The Road to the WHHC Finals
On April 19th The New Meadowlands will again be hosting the finals of the World Harness Handicapping Contest. As an experienced tournament player here are a few lessons learned along the way. These are important to have an opportunity to win or finish high up on the leaderboard and cash a serious check!
This year I will be playing for charity and implementing this strategy in an attempt to win money for them. My selected charities are The Standardbred Retirement Foundation and New Vocations, a race horse adoption program. Both groups do amazing work in retraining race horses for other purposes or adoption. Every cent of my bankroll and any prize that I might win will be donated equally to my charities. Please consider a donation to both.
Understanding the Rules
You can find the full set of rules elsewhere on The New Meadowlands web site. We will deal with some of the key ones. They tend to differ from tournament to tournament so it is important to know how this one works.
Most important is that you must wager exactly 10 races. More or less and you are DQ’ed. Three of the races are mandatory races that you must play. One will be from the New Meadowlands and one each from Pompano and Buffalo. Do not lose track of the mandatory races. I have seen some top handicappers disqualified for missing one of those races. The New Meadowlands will announce on the Thursday before the contest which three races have been designated as the mandatory plays. Log onto the site and make sure you retrieve this important information as early as possible.
There is a minimum and a maximum amount that must be wagered on each race that you do play. Wagering is restricted to win, place, or a combination of win/place only. You also must use a self-wagering machine. If you want to make a win and place wager I would urge you to use the WP key on the wagering machines. I have seen a race go off between a player entering separate win and place wagers. We still tease one of my tournament buddies about getting DQ’ed in a T-Bred contest! If you do not have experience using a self-wagering machine get some before you arrive. Do not let alien technology get in your way on the night of the contest. I would also recommend against wagering in odd amounts. If you have $559 in your account you should probably forget about the $9 (unless you are going all-in for less than $100). That $9 would require you to make more than one wager. If you happen to press the wrong number on one of the wagers then you are disqualified. No one wants to see that happen!
The minimum bet is $30 and the maximum is $100. Bet less or more in any single race and you will be disqualified. The safest way to avoid making a mistake is to have made your decision prior to heading to the machines. You only need to correctly complete the mechanical task of keying in your play.
Putting a Plan Together
With several weeks until the WHHC here is a generic strategy that I usually stick pretty close to.
The best place to start is the last race. The way to use the last race to your best advantage is handicap it as thoroughly as you can when your program is first made available to you. If you believe that one of the first two choices will win this race more times than not then you are better off not using your last play here. You are much better off finding something you like more in an earlier race and trying to set a number for others to shoot at. Because you like the favorites, especially if you love the chalk, then the final race becomes a de-facto 11th play for you. You have the favorite! Hopefully we can be in a position where if the first or second choice wins the race no one should be able to reach you from the middle or the back of the pack.
There are three mandatory races. Those are the next three to be handicapped as thoroughly as you can. If you are not familiar with either of the two out of town tracks get on the internet and do some research. For me Pompano and Buffalo will very likely be minimum place wagers. In addition to the unfamiliarity with the venue, they have small pools. When one hundred or so WHHC players at the New Meadowlands start hitting the pools we become the majority of the action. It is very likely the win odds will be see-sawing back and forth. Make a preliminary selection and a back-up early on then put those pages away until Saturday afternoon. If you are not in the NHHC final it would be a good idea for you to study these races carefully. You may be gifted with some great value in the win and place pools! Let’s also hope that Pompano and Buffalo are able to start their races at times midway between two races from the New Meadowlands. Pay careful attention just in case they go off very close together.
We are left to select 7 races from the remaining New Meadowlands Card. Handicap them as you normally would. When done take a separate sheet of paper or create a spreadsheet and make notes about each race. Ultimately you will want to rank the races according to how much you like a single horse in the race. You should plan on making two different kinds of wagers. Minimum $30 place wagers and larger $80 - $100 win wagers. I try to zero in on 3 - 4 possible keys prior to arrival at the track. From that set I will usually fire on 2 or 3 of them.
In tournament play you are always looking for winners first. Value becomes a secondary consideration. That is why grading your races by “single horse playability” is very important. Setting aside the two other tracks mandatory races we have to play 8 of the (likely) 13 New Meadowlands races. If we can find two odds-on types where we can play a $30 place safety, then we can seriously look at 6 of the remaining 11 races.
In those 11 races clearly mark your choice and a price you feel would be acceptable (remember one of the races is mandatory). You should try to make a judgment call on how well supported your selection will be at the betting windows. That is where reading all the race reviews and analysis you can will help the most. Passing a 3-1 play earlier hurts if the horse you are waiting for ends up at even money. Try your best to anticipate where the crowd will go. This is something you can practice every day until the WHHC.
We get to pass 5 New Meadowlands races. In the long run you are better off passing a horse you like at a low price rather than playing against it. Until you have passed your limit of races do not feel pressured to play for or against any one horse. The goal is to get your largest wagers on the ones that you like the best on the night.
Understanding How to Use Human Nature
Anecdotally my observations over the years are early on in the contest most players will bet only the minimum amount. They will also bet more of the early races and many will save one final play for the last race. If you can get $100 to win on someone you like in one of the earlier races you are at a great advantage. Everyone else is chasing you and we all know the engine is a great place to be. Saving a big play for the C-2 that likely concludes the tournament takes away much of your control and leaves you no time to recover. That is unless you have something you legitimately like in the finale.
Another observation is that when a player takes a position on a long shot in all but the last race or two, they tend to bet the minimum to win or even split the minimum between win and place. If you have a longshot that you really like but do not want to risk the full $100 maximum, consider something in the $50 - $60 range. If you are right you will most likely end up in the top 10 and be a real contender for the win. You will end up frustrated if you were right and only had the minimum on it. The minimum play would not be the big one that puts you in contention. This was one of my earliest lessons many years ago.
Traditional and Social Media
Traditional media for harness racing is almost all on-line. If you are not making the rounds of the various web sites that provide analysis you are doing yourself a disservice. Read as much as you can about the card. You really want to understand why someone selected a horse. You may have missed something and there is no reason not to incorporate someone else’s professional observations into your own analysis. As the New Meadowlands is one of the tracks I regularly cover for TrackMaster.com I do not look at other handicappers published analysis until I have written my own race reviews. I would recommend the same for you. Make you own independent judgment prior to reading anything else about the race. You can be certain that I will have looked at everything I can find prior to wagering any of my own money. Get to The New Meadowlands as early as possible on WHHC night so you can read up on the paper based products you might not have available to you on-line.
Social media now provides us the opportunity to hear from trainers and drivers about some of their horses. If you are not on social media then you should consider joining prior to the NHHC final and follow the trainers and drivers who do tweet. If you think someone needs to gun for the lead to win and they say they will most likely look for a trip that is valuable information. When someone tells you they are up against a tough group they probably are. Do you agree with that assessment? Only you can determine how to interpret what they say. A few weeks of familiarity would be good.
Watch and listen to the New Meadowlands TV show. They do several interviews during the program that ask connections about specific horses in specific races. During the final WHHC qualifier in March, Yannick was interviewed from the paddock. He mentioned he had just told his kids to get their jackets on. That information allowed me to go from a minimum safety play to pushing almost all my dollars in. That was a key win that funded a later wager that landed me in third place.
My next entry on the “Road to the WHHC Final” will be early in the week of April 7. In that article I will review some of my observations from the cards of April 4 and 5. Two weeks prior to the WHHC final is the perfect time start accumulating information that will be useful on April 19th.
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