Contest Strategies for Betting Horse Players

Churchill Downs Racing Scene
Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY. (

John Mucciolo has participated in several tournaments and has been a betting horse player long enough to provide insightful tid-bits for tournament handicapping.

Horse racing contests have grown at a rapid rate since the inception of the NHC 19 years ago, both in field size and purse structure. While I have yet to win one, I have dabbled with enough contests in the past with some decent results. Below is what I think is a sound strategy to put yourself in a good position to be in the running:

Do Your Homework

Showing up for a contest ‘in the blind’ is never a wise idea. There is simply too much to process and a bevy of decisions to be made in a short period of time to do your ‘capping on the fly’. A hearty amount of studying in the days and nights leading up to your contest is essential.

Handicapping Backwards

I am a firm believer and stress the importance of handicapping backwards. What is handicapping backwards? Well, I always study the latter races on the card before coming back to the early ones. These contests are a grind, and you could get fried nearing the end of the day. So, having the later races already broken down in advance will help with the potential brain-freeze.

Get Track Changes As Early As Possible

Another important item that can be overlooked, track changes are vital. A morning scratch, a change of surface, the turf rail being closer or further than usual – these details can change the entire complexion of a race and how you go about tackling it.

Don’t Fall in Love with The Leaderboard

Horse racing contests are the ultimate challenge, combining both handicapping prowess and astute money management. With that said, I do my best to avoid getting sucked in to what other players have accomplished, especially early in the day. Stick to your guns and instincts.

Picking Winners

Remember, a 2-1 winner is much better than an 8-1 loser. In an average contest, a 30-40 winning rate will often give you every chance at grabbing the money. So avoid swinging at a price horse that you are not confident in…unless things are getting dire late in the game!

Play to Your Strengths

I, personally, do my best work with maiden runners, starter allowance races and have also been improving my success rate on the turf. I often use the BRIS Custom Card to focus on my strong points and download just these types of events. If you do well with other kinds, then I urge you to do the same.

Recognizing Bad Favorites

I saved the most important nugget for last. Establishing vulnerable favorites is imperative for contest success. With many of these using the win/place format, this is where you can get inflated returns both in the win and place pools. I could compose an entire piece on what I think a poor betting favorite looks like, though we all have our own criteria. Make this a number one priority in your handicapping.

While there are numerous other factors in preparing and playing contests (workout reports, track variances et al), I believe that I have highlighted on a majority of the big ones.

Good luck!

– by John Mucciolo