Betting Strategies: Live Money Tournament Advice from Matt Miller

August 12th, 2022

Winner of the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge (BCBC), Matt Miller knows what it takes to formulate a winning live money tournament game plan. An attorney living in the Chicagoland area, he won a grand total of $543,300 in the BCBC. In 2017, he finished 14th. This year he has already double-qualified for the National Horseplayer’s Championship, which he also did in 2018 and 2022. Ahead of Saturday’s Arlington Million Handicapping Contest, or any live money contest, Miller’s advice and insights will help you strategize how to bet minimums, select your spots, and formulate a total that will put you in the running to win. Follow him on Twitter @xmattmillerx

First things first, as a Chicago horseplayer, did you ever go to Million Day at Arlington Park? 

It’s funny; I have only been to one. I was never really big on the Million, but I figured before it was going away, I had to go once, so I saw the Bricks and Mortar year (2019) and it was phenomenal. If I am honest, I wasn't in love with Arlington because of the quality of racing, and so the fact that it had a really terrific day of racing was almost irrelevant to me. I liked all the other days.

Saturday’s Arlington Million Handicapping Contest has a $2,500 buy-in, with a $2,000 bankroll. First question: how do you figure out a total score that will give you a chance to win a live money contest?

It is based on two things: past iterations of that tournament and the multiple that I perceive to be necessary based on buy-in. That number does change based on the type of tournament for me. I can tell you in the case of the BCBC I aim for $125,000 on a $7,500 buy-in, so a multiple of around 16. In my opinion that is a high multiple---that’s the tournament that is the most extreme. But when you get to some of these tournaments with really flat structures, you get some almost absurd results when you get past second or third and you see multiples of 1.5 or 2 times be enough to win something like an NHC seat.

So you just have to be very mindful of the prize structure, of the buy-in, and just be mindful that in general the higher the buy-in, the more the crazies come out, like me, who are ready to fire because they see that the value is at the top of these tournaments. 

I would say for a tournament like this, in my mind I would just be shooting for 10x. Though I would be very ready at the end to get out of my comfort zone if someone has somehow already passed that. It is my expectation that if I were to land on just over 10x that I would be in first or second. But again if someone provides you a data point that leads you to question that, you need to instantly adapt and change strategies.

The top two in the Churchill’s Million Contest get seats to the BCBC, plus cash. I know you aren't playing in it this year, but how does a top-heavy tournament like this affect your game plan, where only first and second get the grand prize?

Dramatically. It’s all or nothing. There’s no distinguishing first and second and so when you're firing at the end, you’re going for it. Even if there is someone on the leaderboard with a big number, you just have to assume they’re getting passed. All you can do is pass whoever is in first. There’s no comfort I would take that there is a second seat available. If you shoot for first and barely miss, that’s your prize for that. In my opinion you should be taking your biggest swing. If you come in third doing that, there's nothing you can do, but otherwise, when it is top heavy like this, you’ve got to push. 

Talk to me about how you build a strategy for getting to your goal. Do you try to do it all in one race or do you have totals you are trying to achieve that set you up for that last race where you need to push all in?

I look at it in terms of stages or phases. I’ll talk to a buddy about a tournament and say, “I think this is a three-stage tournament,” meaning I need to take my total up three different times. Or this is one I think I can do in two steps. It depends on the perceived multiple I think I need to get to at the end. So to get to 10x, I guess you could do that with one big swing. Maybe that's a single daily double or a single exacta, but for me that’s probably a two-stage tournament. And I’m not too fussed about my odds in getting from step one to step two. Pretty much any kind of meaningful movement off that initial piece will be enough gunpowder to let me fire into the end.

What was the number you were aiming for heading into the last race in the BCBC?

The final total I wanted to get to with Knicks Go in the last race of the BCBC was $125,000. Having a good sense of what his odds would be based on the implied double odds and various other clues you can pick up, I knew he would be 5-2 or 3-1. So I was aiming to go into that last race somewhere in the range of 30 to 35 grand. That was my entire objective walking into the race track on the second day when I was around $25,000 and my objective was to get to that next stage. 

Often the hardest part is mentally recovering in the tournament when you know you’ve made a mistake. Any advice there?

Hold the line. Tell your buddies your strategy and force them to make you think before changing your mind. Almost always I have come to regret ``oh I’ll just do a little bit here,” or “I’ll just try a small extra minimum bet there.” Almost always I end up regretting those and I know that. So all I need to do is just remind myself that those sorts of audibles don't win. If you need a different price horse in a late race and you need to call an audible on that, that's something very different.

You can play win, place, show, exactas, trifectas, and daily doubles in the Arlington Million Contest, and there are two $500 minimums. How do you approach the minimums in live money tournaments? 

My first comment on mandatory bets in a live money tournament is this: in terms of percentage of your bankroll, they are crushing in the beginning and they are not to be taken lightly. Ideally in some of these smaller tournaments, I try to make my big plays before I've had to make minimum plays because I want my strongest opinions to get most of my dollars, and I don't want to be frittering anything away with minimums. When you get to stage 2 or stage 3 as we talked about, those minimums are a far smaller percentage of your bankroll and now just represent a chance to make money. 

