That’s Gambling

It has been three days since “Fourgate” (full credit to Justin Dew, who I believe was the first to coin that term), but people are still buzzing about it. As we await word on how the NTRA will settle the issue, it is somewhat interesting to take a step back and gauge people’s reaction to last Saturday’s free NHC qualifier at HorsePlayers. Or…if nothing else…it’s a way to pass the time.

Many have chalked the fluky result up to dumb luck, offered up a collective shrug of the shoulders and seem ready to move on to the next tourney. It’s not like this was the only opportunity one has to qualify for the NHC.

Others aren’t ready to let this go so quickly. They feel the seven who tied for first by simply picking the 4 horse in every race are not deserving of an NHC berth given that so many others in the field of 1,898 took the time to handicap the races diligently. Others have taken their dismay one step further by using this as just the latest bit of proof that contests in general are just a bunch of bunk. (See also: “Live-Format Tournaments are Unfair,” “Pick & Prays are Unfair,” ib id, op cit.)

Another occasionally-heard complaint is that tournaments favor “insiders.” Though the beef with last Saturday is basically the converse of that.

One thing is certain. The seven who tied for first were not the only ones to pick their horses at random or to have spent very little time on their selections—they were just the easiest such players to spot.

This, alone, sort of removes from feasibility the imposition of any minimum-diligence requirement. How would you enforce that? Might people dare to fib a little if they were required to sign a seriousness-of-purpose oath. I fear they might.

More to the point, though, your idea of diligence might differ from those of other reasonable persons. What sounds right to you? Half an hour per race? Ten minutes per race? What about someone who spends an hour apiece on 10 of the races but has no clue on the other two and takes a wild guess after just a brief minute of looking over those two? Legit? Or automatic DQ?

It’s all slightly reminiscent of the day in high school when the kid who sat in the back of the room in social studies class (on days he hadn’t already been sent to the principal’s office) got lucky on a multiple choice test and somehow got a 95…remarkably…miraculously…dammit, unjustly!….beating your score by five or 10 points.

At least in social studies class, we could secretly suspect that the class ne’er-do-well had cheated. No such suspicions are in play with “Fourgate”. What is in play is the omnipresent aspect of luck in everything we do.

Plenty of people win every day at the track thanks to selections based on names, lucky numbers, colors of silks, et al. No one really objects to that, I don’t think. What we do object to is when we LOSE due to dumb luck.

Just ask any poker player who loses a nice pot to someone who kept calling with just an inside straight possibility and then sucked out on the river. Or ask any New Orleans Saints fan.

Saints fans were livid at the pass-interference-call-that-wasn’t…and, really, who could blame them? At the same time, all sports fans come to learn early on that crazy stuff happens. Calls are missed…Zion Williamson gets hurt…Earnest Byner fumbles on his way into the end zone. Ain’t gambling (and fandom) fun?

Play contests long enough, and you will find new and ever-more-excruciating ways to get beat. The same could be said for most other games of chance, I suppose. As long as you know the game is inherently fair, though, the interludes of chaos that occasionally…and, yes, annoyingly…infiltrate our personal sense of gambling order are easier to shake off. It’s pretty much that or go nuts.

In fact, most players would be pretty excited about playing in a tourney if they could somehow know ahead of time that their opponents would all be making selections at random. And, yet, assuming a field of more than a handful, even the most confident among us would know we are still more likely to lose such a contest than to finish first.

No one has to like that a given contest, let alone an NHC qualifier, was determined by pure luck. If it happened frequently, contests would be a lot less popular…but it doesn’t. And those who did get lucky on Saturday were exercising the right they paid $50 in NHC dues for—the right to enter picks in free qualifiers during the year.

Sometimes the inside straight fills up. Sometimes the obvious foul goes uncalled. Sometimes the kid who didn’t study gets lucky. That’s gambling.

30 thoughts on “That’s Gambling

  1. Eric.

    Perhaps suggest to the NTRA that the seven that tied for the win should have a special one day tournament just for them to determine the placings. Perhaps on Florida Derby day.

    Mike Odorisio

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  2. Eric

    Great column. Sometimes we just get lucky or take a bad beat because of bad luck. I would welcome these type of contest players in every contest. They are mostly dead money in any contest. Better for every player who at least attempts to handicap

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  3. I have such mixed emotions about this result . I recall last year in a tourney where the winners played 5 horses across the board and won . So to see all 4s winning it wasnt as much a surprise to me as the first time i seen it . Do I feel bummed out about the result well yes and no . I feel bummed because total pot luck destroyed so many chances people had in the contest . But to be honest there have been contest where i forgot to enter until the last minute and put in my choice purely on name or odds . I play online backgammon and live gammon . Its funny because when a weaker player wins they say well he kept getting doubles or he was just lucky and shouldnt have won . But bottom line is the weaker player paid the same entry fee . You see a similar thing in horse tourneys when someone picks a 50/1 or more shot . You can hear people saying this is bs who in the world would play that horse early in the contest its got to be just a hunch not ability in handicapping . But regardless they paid and earned a spot and got the win . Do i personally have to like it ? Well yes and no . But it does give the player who pays their money with little ability in handicapping a chance to bite the Big Boys .

