Friday, May 15, 2015

Preakness Preview: Perception Again Trumps Reality

The May 3 Bloomberg Business postscript to the Kentucky Derby headlined "American Pharoah Whipped 32 Times in Victory" was as low as they come and better reserved for the Animal Times of the media, not a presumably distinguished newswire, and no less from an acquaintance I have spent a few pleasant afternoons alongside at Saratoga.

Ironic that, the morning after the $100-a-head Mayweather-Pacquiao mockery of boxing where no one sustained so much as a hangnail, thoroughbred racing exited its own ring the next morning with a major shiner and sent the industry into damage control mode.

Bloomberg author David Papadopoulos, whether by design or sabotaged by a headline editor with a vengeance or ax to grind against thoroughbred racing and/or riding crops, sparked a mini controversy over American Pharoah's winning ride in the Derby by Victor Espinoza, whose "use of the crop fell within (Kentucky) regulations," according to a subsequent ruling by Kentucky racing steward.

End of story, right?

Certainly not from the PETA set, nor from the perspective of handicapping the Preakness Stakes, where American Pharoah drew the rail and is the 4-to-5 favorite in Saturday's reunion with Kentucky Derby runners up Firing Line and Dortmund, and facing five "new shooters" potentially as fabulous but just as unknown as the Third Tenor.  Heck, there's one named after a Steely Dan song who was 115-to-1 in the Remsen Stakes and is a juicy 20-to-1 in the Preakness Stakes on Saturday.

Odds that American Pharoah wins
the 2015 Preakness Stakes: 4/5

Odds the average American can
name the Third Tenor: 99-1
In all likelihood, I will not bet the Preakness as a singular race as I did with the Kentucky Derby, where my money was mostly on Frosted over American Pharoah (in my view, Frosted could have won had Joel Rosario recalled that he, too, had a riding crop to prompt Frosted - 4th-place finisher and by far the best late runner of the bunch - sooner than he had in the stretch).

The only value on American Pharoah as a straight bet in the Preakness will be the 3-to-2 "odds boost" on up to a $25 win wager through the TVG mobile betting app from noon-1 p.m. ET on Friday.

Maybe if American Pharoah drifts up to 1-to-1 or 6-to-5 and I'm atop the leaderboard in Saturday's NHC-Big Game handicapping contest at he might get my pick (huge favorites generally are not worth playing in notional-dollar handicapping contests, since the win-place points are too low), but otherwise I am not sold on the upstarts in the field merely to fish for a price and will be urging American Pharoah on verbally in front of a TV.

In the wake of the riding crop sidebar that has sapped my interest in extensively handicapping the Preakness, I am hoping for a Secretariat-in-the-Belmont-type 30-length rout by Pharoah that silences the riding crop debate.

Namesake of Steely Dan B side
gets shot against the big boys
in 2015 Preakness Stakes
Nonetheless, from a research sense, I wanted to delve a little more into the riding crop issue and whether Victor Espinoza's heavy "encouragement" of Pharoah on the Churchill Downs oval was a) as much an eyesore to others in the industry and/or b) compromises the horse's Preakness chances.

From the humanitarian perspective, the ideal might be for a governing body to ban riding crops from thoroughbred racing, but humanizing an equine animal does not seem rational.

"(The) focus on the whip, while understandable and appropriate, is at times exaggerated.  Horses being whipped and whipped and whipped is not good for horses or beneficial to the racing outcome," said Robb Levinsky, lifelong horseman and the founder, co-managing partner and racing manager at Kenwood Racing, a growing NJ-based partnership. "People sometimes relate horses to themselves, but the horse is a very different physical and physiological being than a human."

Levinsky relayed two stories to corroborate this theme.

The first involved a Kenwood horse named Long May You Run, a 5-year-old gelding with 4 wins in 12 tries and nearly $100,000 of earnings.

