NYRA Low Roller Challenge Perfect Introduction to Handicapping Contests

Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing

Have you ever wanted to play in the big handicapping contests but you were too intimidated? Maybe the $150 (or $10,000) buy-in was too steep for your bankroll? Maybe you just didn’t understand how they worked, and you didn’t want to spend a buy-in to learn. Maybe you don’t even know what a handicapping contest is and you’re wondering what I’m talking about. Well, the NYRA Low Roller Challenge is perfect for you!

Handicapping contests are getting bigger every year and larger field sizes mean larger prize pools. They offer players a chance to risk a little to win a lot, but also present a wholly different and unique way to put your handicapping skills to work and play the game. Rather than simply trying to bet money to win money, a handicapping contest pits you against other players to see who can win the most money over the course of a number of races, with the winner taking down a big cash prize. This means that in addition to picking winners in each race, you have to develop a strategy to win enough money if you’re behind or not lose too much money if you’re ahead. It means adjusting your bets based on where you are in the standings, and sometimes playing a horse that isn’t your first choice based on the odds and your strategy to climb the leaderboard. It’s fun and intellectually challenging. But it can be intimidating for new players.

The NYRA Low Roller Challenge is a series of weekly handicapping contests at Belmont Park and Saratoga that provide new contest players with an easy way to dip their toe in the water and figure out if contests are for them. Held every Thursday and Sunday this summer at Saratoga (which means there are only two left!), the contest is only available to players who are on-track, you can’t participate online. The entry is only $40, which is cheaper than a lot of handicapping contests. But even better - this is a live bankroll contest, which means that a portion of your buy-in, in this case $30, is yours to make your contest bets with. The other $10 goes into the prize pool. Each race you make $2 win, place and show bets on a horse. If you lose, the $6 is deducted from your bankroll. If you win, the winnings are added to it. Your bankroll is tracked on a leaderboard alongside of all the other players throughout the day. At the end, the top three players share the prize pool. If you don’t cash, you still get to keep whatever was left in your bankroll.

The Low Roller Challenge has been drawing decent-sized player pools, and first place usually pays in the $600-to-$1,000 range. Even better, the contest is very winnable. Based on the starting $30 bankroll, this year winners of the contest have often been in the $80 range, but have been as low as $50!

When I played my first Low Roller Challenge, I couldn’t believe how much fun it was. I originally intended to just play it on the side of my normal handicapping and betting, quickly choosing a horse each race for the contest while focusing the bulk of my attention on my other bets. By the end of the day, when I realized I was in contention to cash in the contest, I focused all of my attention on picking a single horse to bet $2 across the board, because the potential payoff was huge, but also because the rush of competing against hundreds of other horseplayers was irresistible.

In the end, after being in first place going into the last race, I missed cashing, finishing fourth by merely 70 cents after a longshot hit the board in the final race, lifting a few people from way back in the pack to the top. As agonizing as that was for me, I couldn’t help but think about how thrilling it must have been for the ones who hit it and saw themselves go from 15th place to first.

And even if you aren’t in contention to make the money in the Low Roller Challenge, that’s no reason to not pay attention and focus. Among my friends and family who were competing but were hovering near the bottom of the pack, they kept it interesting by making side bets with each other about who would finish ahead of whom by the end of the day. In the end, some of them made a lot more money than I did coming in fourth overall.

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a low roller, this contest may be for you. Especially if you’re curious about handicapping contests and want a low-risk way to try them out. As for me, I think I’ve seen enough. If not for that bad beat on the last race, I’d have taken down first in my very first foray.

If the game is this easy, I think my next event should be the National Handicapping Championship. So if anyone is interested in staking me ...

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