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  4. WELL SAID ERIC….had a horse DQ’d from win during tournament few weeks ago (cost the tourn win also); did I “out cap” the winner? MAYBE…. but as we know it does not help at the Cashiers Window….just gives yet another tough beat story which usually lasts longer than the money anyway.

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  5. Excellent column Eric! I already play contests almost exclusively (versus traditional wagering), as the take-out is lower. But I agree with Eric’s comment about liking to be in a contest where there are random pickers as I feel that increases the percentages a little more in my favor. They’ll win occasionally, although much less than “their share.” Frankly, I’m hoping this starts a trend and more contest players start playing all of the same numbers as an affirmative strategy. I suspect that in most of the cases this past Saturday the random picks were made by players who didn’t have time to handicap, and since the contest was free, why not put in random picks. Even if not so, nobody did anything wrong or improper.

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  6. Hi Eric,

    I have been handicapping very poorly lately so perhaps my opinion does not count. In the past I have played the #1 in every race, the #10, and probably every other common number horse. But I have never played it just to try to get lucky. I always handicap my 1st and 2nd picks for each race like every else probably does. Sometimes I will notice a pattern such as out of 12 races I like the #4 in five of them as my 1st pick, and four more as my second pick. So 9 out of 12 races I like the #4 horse as either my first or second choices. And being a handicapper and a gambler for close to 40 years I am also very superstitious. When I see a pattern like that I simply say to myself, “Maybe it’s a #4 day” and I play that number across the board. I’m my case i would not call that dumb luck I would call it seeing an obvious pattern and playing it. But that’s just my two cents on the topic thank you for listening.

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  7. As soon as a contest becomes available to enter picks I’ll enter random numbers sometimes all 4’s just so I have picks in and I don’t end up with XXXXXXXXXXXX in my picks than if something comes up and I forget I still have a live entry going. So congratulations to the winners. If we’re going to start complaining about winners we all lose.

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  8. One of the biggest problems with this free contest is trying to beat 2,000 other players. The odds are against you so bad I’m sure many players consider it a crap shoot. Why spend a great deal of time when blind luck wins. I would be surprised if most players spend more than 10 minutes picking “all” their horses for the free contest. Make it a 2 day contest with only the top 50 playing on day 2. Most likely it will involve handicapping instead of blind luck and more certainly be more fun and competitive .

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    • I guess they listened to my comment. The next free contest is a 2 day affair.
      This will make it more competitive and fun.

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  9. It’s not that one person picked a number for all races and won the contest. What is very very
    unusual is that 7 different entries (people) had the same number (“4”) across the board while there were basically no other numbers used in this contest for all the races like the number “4”. Only a couple people had the same number for all the races and these were different numbers and were not the number “4”. Why would seven different people have the same number for all the races in the same contest? Seems very odd. Are these people connected in some way and maybe one person decided to do it this way for all the group. Certainly a strange outcome.

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    • The #4 horse is usually in the middle of the field at the gate and quite often ends up being the post with the highest win percent. Just makes sense to play the four based on odds compared to the other post positions. Field size and distance could also factor into this. I did not enter this contest, so I can’t really delve into it beyond post position win frequency. 7 out of 2000 contestants most likely simply played the post position that wins the most at most race tracks. Post 3 and 5 are very close also. Large field size usually has a higher win percent from the outside post position.

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  10. Eric great comments, I truly enjoy your blog. Excellent work by Joseph Eckert, clearly did work and had a tremendous score.

    I dido Bill Shurman’s comments.

    At the end of the day, those that put in the work will prosper the most. Luck is always welcomed, however long term, skills prevail.

    Emad Himaya

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  11. It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibilities that all 4’s was a handicapped sequence. I played in the tourney, I used four 4’s – two as top pick, two as back-ups. The cap horse, Jeltrin, won for me. Two of my buddies played and between them had four more 4’s who paid out. The only 4’s we didn’t have were logical contenders in my eyes, especially for tournament play – Dalarna and Identifier. I didn’t have them myself because I preferred others, but the point is between the three of us we played seven different 4’s and had 5 of the 7 #4’s who WP. Regardless, as Mr. Wing said, they paid their annual membership dues which entitles them to play tournaments however they darn well please. I finished 123rd, very happy with that in such a big field.

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  12. Eric,
    I really enjoyed your article because it was fair, balanced and full of the truth. I know there are always two sides to a story. Overall, I say “big deal…move on.” But as a former athlete and gambler, the one common thread between the two is the losers almost always complain about something. It was the “refs”, or they cheated and on and on. In this case it was dumb luck. It’s very rare when the loser ever just says “I GOT BEAT.” But to take it one step further, the “fourgate pickers” hit a couple CAP horses and not a whole lot else. So why didn’t all the other “above average handicappers” have those cap horses and then out handicap the “4gate” pickers the rest of the way? But I was very curious as to how the four gate pickers might have come to their conclusions to pick the #4. Of course I will never actually know that answer. But at the same time, I theorized they must have looked at the morning line odds for each number and landed on the number with the highest total. So I decided to investigate my theory and prove it right. Of the 12 races, only the numbers 1 thru 7 had a horse in every race. So far so good for proving my theory spot on ! But to my surprise, not only did the #4 not have the highest total (of the morning line odds), it had the LOWEST NUMBER of the 7 post positions. So I guess my theory was wrong and I lost my prediction. The difference with me is ” I’m not going to claim foul, sour grapes or I quit.” I’M JUST GOING TO WAIT FOR THE NEXT TOURNAMENT AND PLAY ON.