After an easy victory in a $25,000 claimer at Penn National last June, Levinsky said trainer Mark Salvaggio, in a rare move, encouraged Levinsky to wheel Long May You Run back a week later against tougher company, citing the horse's peak form. True to form, the horse won a $33,000 state-bred allowance by nearly five lengths and was not physically taxed.

The second involved an unnamed 9-year-old horse in training at Calder in Florida.

Levinsky noted that the exercise rider ignored the trainer's instructions to refrain from any encouragement or use of a whip on an older horse merely out for a gallop.  The rider used the riding crop twice on the horse and returned to a disgruntled trainer.

Now, on the surface, an outsider could look entirely differently on these seemingly unrelated scenarios (to each other and American Pharoah), all without understanding the context.

One could say that a race horse should never run two races seven days apart, and even Levinsky admitted some apprehension about the notion, since Kenwood puts the welfare of its horses above all else.

In the latter scenario, a clocker could simply take notes on the workout and be indifferent to the two whip taps of the exercise rider on a horse out for a breeze but be totally unaware of the trainer's dismay over the rider ignoring explicit instructions to not use the riding crop on the horse.

Point being...most of us, whether a horseplayer, part-time blogger, seasoned member of the thoroughbred racing media, supporter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), or casual observer, have zero clue about the intentions of a race horse's owner, trainer, jockey and handlers, which is what makes handicapping (and judgement of others) so difficult, and fun.

"Sometimes you have to trust (a horse's) connections running the animal," said Levinsky, who as the recent astute buyer of a pair of 2-year-old fillies by Pioneer of the Nile (sire of American Pharoah) has a clear rooting interest in Pharoah this Saturday; a Pharoah win makes his stables purchase of Makanow Pharoah and Sonny's Pharoah that much more compelling.

Of utmost importance to most of us that follow thoroughbred racing is the horse's welfare, but a respectable media outlet's use of a shocking headline focused on a jockey's use of a legal racing tool in a major race is rash and irresponsible, in my view.

Espinoza, who clearly rode American Pharoah hard in the Derby and six days later was fined by Santa Anita Park stewards for causing a "break in the skin" with a riding crop in an unrelated race on April 4 in California (a state that last November toughened its riding crop restrictions), did not break Churchill Downs' "house rules" on riding crop usage, according to Kentucky race stewards.

The replay of this year's Kentucky Derby could be picked clean and lumped together with aggressive rides of Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont Stakes, Real Quiet in the 1998 Kentucky Derby and Silver Charm in the 1997 Kentucky Derby,

To the contrary, consider this from Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye in an October 19, 2011 Jay Hovdey column in Daily Racing Form. "One year I got fined here in California for not hitting a horse. It was on a bad track, and he was sore. But I got fined anyway. Go figure."

Hovdey ended that column with a Delahoussaye quote - again, from 4 years ago - that best encapsulates where insinuating through a headline that Espinoza abused American Pharoah is askew.

"You can hit a horse only five times and cut him up bad, or you can hit him 20 times in the stretch, keeping in rhythm, and the horse will be fine," Delahoussaye told Hovdey in the 2011 column.

"It's up to the racing officials to know the difference between abuse and proper use."

A 4-to-5 morning line on American Pharoah suggests the betting public will be undeterred by the grueling Kentucky Derby effort.

But, will feelgood story (back-to-back Derby winner) turned media whipping boy Victor Espinoza think twice in the Preakness when in another stretch duel with Dortmund or Firing Line (or one of the five Jose know, the Third Tenor)?

It'll be interesting to see what impact the riding crop has on the outcome of the 2015 Preakness.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Kentucky Oaks: Birdatthewire A Clear Single

Offering picks is usually not my theme with this blog, but Oaks-Derby weekend is a must, since everyone tosses their hat in the ring and acts all "expert."

I still have some work to do with Saturday's Derby, but give Birdatthewire the nod over Include Betty, Condo Commando and I'm a Chatterbox in my exacta and trifecta for today's Kentucky Oaks.

