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Expert tips for filling out a winning NCAA Tournament bracket

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Whether you are seasoned veteran who has been filling out NCAA brackets for years, or you’ve decided to fill out your first one ever, picking the right programs for your perfect bracket can be a difficult and sometimes daunting task (unless of course you just pick your bracket based on who has the funniest looking mascot).

With a field of teams so big, there will be mountains and mountains of data for you to sort through and no matter how much research you do, let’s face it, there is an element of luck involved. But luckily for you, we’ve reached out to our veteran handicappers over at Covers Experts to help you out. They’ve been filling out brackets for years and we’ve asked them to give you their most important tip for putting together a winning NCAA Tournament bracket.

Al McMordie

“For pools that are local, rather than national, my No. 1 Bracket Tip is to consider the team or teams that other entrants might pick for their Final Four (and eventual champion), and then avoid picking such teams. That is because it’s difficult to win a Tournament pool if your entry is vastly similar to other entries. You have to separate yourself from the herd. So, if you live in ACC Country, avoid picking teams like North Carolina and Louisville. If you’re in the heartland, steer clear of Kansas and if you’re on the West Coast, select teams other than Gonzaga and UCLA.”

Teddy Covers

“Many office pool players work too much on picking the early round upsets and not enough on their Final Four teams. The vast majority of Final Four teams are top-seeded teams; No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 seeds. I generally pick at least two No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four. They earned those top seeds because they’ve been the best teams in college basketball all season, which is why I rarely call for a No. 1 seed to get upset before the Sweet 16 round at the earliest in my own brackets.

“Additionally, remember the bigger pool that you are in, the more chances you’ll need to take and the more upsets you should pick, particularly upsets that build big points on the second weekend of the tournament, as we go from the Sweet 16 to the Elite Eight, then the Final Four. For smaller pools, a more conservative strategy is the superior choice.  You don’t have as much competition to worry about, and there’s much less of a need to pick a bunch of upsets in order to surpass your opposition.”

Dave Cokin

“My main advice is to put circles around the teams that play the best defense. The last 15 national champions have all been teams ranked in the top 40 nationally in defensive efficiency. ”

Power Sports

“Avoid picking a ton of upsets in the First Round. It’s tempting, but there simply have been fewer and fewer in the last few years because the mid-majors have gotten progressively weaker. When going for an upset, try and focus on teams from better conferences.”

Will Rogers

“My advice would be to focus on upsets in the 2nd Round or Sweet 16 as opposed to the 1st Round. I find that is often the difference between a winning and losing bracket!”

Ben Burns

“Ignore the seeding. I believe a lot of bettors get hung up about what seed a team is. For example, some start worrying about how No. 4 teams have done against No. 13 seeds historically. Every matchup is unique though, so the fact that some No. 13 seed upset a No. 4 seed previously has no relevance to me. If you like the favorite, lay the points. If you like the underdog, take them. Likewise, when filling out your bracket. If you feel that underdog is going to win, don’t let its seeding prevent you from taking it to advance.”

Jesse Schule

“I believe the secret to filling out a bracket (or even handicapping games during the tournament), is to be realistic about upsets. We all know that there will be some big surprises, but you don’t want to overdo it. When a smaller school upsets one of the top-ranked teams, everyone talks about it. That tends to overshadow the fact that for every big favorite that loses, several others go on to win. I think you need to be careful not to fall in love with the dogs. ”

Marc Lawrence

“One of the things I look to do is seek out deeply experienced teams with five returning starters back from last year’s squad. These teams play with the calmness of a ‘been there, don’t that’ mentality.”

Larry Ness

“Look for experienced teams to advance. Teams heavy with senior leadership flourish in these types of tournaments. That is also true of experienced coaches.”

AAA Sports

“My one tip would be to remember this before filling out your bracket: Beyond the top three seeds, teams, for the most part, do not have a shot at the National Title. Whatsoever. In fact, only one title has been won by a No. 4, 6 and 8 respectively. No other seed in the history of the event has won the tournament.”

Zack Cimini

“My tip would be not to over-analyze it—don’t pick too many upsets. Picking that way will eliminate you even faster than rolling with the main hitters.”

Steve Merril

“Everyone loves to find those big first-round upsets, however most bracket contests double the points each round, so unless you get the Final Four or the Finals correct, all those first and second-round upset picks do not matter. It is fun to pick long shots, but historically the best teams win the tournament. In fact, a No. 1 seed has reached the finals in 24 of the past 32 years.”

Longshots to consider when betting the Shoemaker Mile

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Monday’s Shoemaker Miles Stakes at Santa Anita Park is a great race for a number of reasons. For starters, the Shoemaker Mile is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” race that offers the winner a guaranteed spot in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Keeneland.

Watch the Shoemaker Mile on Monday, May 25 from 6-8 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

The race also features last year’s Preakness Stakes winner, War of Will, making his season debut. Despite his triumphs on the dirt in 2019, War of Will started his career on the turf and his pedigree suggests that he’s very likely to be just as successful on the grass. That said, the Shoemaker Mile will be his first start off of a six-month break, and I’m going to try to take a swing or two with some horses who could upset the apple cart at longer odds.

