest bankroll and playing win/place/show gives you more chances to cash tickets than playing to win alone, but the reasoning behind this is simple. Playing to win alone always carries a higher EV than playing win/place or win/place/show. While you may think you’re increasing your chance to win by playing to place and show, you’re actually reducing your EV by shuffling your limited betting funds into lower ROI pools.

So, while it may seem that playing these pools increases your chances of cashing tickets, it really just means you’ll get paid less when you do bet a winner. In a contest like this when you need to be smart a few times in the evening, you can’t afford to cut into your winnings like this. In everyday play, you don’t want to reduce your EV by playing the lower ROI place and show pools. Put simply, play to win to make sure you’re rewarded for being right and don’t be afraid to be wrong and lose.

How much to bet?

The WHHC allows bets ranging from $30 to $100. Knowing when to bet a lot and when to bet a little is, in my mind, the most difficult aspect of this contest. I plan to bet more in instances where I perceive the most value and less in instances where I perceive less value. For instance, I already know I don’t like the mandatory race from Buffalo from a value standpoint. I’m probably only going to bet $30 on that race. Because this topic is so sensitive to the live odds, I won’t say much more about it here, but I will address it in tweets on contest day with actual examples.

Further Reading

The above is a basic overview of a few critical aspects of playing a contest like the WHHC. While I’ve tried to highlight some of the most important elements, it’s impossible to capture everything in one article as the WHHC is a complex tournament that encompasses strategy, handicapping, and wagering. There are many great resources online that go into more detail and in fact, entire books have been written on playing handicapping and betting contests. If this is a subject you’re interested in learning more about, I encourage you to do more research and most importantly, play as many contests as you can because there’s no faster way to learn than through experience.

by Brandon Valvo, for the Harness Racing Fan Zone

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