The trip that Birdatthewire got in the Gulfstream Park Oaks sold me.

Birdatthewire appeared to be headstrong and basically strangled by jockey Irad Ortiz down the backstretch, ran into the heels of horses approaching the second turn, and blew by the field (and that same horse) in a race with a dawdling pace.

In the Oaks, I like that she drew an outside post and think she'll get enough speed to run into and mow down front-runner Condo Commando, who looked hand-ridden to me in her win in the Gazelle at Aqueduct but I'm not sure has been challenged by credible foes just yet.

Include Betty has an outside shot, as I see it, at 20-to-1, but my only hesitation with putting her on top is that she's the deepest of closer types and I'm not sure the pace will be frenetic enough for the others to wear down.  This, of course, is contingent upon I'm a Chatterbox reverting to her form two back, where unlike the easy front-running score in the Fair Grounds Oaks, she rallied clear late to win.

Anyway, I'll likely invest between $30-$40 in the race, using:

  • Top pick (single): 13
  • Second: 3, 5, 8
  • Third: 3, 5, 8, 10, 11
  • Fourth (possible superfecta): 3, 5, 8, 10, 11, 14
  • Oaks-Derby Double: 13 with 2, 15, 18

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Parx Visit Fuels Hope As Eventual NHC, BCBC Stop

After previewing Parx's first handicapping contest since 2008 last week, I drove the Jersey and Pennsylvania turnpikes 55 minutes to Philadelphia to compete in Saturday's live-money tournament and am impressed by track management's organization and hospitality, and the venue itself as well.

The positives far outweighed my miserable contest picks on a day where the races appeared wide open and just 2 of 9 post-time favorites won, but the handicapping contest winner built a $60 starting bankroll into $1,030.50 (impressive, on a day where the highest win mutuel was $13) to take down the zero-takeout $1,880 first prize.

Rail-bird view of Saturday's opener
Saturday was my first visit to Parx.  I was unsure what to expect, but found promise as a comfortable, player-friendly venue that should consider expanding into contests tied to the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) or Breeders Cup Betting Challenge (BCBC).  

More than 90 players turned out with scant publicity, so with concerted marketing and lessons gleaned from Saturday, Parx likely could draw a much bigger audience, considering its close proximity to major mid-Atlantic markets (NYC, Philadelphia and Baltimore). Parx is an easy ride and right off major highways.

The expense for NHC or BCBC "seats" would presumably be more prohibitive to Parx as a non-NTRA track (non-members pay double the fee to buy "seats" to the NHC, as I understand it), but my views are outside the realm of any track management's financial and operational planning and merely from a weekend player and NHC Tour member perspective.

Phonebet manager Beth Coale and her team did a wonderful job with the logistics, in my view, citing the seamless sign-up, clear instructions on the use of contest wagering cards and articulation of contest rules, plus quick scoreboard updates.   

Parx's race facility itself has a fresher vibe than my local track, Monmouth Park, though I would not necessarily attribute that to the live racing element.  

The track sits separate from the much larger casino venue but features a really nice poker room and dining as well, is far smaller and clean on the inside, and gives the handicapper plenty of options with two levels of dining service plus a cafeteria-style venue where service is quick and food and drinks are fairly priced and quite good.  No, "sorry we're out of that" or "that'll be ready in about 10 minutes" at the dining venue as sometimes found at my home track.

Funky, Xanadu-like color pattern,
but very nice on the inside
A nice bar at the center of the ground-level area, flanked by cocktail tables with ample seating and lots of simulcast TVs, enriches the building's energy.  This is certainly not to pan Monmouth, which is far more scenic and historical but has several nooks and crannies and is simply more cavernous and, therefore, finds customers spread out across a wider plain. 

At Parx, you're more among your horseplayer peers by force, and for this reason (and with a casino mindset at play) could serve as a great venue for more handicapping contests.  

