With horse racing taking center stage in the gambling industry, many new players are seeing online contests but have no idea what they are or even how to begin playing. Even longtime bettors may have never tried contests, perhaps from a lack of information or popular myths surrounding them.

Each week, I will answer frequently asked questions about horseplayer contests and provide quality information so that you can feel confident about entering them.

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My first article explained where to find horse racing contests and the difference between the two formats most often used. My second article discussed the handicapping techniques that tend to produce contest victories and the importance of sticking to your own opinions. My third article took a look at the NHC Tour, its benefits, and how tournament players qualify for the NHC finals. My fourth article dove into the ways in which handicapping for contests differs from a normal betting day.

You are now ready to try your first contest. The only question is – which one should you choose?

You first need to decide what is important and how you measure success. When I entered contest play, I wanted to win money like everyone else, but I also wanted to join the contest community. These specific horseplayers are some of the game’s best teachers because not only can they handicap, but they also truly understand value.

“Live” contests depend on how well you can improve upon a pre-determined bankroll, risking as much as you want – you take your final amount home. Most contests allow you to play Win/Place/Show, Exacta, Trifecta, and Daily Double wagers while requiring that you wager on a specific number of races and/or within limited maximum bet amounts. Not only do you keep your final bankroll, but you may also win cash prizes and paid seats in even bigger contests.

I find this incredibly valuable because I do not have the bankroll to buy my way into a top-tier contest like the “Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge” (which has a $10k entry fee). I decide whether or not to play contests based on the chance of making top-tier events for much cheaper entry fees. Accordingly, whatever you find valuable is where you should focus.

A view of the 2015 NHC Tournament (Credit: HorsePhotos.com)

While feeding into a major contest is a big bonus, it is not the end-all, be-all. Major contest sites such as HorseTourneys.com and HorsePlayers.com give back breakage money if a contest does not completely fill. For example, if 50 players enter a contest that offers seats to a bigger contest (1 seat for each 20 entries), then 40 entry fees pay for 2 seat prizes and the remaining 10 entry fees are pooled and given to the runner-ups.

This benefit is important because it keeps me playing longer without having to continually deposit money into my account. For instance, I did poorly through most of a recent “Spa & Surf” feeder, but I caught a price in the last race that vaulted me into the top 10. Though I did not win a seat, I earned $226 from the breakage pool; the contest only cost $26 to enter.

While becoming successful in contests is the overall goal, keep in mind that each contest is not only a learning experience for you as a contest player, but also as a handicapper in general. If you do not start well, keep your head up and do the work so that you evolve into a better handicapper and can be more competitive next time.

Finding yourself just out of qualifying for a seat into a larger contest can be frustrating. I found this tough to overcome at first, but my mindset changed once I saw the silver lining. What you choose to do with breakage is up to you, but for me, it becomes a “free roll” into trying to make my contest year as profitable as it can be.

Feel free to let me know what questions you want answered in future articles over the coming weeks, and remember: There is only one way to ensure you will not do well in contests, and that is to not try.

Sean Alvarez is a regular on the horseplayer tournament circuit. Follow him on Twitter @smoothturn2.