The Reality of Fantasy Horse Racing

Fantasy sports have been an enormously successful means of increasing fan engagement for the Big 3 professional sports organizations in the US: the NFL, the NBA and MLB. Fantasy baseball started the trend with the popularity of “Rotisserie” baseball, which has been around since 1980 (with a few predecessors), and I can remember playing a modified version as early as 1992 (I was 14). Fantasy football was the game that exploded the phenomenon, as its 4-month season with a weekly cadence, book-ended by a draft and playoffs, expanded its audience, being less time-intensive than its baseball counterpart.

Several racing industry organizations (the NTRA, Churchill Downs, the Breeders Cup, WinStar Farms, among others) have all launched and promoted “fantasy racing” games with the intention of attracting a new audience to the sport. I am not going out on a limb by saying that all these efforts that have thus far mostly failed to garner significant engagement from existing fans and have utterly failed in bringing fans of other fantasy sports to fantasy racing. This post’s title buries the lede – the reality of fantasy horse racing is that it sucks.

Successful fantasy sports games put the player in place of the owner.

For the most part, fantasy racing games fail because they replicate some other element of the sport, usually the handicapping and betting aspect. The current fantasy racing game being promoted is the Breeders Cup Fantasy Challenge; if you follow the link, you’ll see that the BC challenge is basically a weeks-long handicapping contest that is free to enter. It utilizes a few successful elements of fantasy football – weeks-long competition, free to enter, form up leagues – but the basic premise remains “pick a winner”.

The Churchill Down Road to the Roses contest tries to replicate the ownership experience somewhat by picking a stable of Derby contenders then earning points for their placing in Derby preps. The contest, however, almost infamously, spectacularly failed when one entrant picked Verrazano for all 6 spots in his stable, having an easy lead going into the Derby. Orb’s win prevented any major egg on CDI’s face, but still…

Successful fantasy sports games put the player in place of the owner by recreating situations that owners face.

In my estimation, good fantasy sports games do three things well: create scarcity, create differential value, and create interactions between players. These are all constraints faced by, say, an NFL owner. Bud Adams (a Nashville resident, I’m a Titans’ fan) can only employ 53 players, pay them a total of $123M, and can’t try to offer a player under contract with another team more money to play for him. A good QB is worth more than a good kicker, and The Blind Side taught us the value of left tackles. Still, players can be released, picked up, and traded and NFL general managers are constantly on the phones with their colleagues as they assemble their team.

Successful fantasy games create scarcity

In fantasy football, a player can play for only one team. A team can only have so many roster spots. A team can only start 1 or 2 players at each position.

I’m unaware of any fantasy racing game that actually prevents someone from picking a horse if it’s already been picked. It’s not really ownership if multiple people can “own” the same horse for purposes of a game.

Successful fantasy games create differential value

In most fantasy sports, differential value is created via draft – the players that are drafted earlier have greater value than those drafted later. In a draft format, luck has a big role – if there are, say, three clear-cut top picks, whoever gets the top 3 draft slots has a huge advantage. The innovation in response to that is the auction draft, where each team has a fixed pool of funds out of which to bid on players. Draft order doesn’t matter – if you want the top pick, you’ll pay for him but at the expense of filling out the rest of your roster.

Again, most fantasy racing games make little attempt to make one horse more “expensive” to own than another, largely because there is no scarcity in the first place

Successful fantasy games create interactions between players

The absolute best parts of fantasy football are, in order: the draft, the mid-week deals, the trash talk. Trying to improve your team is the essential element of the game, trying to win by acting as your own GM. A typical deal in FF might be a top wide-receiver and back-up running back for a top running back – the success or failure of a trade depends on the difference in opinion of value.

Have you ever traded/bought/sold/claimed a horse in a fantasy league? I think not.

Fantasy racing games simply do not capture the essential elements that make other fantasy sports compelling and fun. This is because they do not attempt to replicate, in any serious manner, the experience of owning and managing a racing stable. But here’s the great thing:

They could.