I could envision a section (similar to the poker room) set aside for tournaments, where much like at the NHC in Vegas two rooms are dedicated to the contest customer, creating a player-friendly and social atmosphere (rather than contest players sprinkled here and there with the ordinary track visitor). 

The track and racing product itself is merely functional, in my view.  There are not many great places to watch the races and sight lines are modest at best.  The paddock is spartan, but I was not there to hang outside anyway on a windy and cold winter afternoon. 

Saturday's card was OK but not top-flight weekend racing by any stretch, and I found myself generally taking educated guesses in races mostly filled with claimers, akin to other casino-funded racing venues where the on-track product appears secondary to the core casino product.  

For this reason, I would encourage Parx to incorporate other racetracks into its contest mix to attract players, similar to when Monmouth cards live racing but co-mingles, say, a Woodbine or Saratoga, which offer often tougher races and deeper fields.  Saturday offered key Derby preps elsewhere, but I get Parx's intent to try and showcase its own racing product. 

Considering that Parx hosts live racing year round, in my opinion there is an opportunity for Parx to capitalize on voids in the on-track contest season, especially in October, November and December, when (based on the NHC Tour calendar) there's only one on-track tournament (Aqueduct) in the region for NJ-based horseplayers, 

Whichever direction Parx management goes with the handicapping contest theme, Saturday's effort gets thumbs up and proved enough of a success to consider expanding the initiative, in my opinion.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

PARX Re-Emerges On Contest Circuit

The year was 2008 -- the last time a live thoroughbred horse racing venue in the City of Brotherly Love hosted a handicapping tournament.

Photo by Eric Kalet
Back then, the place was called Philadelphia Park.

Under its fresher brand today, Parx Racing and Casino this Saturday, March 28, will host its first handicapping contest in seven years.

Registration for this $100, zero-takeout event runs now through 12:15 p.m. on track and from one of Parx's five "Turf Clubs" across the region.

Saturday's contest is not an NHC, Horse Player World Series or Breeders Cup Betting Challenge qualifier, but strictly offers cash and other prizes.

"The hope is that we can build interest in these contests again and get back to the sort of contest that has the higher entry fee necessary to cover the costs of the NHC entry," emailed Beth Coale, Phonebet manager for Parx Racing.

"Right now," continued Coale, "we are taking all the entry fees and awarding them back as cash prizes, which should appeal to our local players."

Future NHC Venue Hope...

When I first started blogging 4-5 years ago about my weekend pursuit of a National Handicapping Championship (NHC) berth, on-track handicapping contests were few and far between, outside of a handful of spots through my local track (Monmouth Park) and a few each at area NYRA tracks.

Until the emergence of online qualifying sites such as and recent surge in on-track qualifying tournaments at Monmouth (now offering nearly 30 NHC "seats," up from 4-6 just a few years back), it seemed as if Jersey-based NHC Tour members had far fewer shots than others at the $2 million-plus NHC held each January in Las Vegas.

However, and despite our inability in New Jersey to qualify for several ADW-sponsored NHC seats via and, Garden Staters have a seemingly bigger menu of "drive-able" contest venues.  All are not NHC qualifying contests mind you, but the list includes the Borgata in Atlantic City, Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and, now, Parx Racing and Casino.

...And Business Booster To Parx

In my opinion, the handicapping contest circuit is a clear pocket of strength in the thoroughbred racing industry and one that is grossly underplayed by the media.

January's NHC paid more than $2.6 million of prizes, while contests such as the Breeders Cup Betting Challenge have been highlighted on television shows such as Horseplayers.  

There are others less publicized within the industry but well known in NHC Tour circles, such as the Sept. 26-27 Big One at Laurel Park in Maryland, which anticipates paying nearly $400,000 of cash and prizes.