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  13. This is what happens when the word free is involved. With so many players and so few winners these types of games are all dumb luck. Wonder how the two players that don’t move on will feel?

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  14. Obviously a lot of you have way too much time on your hands. And for me to bother replying I guess so must I. If anybody actually puts a lot of time into a 2000-3000 free contest you must be nuts. Most of the time the dart throwers will win. This time it was 7 guys who decided to throw in a one number entry because it was free. I can’t blame them if they didn’t want to put in much effort. If they had played their phone number and won nobody would be saying a thing. My tour number is 4444 and often I will enter a contest and fill in all 4s so I don’t forget and blow the entry like 130 did for this one. Or if it’s close to a contest closing and I want action I’ll just play all 4s.. Nobody bitches when I don’t hit. Unfortunately I didn’t forget this one or there would have been 8 all 4s as 3 people pointed out to me. Either use the rules and have a drawing. Or better yet give all 7 the package. We all know the NHC entry doesn’t cost the 9000+ value that is put on it when we play the $165.00 contests. Also don’t try to tell me there were 2000+ purists that took hours pouring over the Form or studying their computer programs for this contest.

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  15. It’s a game of strategy and the number of those is infinite. The lucky 7 all had the winning move.
    Five of them will move on to the big dance. Three of them will change their # and the two who stick with number 4 will deadheat and be NHC co-Champs in 2020. When it’s a toss up? I ask my dog….

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  16. As a participant in Saturday’s contest, I was initially pissed when I checked out the leaderboard late in the day and saw the “stunt” pulled by what I perceived to be a small syndicate of players. But Eric has made some very insightful observations in his latest blog, particularly with reference to Lady Luck. If Saturday’s results become a trend, though, I can see the popularity of these contests start to wane with the true handicappers.

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  17. I saw that the 7 players are going to play it out against each other in another tournament to determine which 5 get NHC seats. Really??? What happened to the rules posted on hoursetourneys? It very clearly specifies that if all things end in a tie, then a random drawing takes place to determine who gets the win(s). If the rules are not going to be followed and can be changed on a whim or fluke, what are we supposed to count on.

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  18. One of the 4s here. We were all contacted with a proposal for the mini-contest, it was not forced on us. My understanding is that anyone could have voted for the random draw and discussion ended right there. I dont know the other 4s but as far as I know all seven agreed. I’m thrilled with the outcome. Despite what some of the haters might think of our collecting handicapping skills, I’d rather lose the spot with a bad performance in a contest than leave it to random chance.

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  19. Hey Mr. One of the 4s,
    I want to congratulate you ( & the other 6 ) on pulling off one of the “biggest shockers” in recent tournament history. I am NOT one of the haters. I could care less how you did it and Eric’s blog covered all the ways that it can be done, many with out any detection…i.e. phone numbers, birthdays and outright guessing. I think it is funny all the losers ( of which I am one ) getting all worked up and PO’d ( of which I am NOT one ). What I did get a kick out of and found both humorous & also somewhat hypocritical is NOW you want the outcome determined by skill and NOT RANDOM CHANCE when you ( & 6 others) got to this point by RANDOM CHANCE. That’s funny to me. But more importantly, the rules are the rules and that means it should be determined by a draw. You and 6 others are in this position because you broke NO RULES & and now the outcome should be determined by AGAIN FOLLOWING THE RULES. Just my opinion. Good luck & may the “luckiest 5 win.

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  20. Well said…

    I think that the easy fix for this is to make the tournament a buy-in tournament at a reasonable fee. $20 maybe? Then donate all the money from the newly-instituted entry fees to thoroughbred aftercare or something similar. If you charge $20, I think people are less likely to just enter all of a same number or make mindless selections.

    That being said, I have seen it numerous times where people do this while they’re in paid contests. It wouldn’t eliminate it completely, but I think at the very least it would’ve made it so only one or two of the births were taken by these numbers players.

    I realize this is easier said than done, but just trying to offer a solution instead of going to Twitter to bash anything that comes from this.

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  21. I am so tired of the complaining and crying about this contest.The same people that are complaining are the ones i see in the mornings at the live contest on there phones and emailing trainers or anyone else they know trying to get information on horses so they have an edge. I thought the reason for the free contests was to try and get new people involved in a sport that is dying. But any new player that was involved in this would probably sit back and say what a bunch of cry babies no wonder no wants in to this game. Congratulations to the Winners and if this is your first time playing not everyone is a jackass in this sport and you can win even if your a novice. Now all the conplainers go back to your computers and phones and quit crying

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