Pick a race where you have an opinion, it doesn't have to be your strongest opinion. In the Breeders’ Cup even if your balance at the time is $30,000, you can just make a $600 bet on a small opinion, take care of a minimum, and that 600 bucks isn't a big deal. (But if you play them early and lose) your $7500 bankroll is down three minimums to $5,700. That is about the point of panic for a lot of people where they start realizing “oh my gosh I’ve lost one-third of my money and I haven't done anything.” So I have respect for the minimums, and I advise you to try to get as much of your money in before you have to start playing them. 

My second bit of advice on minimums: I don't believe in saying never. You could absolutely paint a picture for me where a $600 show bet is the right thing to do. But in general, depending on the tournament that you're in, these races are typically hard enough as they are to pick a horse that is going to do well that I feel like I am taking a risk even to pick a horse to show. If it is an emergency situation where I need to preserve capital in order to bet my strongest opinion in the next race, I just can't risk giving away $600, and I have no other choice but for this race to be a minimum, I would be perfectly fine placing a show bet with a minimum.

Otherwise I really think people need to look at the minimums as an opportunity to make money. It doesn't necessarily have to jump you multiple stages--it doesn't have to be enough to take you up to stage 3, but the way I look at it in the Breeders' Cup, if I can play my minimums and break even off of them I will be thrilled.

It’s incredibly unlikely that hitting minimums alone will allow someone to do well enough to win a large tournament, but the inverse is extremely likely.  Someone who plays their minimums poorly has almost no chance to win.

What about using doubles? I know you’ve used the daily double effectively with minimums.

In a more typical tournament I might be betting win bets early, but in the BCBC my preference is to be betting doubles because they give you good leverage. The winning multiple in the Breeder’s Cup is such a challenge that you have to do more early on to get leverage.

The other thing is if you hit the first half, they give you a second chance to look at the next race--especially if you have money left on your entry or a second entry--it gives you another chance looking at that next race to pivot. For example, if you find yourself alive to a massive double with the third favorite, maybe you want to play the favorite pretty hard on your other entry. That isn't something you had necessarily planned on doing but given how much money you are alive to with another horse you like, you may find yourself with an opportunity that you didn't think that you had. Or you can stand pat and watch the race and see the conclusion of the second half of the double.

It gives you an option: do you press, do you stand pat, do you pick another horse? In the case of last year’s Breeders’ Cup where I got to that spot, it was in a race where I had virtually no opinion and I opted to do a different daily double out of that race on each of my two entries. Essentially I was alive to four out of maybe 13 horses in that race, and it was the one I liked the fourth most that did it for me.

I know holding the line and executing your game plan is so crucial, but what about adjusting and reacting in the moment as the day plays out. Do you pay attention to the leaderboard?

In the BCBC I had some options that I don't think a typical player has on a typical day. In my case, and it's really not arrogance, it's just protecting my own mental state, I don’t pay attention to the leaderboard. I don't look until the very, very end. Maybe if I have a friend on the board and someone texts me, then I will look. I don't look because I don’t care about the numbers. The only reason I care is if somehow the final total I was hoping would be a winning one is now in jeopardy. That would get me to do something different. In the BCBC for example, whether the leader had $20,000 or $90,000 at the end of day one, it wouldn't affect anything I am doing whatsoever.

There are things I have to say that sound cynical but are really just reality-based. The reality is no matter how good the greatest pickers are on their best days, these tournaments all look the same year over year over year with minor variations. It is the same basic multiples that win these things. See what it took in the past--that is the approach to take. The final totals don't really reflect how the person got there, but the bottom line is if someone had ever finished day one of the BCBC with $90,000, they didn't finish with a total higher than $155,000 or whatever the record is. It just didn't matter; they clearly pumped the brakes or decided that they were taking excess risk to the relatively perceived reward. 

At the end of the day you just don't see wild results, so there's no need to get caught up in the leaderboard, especially with who it is. I know there are some people who disagree with that and like to handicap the handicappers. I can't disagree with that strategy. But getting to your desired total in these tournaments is hard enough. I would just focus a lot more on that and a lot less on who the people are and their scores before going into the final race. 

What about spot selection--do you try to be contrarian or simply play the horses you like?

I do listen to podcasts and I do pay attention to horse racing media, especially around big races. In part because I am a fan of the sport and in part because it gives me a sense of who the buzz horses are. Absolutely if I can find good spots to do it, I would love to be a contrarian where I can. I am not going to get off a horse that I really like just because it also happens to be a buzz horse, but it might cause me to bet less. 

It does impact which horses I play, but when you get to the last race, you just have to take who you think is going to win. Based on your own value line, you have to make what you think is the proper play. There’s just not a ton of room for gamesmanship at that point in my opinion.

But as you get to that point, if you know that the entire world is behind a horse like Dennis’ Moment (in 2019), that is a perfect race to skip in my opinion, assuming you didn’t have a strong opinion about him. I didn’t pick the longshot who beat him, but I at least identified that Dennis’ Moment was a horse that was going to get pounded by other players. Essentially I was long to all the other horses anyway, and I didn’t need to compound that at all. So I just skipped the race, and you saw how many people that horse took out of the tournament.

The hardest part is avoiding the trapdoors. Finding the right places to step on, that to me is the trick to tournament play. Until you get to the last race, and then you just have to be right.