Less than 60 miles from my Jersey Shore-area perch, Parx's recognition of the value of on-track handicapping tournaments is appealing on two fronts:

  • potential NHC venue down the road in a highly populated region
  • a means for Parx to promote live racing at its own track, which (based on Dairy Racing Form data) attracted just 3%-8% of total daily handle from March 17-24.

"I like the idea of promoting interest in our live product," emailed Coale, when asked whether incorporating outside tracks as Monmouth Park does with its Simulcast Series Challenges was considered.

"Our horse population has been well rested by this brutal winter and we're ready to put on some very competitive race cards," said Coale.

Even without live racing, however, handicapping contests increase business for simulcast facilities, including Monmouth Park, where a source was "safe in saying" to me that Monmouth's handle on contest days is about 25% higher than the simulcast handle when there is not a contest taking place on track.

Parx Contest Details

Saturday's total racing menu is robust and features 2014 Pennsylvania Derby contestant and Horse of the Year California Chrome in the $10 million Dubai World Cup in the morning, and a key Triple Crown prep, the Florida Derby, in the late afternoon.  These headline races sandwich what appears to be a very playable 9-race live program at Parx, which kicks off at 12:55 p.m. ET.

Participants in Saturday's $100 buy-in tournament ($60 bankroll and $40 toward the zero-takeout prize pool) must play at least 7 of Parx's races, with minimum $2 win, place and/or show wagering required and the option to bet multiple horses per race.

Parx anticipates attracting 200 entries across its six venues, which would provide a $8,000 prize pool where the winner gets 50% and a 46" Smart TV and Parx pays down to the Top 5.  All players receive a $10 food and beverage credit and should contact Beth Coale at 215-639-9000 (extension 4215) or for further details.

In the event that my wife and kids follow through on their threat for afternoon theater and dinner, making it down to the Philly suburbs to test the waters this Saturday could be in my cards. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Beat By The Hot Hand

Sunday's finale at Gulfstream Park (Race 12) leaves me speculating that I was probably a length away from an enormous payday in Simulcast Series Challenge #3 hosted by Monmouth Park, while at the same time appreciating the recent hot streak of jockey Luis Saez.

Courtesy of Shared iDiz
First, for anyone who has never played in the SSC, it's a $100 "live bankroll" contest where the goal is to accrue a Top 20 bankroll using win, place and/or show wagers only and qualify for the SSC Invitational this April, where the top two will qualify for the 2016 National Handicapping Championship. 

It's an extremely challenging series.

Players must wager at least 10 races (Gulfstream, Tampa and Aqueduct) and at least $10 per race.

Deciding which races to play and when to make plays (and how much) is probably the biggest challenge, with more than 30 races to handicap.

The element of bankroll management is unlike online contests typically based on notional $2 win-place wagers.

Decent Performance

I was 3-for-10 about two-thirds of the way through the contest, running my bankroll to $209 with a 5-to-2 winner at Tampa in Race 5 (Horn Buckle), a winning show bet into a bridge-jumper pool in Race 6 from Aqueduct (Arbitrator), and a $10 win-place score on 12-to-1 Demander in Race 8 from Gulfstream.

As I had met the 10-race requisite to qualify for prize money and a potential seat in the SSC Invitational, technically I could have sat on $209 (in hindsight) to finish within the Top 20 (the 20th-place finisher only ended with $165) and advance to April 25, but at that time on Sunday 20th place was around $250, and based on SSC#1 and SSC#2 figured I needed to finish with at least a $300 bankroll.

Plus, a nearly $11,000 first-place prize was at stake, so it was back to work.

In assessing the outcomes of eight subsequent bets, one could argue I was a little too loose with my bankroll and instead should have made one big play on a shorter-priced horse (say, $100 win-place on a favorite).  

However, I did not have a "sure thing" on my radar and instead stuck to my plan to seek inefficiencies on the tote board.  My $30 of wagers on 6-to-1 and 29-to-1 horses that ran very competitively (finished second of 5 and fourth of 10, respectively) would have really increased my bankroll and secured a Top 20.