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Towards a Better Handicapping Contest – Part 2

If you asked most professional poker players what World Series of Poker (WSOP) event they would be proudest about winning, I think few would say the $10K buy-in No-Limit Hold-Em (NLHE) main event so popularized by ESPN. The large crowds and the nature of NLHE means that luck plays a much larger role in a successful outcome for those seasoned veterans. (They might say any schmo can suck out a straight on the river to beat my set, in the parlance).

I think most would say they would prefer to win the 50K HORSE event. HORSE combines, in a rotating tournament, five different types of poker that test different skills and play-styles. (That’s Hold-Em, Omaha, Razz, Stud, Stud-Eights or Better). I’m a fair Hold-Em player (positive lifetime ROI) and I can honestly say I’d have a better shot at winning a 10,000 person hold-em tournament than a 100 person HORSE tourney. I simply haven’t studies the other four games – I would very much be the dead money at the table.

Given the stakes and the multi-game skill involved, the WSOP HORSE tournament winner very rightly deserves the prize earned. I think the HORSE model is one that could be implemented for a skill-determining horse racing handicapping contest. The idea would be to combine the structures of different contests while introducing novel scoring mechanisms. Below, I have some suggestions that might get racing contests closer to that outcome.

  1. Combine the two types of Win-Place contests today, live scoring and upfront picks – if 50% of your score is determined by who you really think will win 2-4 hours in advance and the other half determined by assessing conditions, picking logical longshots, or reaching for a score, you have diminished (but certainly not eliminated) the element of luck inherent in either scenario.
  2. Utilize the win parlay – A frequent argument from contest players is that they want to be rewarded for picking winners. A parlay component would aid that. Say, for example, 20% of a hypothetical contest bankroll was bet on each race. With live scoring, contestants who picked winners early would be able to wager additional dollars on their next pick. (If you have $100 to start, bet $20 on a 2-1 horse that wins, the next round (with $160 in bank, you may bet $32). First-race losers only have 20% of $80 to bet ($16).
  3. Bowl for picks – Inspiration can be found in the most unlikely of places. Bowling (that of the ten pins and an alley) has one of the very best mechanisms for rewarding streaks and consistency: a strike adds the next two rolls to your total; a spare one. Apply the same to your handicapping contest – a win gets you 50% payout of your next two races, a place your next one (or some other percentage)
  4. Devise synthetic pick-Xs –  Allow a portion of the contest bankroll to be dedicated to picking potential winners of a set of races. If in an 8-race contest, have 2 potential Pick-4s that the contestant try to hit with a hypothetical (say $200) bankroll. This would identify skill in ticket-making (very valuable in handicapping, generally) but would lead to an interesting set of choices. Should you heavily lean on favorites for more than the minimum (say $1) or spread? The payout would be determined by a simple parlay of the four winners.
  5. Show Parlays – Again, portion the bankroll for a show parlay over all races. Rewards consistency for identifying competitive horses, but not producing huge multiples.
  6. Rolling Doubles, Pick 3s – Like options 3 and 4, rewards streaks and consistency.

Without a doubt, these scoring ideas trade simplicity for rewarding skill. To implement properly, the holder of the contest must be very thoughtful about how to weight the various elements. A lot of trial and error will probably be involved. That said, I have been tossing around a handicapping contest design around for some time. This is a first iteration, but I believe it would be a fun contest to play.

  1. 40% Weighted Upfront Picks, Win-Place-Show, Uncapped – This is designed to reward handicapping in advance of the event. The show payoffs reward identifying longshots that may figure into payouts, but may not win. Uncapped winnings reward identifying horses whose morning line do not reflect its eventual payout – a handicapping skill in and of itself.
  2. 40% Weighted Live Scoring, Win-Place, Capped (20-1, 10-1) – The traditional handicapping design. Allows players to change picks to changing conditions and longshot players to get back in, but with a lower chance of catching up to those who handicapped correctly in the first place.
  3. 20% Parlay, Live Scoring – Win, Capped (20-1) – Rewards consistency of picks in order to maintain a bankroll. Picks can be changed to reflect conditions. Multi-winners should have larger bankrolls into final races. Cap evens out impact of large longshots.

