Handicapping tournaments at racetracks and casinos have been around a long time.  These events attract skilled horse players and tend to be expensive to enter.  But for people who don’t choose to compete at this high level, the alternative is informal handicapping contests that are similar to office pools on, say, the National Football League or NCAA March Madness.

Although I have been betting on horse races for many years, I had never entered a handicapping contest of any kind…until this past Saturday.  An acquaintance invited me to participate by picking winners on the card at Tampa Bay Downs, and I found it to be interesting and challenging.

Over 20 people put up $100 each to enter and the best four handicappers received a monetary reward, based on a sliding scale in which the first-place handicapper got the largest payoff.  One could bet $200 in play money on any or all of eight races on the card (races 4-11) and choices had to be made by 11:30 a. m. Saturday, which was 1 ½ hours before post time for the first race.  If a person selected an entry that was scratched after 11:30 a. m., he or she was assigned the post-time favorite, which is not usually a good outcome in that a heavy favorite that wins does not pay enough to take the pot.

The majority of the players typically bet the entire $200 on a single horse in a single race, in an “all or nothing” strategy.  Participants are not allowed to bet on two horses in the same race and betting is restricted to win and place.

I made three bets, each to win.  One of my choices lost by a nose, another, a favorite, did not win, and the third horse I bet on won.  My bets were $50, $100, and $50 on these horses, respectively.

Of the 23 handicappers, 14 won no races at all.  Of the nine who had a winner, I came in ninth.  The top finishers were predominantly women, whereas the usual handicapping tournament at a track or casino is overwhelmingly male.

Office-pool types of handicapping contests do nothing for racetrack handle because no money is actually wagered for real.  Yet they have the potential to attract new fans to horse racing and to get more women involved in male-dominated handicapping.  A new fan is likely to eventually find his or her way to betting at a racetrack or online.

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