Plus, my selections in those spots were based on valid handicapping and not "stabs" at long-shots as players of online "notional bankroll" contests often contend, so I have no regrets. 

Those outcomes probably are moot, however, as the final race proved to be an absolute killer.

It's Luis Saez's World

The jockey theme came up quite a bit for me and in discussion with my counterparts on Sunday.

In my first contest play of the day, I passed on 9-to-1 winner Factory of Faith in Race 4 from Tampa for lack of conviction in rider Keiber Coa, one of the least efficient turf riders in the Tampa colony with just two wins and five top-3 finishes in 30 mounts thus far at the meeting.  

A few tables down, however, Public Handicapper contest founder and SSC regular Scott Carson handsomely profited from such conviction, scoring a $19.80 win mutuel (times 5) and mentioning to me afterward that he had no concerns about Coa, who won in prior mounts for trainer Derek Ryan.  

I continue to ponder Scott's point.

I had the statistics in front of me on when Coa teams up with Ryan, but as a part-time player I watch few tracks daily and generally rely less on favorable jockey-trainer angles and instead prefer pace and a horse's form.  The rare times I select a horse based on jockey-trainer, it is often based on anecdoctal observation of a singular prior race, and so the sample is typically too small for me to incorporate when handicapping.

Fast forward to Race 8 at Gulfstream, where Luis Saez had already won two races on the afternoon (including a 13-to-1 winner in Race 6) and was on Demander, a first-time claim for trainer George Weaver, who had sent nearly 400 runners to the gate since the start of 2014 but only 8 first-time starters off a claim.  

I saw Saez as a favorable angle, but not the lone reason to play Demander, who was claimed by Weaver out of a $50,000 conditional (non-winners of 2 lifetime) and making his 10th lifetime start. 

Rather, I liked instead that not only a above-average trainer who rarely claims horses saw enough in Demander to enter him at a higher perceived level ($25,000 optional non-winners 1x), but that the horse broke his maiden in his lone try on the Gulfstream dirt course and was cutting back to seven furlongs from a mile-plus on turf.  

Demander drew off to win by more than two lengths.

As I clapped jubilantly, a congratulatory Scott came over to discuss the race and I shared my angles, otherwise noting how Saez seemed to be riding.

I did not have the data to back it, but last night, in looking back at races over the last week, Saez won at a 22% clip (10 of 45 mounts) from March 11-17 and had close calls on a few other long-shots, validating my comment two days earlier.  

Unfortunately, for me, one of those happened to be Sunday's contest out-race.

About a Length Shy of a ~$13,000 Payday

In previewing Sunday's card, I intended to avoid Gulfstream Race 12, since 5 of the 14 runners were first-time starters and the samples were small on the other runners.

However, I could not confidently find a horse to bet big or "all in" for races 10 or 11 from Gulfstream in hopes of winning the contest or reaching the Top 20.

Gambler's Ghost had some appeal in Gulfstream Race 11, but was up against a monster in Rock Fall, a Todd Pletcher burner with gaudy sprint figures and the class of the race.  Rock Fall, however, hovered 3-to-5 for the most part and drifted up to even money, which I felt was too short off a 9-to-5 morning line.

My horse took no money off an 8-to-1 morning line but had two 6-furlong wins on dirt (both off a layoff, similar to Sunday's condition), and I speculated could outgun Rock Fall and get confident on the lead.

Rock Fall simply outclassed the field, however, setting me back $40. 

Nearly $70, however, is plenty of bankroll in the SSC contest format, so I dug into the Race 12 past performances.

Well, there was not much to go by, but I immediately crossed off four runners I thought had no shot.

Still, that left another 10 horses to consider.  Yikes!  