Given the ubiquity of free tools, like Google Sheets, to track this information, such a contest would not be too difficult to coordinate. It may be somewhat difficult for a 10th place contestant to figure out how exactly to bet the final race to make the top 5. You know what, that’s okay – the simple designs make it too easy.

If my work and life allows, I may inaugurate a contest like the above. Do stay tuned.

Towards a Better Handicapping Contest – Part 1

The handicapping contest in horse racing is a special animal: it offers the promise of a better return on investment (ROI) for the skilled handicapper because the parimutuel takeout does not apply or is effectively lower. A $100 entry into a contest with 100 competitors may pay out $9000 in total prize, meaning the average return for all players is 90%. $10,000 of bets into parimutuel pools may pay $7500-8500 depending on what pools are bet, exotics having higher average takeout than straight pools.

 Of course, a handicapping contest doesn’t pay out unless you finish in the top 5-10% of all competitors, and often your winning is an entry into an even larger (but more lucrative) handicapping contest. This is essentially what the National Handicapping Contest (NHC) tour is about – win a qualifying event to play for a million-dollar-plus prize. Other contests, like Derby Wars, offer the more standard contest: pool the money, winners take all.

 There are more casual events that may be played among friends or, say, a large e-mail list following a prominent racing meet. Serious handicappers should devote a portion of their handle to playing in these contests for several reasons:

  1. They may improve your ROI
  2. They encourage an in-depth look at races that can improve your parimutuel wagering
  3. They can be a tremendous amount of fun

The last is important. I understand that people, generally, gamble because they may win money but the activity of gambling itself is a form of entertainment. I will not bemoan a trip to Vegas losing a few hundred dollars if that time was spent, with friends, at a blackjack or craps table. I know the risk, I know the outcome is mainly luck; if I’ve passed the time in the company of friends, it’s money well spent.

Racing is the same – betting on the ponies is meant to be fun. I think handicapping contests capture that spirit better than most. It is true, however, that the contests themselves leave something to be desired in how the winners are ultimately decided. Let me explain.

The most popular contest today is the win-place contest. Eight to ten races across a single or multiple racing cards are selected for contestants to pick horses. For each race, a contest picks a horse and, if it finishes first or second, the contestant wins the win, place, or win+place payout on that horse toward their contest score. Trouble is, sometimes a huge longshot comes in; those that had it are almost impossible to beat in the contest. So, most contests place a cap on how much can be won – typically 19-1 to win, and 9-1 to place.

Those same contests, however, usually have scoring that is updated live, such that each contestant knows where they stand. Those in the back of the pack, trying to get into contention, will only pick longshots in the hopes that a placing will vault them back up the standings. Those in front, who might have picked legitimate chances, may find themselves losing to luck instead of skill, when the contest is mainly designed to reward skill.

Thus, the skilled handicapper says, all picks should be made in advance. A different skilled handicapper may rightly say, however, that her picks are based on odds nearer to post-time, she is picking between two horses, and besides the track for this race has shown a bias that I want to play (or it’s come off the turf, or turned sloppy). An upfront contest couldn’t anticipate such an outcome and would be as much determined by luck as the live scoring option.

You might notice that both the above options sacrifice the impact of skill (vs luck) for simplicity. It’s very easy to comprehend the rules for a win-place(-show) contest, capped or uncapped, and their simplicity I have no doubt makes them popular. Common variations like the NHC introduce more races, mandatory and optional races, and best bets (2x payoff). The Breeders Cup contest is a “live money” contest where the contestants can play anything on the BC races. If I recall correctly, however, the winners of recent ones simply made a large win bet on the BC Classic winner – while recognizing their skill, ultimately the contest came down to picking the winner of one race.

For a handicapping contest to truly identify skill (consistency in picking winners) over luck, the scoring system must ultimately increase in complexity. In my next post, I will make some suggestions to improve contests that do that very thing.