Let’s start out with the horse on the rail, Without Parole. He won the Group 1 St. James’s Palace Stakes going a mile at Ascot back in 2018. His three other career wins have all came at this mile distance as well. Granted, he hasn’t won in six races since the St. James’s Palace but he did finish a fast-closing third two starts ago in a much tougher U.S. debut in the TVG Breeders’ Cup MileIrad Ortiz Jr. rode Without Parole in that race and he will reclaim the mount on him again on Monday.

Without Parole has only had one race this year and it was in the Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational in which he finished second to last. However, he had several excuses right from the start of that race when he got squeezed coming out of the gate. He also raced in traffic throughout and got cut off several times in the stretch before Frankie Dettori — who had come from Europe to ride him at Gulfstream — finally just wrapped up on him. The Pegasus World Cup Turf also was a race that didn’t allow him to run on Lasix (furosemide) after he’d shown significant improvement racing on Lasix for the first time at the Breeders’ Cup.

Stream the 2020 Shoemaker Mile live here

How much of a factor might Lasix be for some horses? Well, let’s next look at the horse who finished last in the Pegasus World Cup Turf: Next Shares. In his following start (back on Lasix) in the Grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile Stakes, Next Shares finished third (beaten just a neck) to River Boyne. Both Next Shares and River Boyne return in the Shoemaker Mile and I prefer the former as a pace play who has plenty of back-class. If you rewatch the Kilroe Mile, Next Shares covered a lot more ground than River Boyne. With a similar effort, Next Shares could certainly turn the tables.

The other thing to like about Next Shares is that his trainer, Richard Baltas, has entered speedster Neptune’s Storm in the Shoemaker Mile. That horse, along with Voodoo Song, should ensure a very brisk pace up front — they’ll also be kept honest by Blitzkrieg and War of Will, both of whom usually race on or near the lead. All of that speed adds up to good news for Next Shares. He’s a Grade 1 winner who has always done his best running when he’s had some pace to run into. The other two keys for him (like all stalking or closing-type runners) is clear running room late, and hopefully he’ll get that with Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez taking the mount.

Lastly, we should take a look at True Valour. It’s hard to make much of an excuse for his flat finish in the Kilroe last out, but he’s truly performed better than what his results on paper might indicate. In the Thunder Road Stakes in February, he looked pretty keen early and it took him a few strides to settle down without throwing his head around and fighting his rider. Turning for home, it was clear that jockey Andrea Atzeni had plenty of horse under him but was just waiting for some running room. It ended up coming too late because River Boyne was in a better spot and had already taken command. True Valour did split horses nicely in the closing stages and was half a jump away from finishing second.

If you go back to the Breeders’ Cup Mile, True Valour had excuses there, too. He was up on heels early and he again took a little bit of time to settle down into a comfortable stride. Then, turning for him, he was just waiting for running room but instead got stuck behind a wall of horses. True Valour ended up steadying pretty badly and lost all chance at that point. I’m a little worried about how headstrong he tends to be early in races, but there’s a scenario here that could have at least two horses battling for the lead early and opening up some daylight on the rest of the field. That means he’ll be less likely to be running up on anyone’s heels and it also ensures that he’ll have a nice setup. Whether he can navigate clear passage late in the race is a separate matter.

Longshot Selections

#1 Without Parole

#3 Next Shares

#2 True Valour

Watch the Shoemaker Mile on Monday, May 25 from 6-8 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

How to bet an exacta on a horse race

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Betting an exacta can present a challenge on several levels.

There is, of course, the primary need to analyze past performances and decide which horses are going to finish first and second.

Yet because of the inherently lower payoffs as opposed to what you’ll find in a Pick 3 or Pick 4, you’ll need to structure your wagers effectively in order to turn your selections into a profitable wager.

For starters, an exacta can be a simple wager. If you like two horses equally, you can just box them in the exacta and collect so long as they finish 1-2 in any order. If you like one of them a little more, you can then bet more on the one you prefer, say $10 on a 1-2 exacta and $5 on 2-1.

If you’re a little more uncertain, make sure you structure your bet around the size of the field and the probable payoffs.

If you like a longshot, the higher probable payoffs give you the cushion you need to wager on more combinations and still turn a nice profit.

But if you’re dealing with favorites or horses at relatively low odds, you have to wager more efficiently to preserve your profit.

In a field of six or less, you’re best to either focus on one horse or box two of them instead of boxing three or more horses because of the small payouts the bet will most likely generate.

In a field of seven, a wise strategy would be to box your top two choices and then, if you are worried about other horses, play them top and/or bottom other the other horses. For example, box 1-2, then bet 1-2 over 3-4 and 3-4 over 1-2. This way you are getting coverage on four horses without having to box them.

Once you get an eight-horse field, as long as there is not an overwhelming favorite, you can expand the number of horses you box since the payoffs will typically be higher, giving you a better opportunity to offset the inevitable array of losing tickets in a boxed wager.