A thought did cross my mind to skip handicapping and simply play the "hot jockey" angle, since none of the horses had notable race histories on which to handicap, but the logical side of me thought the horse with Luis Saez, Ascot Girl, looked sub-par on paper -- mediocre workouts, a notable but 2% trainer at the meeting (Michael Matz) and first-time starter breaking from a tough outside post at two turns on turf.  

Oh, and opening odds of 30-to-1 off a 20-to-1 morning line. 

I looked further outside to another long-shot, 20-to-1 Sonoma d'Oro, who in my view had far more attractive attributes and could contend with three lukewarm co-favorites -- a February start that was not too inspiring but gave an experience edge to others, attractive pedigree, two strong turf workouts following the horse's sprint debut on dirt, and an above-average turf jockey, Julien Leparoux.

After the fact, I learned secondhand that veteran clocker Bruno De Julio rated Sonoma d'Oro's aforementioned workouts 4 of 5 stars, noting strength against a "very nice workmate" in one and "worked super" and "beautiful move" in the other.

When the race went off, Sonoma d'Oro was nearly 35-to-1, but I was "all in" with $44 to win and $25 to place, figuring the workouts suggested the horse was sharp, would like the turf (based on pedigree), and had enough time from a tough outside post to get toward the lead into the first turn and stalk to victory.

I'll let you watch the replay to see what happened, but in short, Sonoma d'Oro had every chance to win despite two minor steadies around the course before falling just short in stretch traffic to the onrushing (and 48-to-1) Ascot Girl...with, you guessed it, Luis Saez aboard.

Hindsight's Always 20/20

The silence on the restaurant level at Monmouth Park was deafening of the 50 or so players around me.

Unless someone was devoid of emotion, no one had Ascot Girl .  The final standings suggest that maybe one player (Carlos Delvalle) bet $20 to win on the horse, which paid $99.30 for a $2 bet.

I would posit, too, that I'd have been maybe the only player invested in Sonoma d'Oro.

Needless to say, I was deflated to see Sonoma d'Oro run so valiantly but come up a mere length-and-a-quarter from victory and three-quarters shy of second place, which at 12.5 times the place payout probably would have been enough alone to secure a Top 20 finish.

Missing out on a $1,500 payout at 22 times roughly a $68 win prospective place potentially $11,000 of prize money is a bitter pill to swallow, but I am a firm believer that one race does not make a contest and I could have been a better bankroll manager and more-confident better earlier in the sequence.

The smarter play would have been to invest, say, 50 bucks or my remaining $61 bankroll at the time on Demander, where I had several good angles for playing the horse.  A confident "all in" on Demander would have yielded a $823.50 score, good enough not only for Top 5 overall but hefty prize money as well.

I got gun-shy, not wanting to crap out with plenty of racing to go and remembering SSC#2, where I bet strongly on a horse that did not factor at all.

So is the difficulty of the live-money format, which at times is the direction I think the organizers should go with the NHC, since handicapping is not merely picking the most winners, but rather maximizing profits.

Going for the score was my goal on Sunday (since I am unavailable to play in SSC#4 on April 11 and therefore out of the running for the SSC Invitational), but perhaps I went the wrong way about it.

Another lesson learned for future play, and that lesson is not to simply make bets on the hot jockey.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

NHC XVI Recap: Part 2 - Flat Out Poor Handicapping

I will always have positive vibes about the 2014 handicapping season, culminating in my first-ever qualification for the National Handicapping Championship (NHC).
NJ Horseplayer: 3 for 40 vs. the
NHC equivalent of the "Big Unit"

Two-plus weeks later, however, after analyzing the outcomes of my 40 picks over three days (30 in the "main" tournament on Friday and Saturday and 10 in Sunday's "consolation" tournament), I give myself a resounding "F" for performance over the first two days and about a B-/C+ for Sunday's consolation tournament.

To be blunt, I was awful my first two days.

As is my demeanor, I would never sugarcoat my performance, which was the equivalent of a single-A rookie getting schooled by a Randy Johnson fastball.

