A Thinking Man’s Guide to Making Totally Random Contest Picks

A couple of weeks ago a player won an NHC seat in one of those gigantic free qualifiers by picking the number 5 horse in each race. Occasionally, you’ll see someone actually put up money for a tourney and then just pick the same number in every race.

Before I go on with what I’m sure you will find to be very erudite analysis, let me say a few words to the people who do this: Hang in there, and don’t listen to the haters.

If a free contest pops up, and you haven’t had time to handicap, it actually makes sense to enter some random picks. You have nothing to lose and perhaps something to gain.

If a paid contest comes up, and you need an action fix, and picking numbers floats your boat, then more power to you. It’s your money. As for your opponents…those who regard themselves as serious handicappers should theoretically relish the opportunity to compete against people who have put no thought into their selections.

My only slight problem with all of this is that picking the same number in every race is something that, at least in large tourneys, plenty of other people do. In the last free NHC qualifier, which had about 2,000 entries, six people played all 5s. I didn’t check, but it’s probably safe to assume that five or six people each went solo on the other numbers between 1 and 9 as well. So even if you win that way, you have to survive a tiebreaking process. Why not pick randomly in a way that’s less likely to be duplicated?

I have two favorite methods.

1. The Alphabet System—This “method” was ballyhooed in tongue-in-cheek fashion by John Piesen when he was making picks for the New York Post back in the 1970s. Back then, New York City OTB horses were listed by letter, not number. The horse on the rail was the A horse, not the 1 horse. The horse in the 2 hole was the B horse, and so on. (My junior high school classmates were amazed at how quickly I could decode those puzzles where each number represented a letter.)

Anyway, you would check the field and if the OTB letter matched the first name of the horse, that was the pick. If there were two that met that description (dual qualifiers!), then the first such horse got the nod.

Typically no horses yielded a straight match, in which case you would continue running through the alphabet, going back to the top of the field again and again until you got a match. So if it’s an 9-horse field and nothing matches the first time, then you start again at the top with the 1 horse, hoping that his name begins with J.

This system only takes a few seconds per race, and it will give you a set of tourney selections that will help protect your privacy, No longer must you suffer the slings and arrows of those who take a dim view of lucky winners (in a game whose outcomes often seem to have quite a bit to do with luck).

Let’s see who the Alphabet System likes in the Kentucky Derby.

1. Firenze Fire
2. Free Drop Billy
3. Promises Fulfilled
4. Flameaway
5. Audible
6. Good Magic
7. Justify
8. Lone Sailor
9. Hofburg
10. My Boy Jack
11. Bolt d’Oro
12. Enticed
13. Bravazo
14. Mendelssohn
15. Instilled Regard
16. Magnum Moon
17. Solomini
18. Vino Rosso
19. Noble Indy
20. Combatant

On your second trip through the field, you hopefully landed on an alphabet match with #15 Instilled Regard. There’s your Derby winner according to the Alphabet System.

Perhaps we should look for another system. Not only did this one give you a seemingly hopeless Derby horse…for all I know, five or six people used the Alphabet System in the last free NHC qualifier.

My favorite random system allows for some personal discretion. What horseplayer doesn’t enjoy exercising his or her own brand of “logic” in an otherwise totally illogical act?

2. The Unpopular Name System—So many people like to play horses whose names strike a chord with them. Of course, that only serves to knock the price down on horses with catchy names. So, here, the objective is to look for horses whose names have no inherent meaning and don’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Because they so often have Arabic names, Godolphin horses tend to be great for the Unpopular Name System. It’s hard for people to get excited to yell, “Go Muftaweccq!” during a race. There are just too many consonants…and Q’s that aren’t followed by U’s. Horses with otherwise foreign names are also good for their lack of pronounce-ability.

Horses with human first names in their name are sort of the opposite of the Unpopular Name System. Think “Fearless Frank” or “Delightful Sarah.” You want to avoid these at all costs. Ditto horses that have overly positive names like “Half Day Friday” or “Family Barbecue.” We want gloom. We want doom. Better yet, we want names that make little sense. The goal is to pick horses that other random pickers won’t take.

Looking again at the Derby field, you have two quick tosses this year in Free Drop Billy and (especially) My Boy Jack.

Bravazo, I think, means “cool” or something like cool in Spanish. Out.

There are three horses that figure to draw inordinate support from Italian Americans: Firenze Fire, Solomini and Vino Rosso. Out, out and out.

Flameaway will attract undue attention from firefighters. Pass.

Audible, Justify, Enticed and Combatant are one-word names that are easily definable and likely to mean something to some people out there. No thanks.

Promises Fulfilled won’t be popular with politicians, but it’s just too catchy and upbeat to keep people off the scent. The same applies to Lone Sailor, which will draw in the sea-loving crowd.

I would recommend tossing Noble Indy just on principle. It’s the kind of horse name I detest. Sometimes it seems like the names of 50% of all thoroughbreds are made up from about nine words: storm, kitten, cat, dancer , tap, gold, war, noble and indy. Noble Indy is a double offender, and there will be those who think that name sounds stately enough to belong in the history books. Don’t they remember Lil E. Tee…or Funny Cide? Out.

Bolt d’Oro doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But see above paragraph. “Oro” means “gold” in Spanish and Italian. Close enough. Toss.

Good Magic is too positive and catchy. Mendelssohn has too much appeal to aesthetes. Magnum Moon sounds too fancy schmancy and has ties to guns, champagne and moonlight. Too many people like one or more of those things. Toss ’em all!

That leaves two horses. One is the Alphabet System choice Instilled Regard. At first blush, this is perhaps too nice sounding a name…but what the heck does it mean? Instilled…Regard? This is like when a sixth grader throws some big words into his composition with the sole hope that it will impress his teacher. I, for one, am not impressed. I doubt anyone plays this horse because of his name—and that makes him playable under the Unpopular Name System.

But it seems to me the clear-cut choice for those using the Unpopular Name System would be…Hofburg!

At first I thought that Hofburg must be named after a person…or some deli in Brooklyn. Turns out that it is an area in Vienna. That’s the kind of inaccessible, remote name sure to hold little to no appeal to the masses. Play this horse and be assured of getting fair odds and then some!

Or you could just play the 5 horse.