The NHC in Las Vegas really proved too tough a test in my first effort, not so much from a perspective of being overwhelmed by the number of races, or psyched out by the level of competition, or ending up in a roadside ditch after a night of partying a la The Hangover.

Rather, the following assessment, more is less, provides an honest analysis, and is maybe the equivalent of tossing a golf ball into the lake in front of the tee box as a superstitious appeasement, of sorts, to the golf gods before tee hopes of clearing the water with the real tee shot.

From this day forward, similar to the golf ball embedded at the bottom of that tee box pond, my NHC XVI gets locked in a vault, never to resurface.

It's all positive thoughts from here forward.


There were no "bad beats" on Friday -- just a bunch of middling picks to bad selections (6 third- or fourth-place runners), with the primary solace being there was only one "cap" (odds greater than 20-to-1) horse of the 15 races I played.  Otherwise, 12 of the 15 winners of those races went off at odds of 4-to-1 or below (average win mutuel was $11.82, but $9.60 excluding the cap horse).

Red = Mandatory NHC Races
If nothing else, I was not deterred, since the Day 1 leader had a low (by historical standards) ~$115 final bankroll, giving everyone in the tournament hope of a big Day 2 turnaround.


The biggest difference for me Saturday from a handicapping perspective was a better card than Friday's, where in advance I plotted out all 60-plus races from the 7 contest tracks chronologically, by race surface and distance and field size.

Aqueduct had cancelled on Saturday but was as bad as Friday's awful card anyway, making it easier to be patient and map out the types of races I wanted to play, namely turf sprints.   This was a bit of a change from Friday, where I found the card generally ho-hum and used more of my 8 optional plays earlier in the day, where I determined there was more value.

I went into the card very loose, with no preconceived notions, but little handicapping either under the premise that my five hours of intense handicapping of Friday's 8 mandatory races was a waste.

I also did not want to go to Vegas to hole myself up in my room reading past performances after spending about 8 hours doing that on Friday.  My eyes and mind needed a rest.

The fruits of my lack of labor were five picks nowhere close to winning to start Saturday.

Selection #6 essentially sealed my fate and put me in a relative tailspin from which I could not recover for another 3-4 races.

Stuck between two horses I liked in the 20-to-1 neighborhood in Race 3 from Oaklawn Park, I ultimately sided with the wrong one, as Awol Adam connected at nearly 22-to-1 while my selection, Costilla Range, faded to finish 7th of 10.  Add Joe Rocco Jr. to my "never wins when I bet but no doubt loses when I do" list, alongside Joe Bravo.  Rocco rode Awol Adam beautifully.

Out of frustration, I rushed two (in hindsight) indifferent plays on horses not even close with my next two selections.

At that point it was game, set and match.

Building to Sunday

Knowing that I had little chance to advance to Sunday's championship round (top 50), I relegated myself to using my final 4-5 picks on Saturday (and 2-3 successful side wagers) to prep for Sunday, regardless of whether I got on the board or not (which finally happened on my 28th tournament selection).

This strategy proved somewhat successful in Sunday's consolation bracket, as I nailed the biggest price on that afternoon's generally chalky 30-plus card.  The 10-to-1 winner put me within the Top 40 and I held my place with a near-miss place runner in my eighth (of 10) selections, but could not connect with my final two picks.  I finished somewhere around 95th.

No Looking Back

Cover your eyes.

The spreadsheet recap of my NHC debut is not at all pretty.

Friday was a tough day for most contenders in the ballroom, but over the first two days I went a little too heavy on long-shots as is my penchant, but even when I went to lower-priced horses I liked, nothing connected.

Sunday's effort proved somewhat inspiring for me in that I did not come home to frigid New Jersey without a first-place runner, and that I have definitely improved on the patience scale, in terms of not trying to diagnose (and subsequently) play every single race as I had in my earlier days.

There were 30+ races to play within a 3 hour window, and I passed on several deemed unplayable (either fields too short or conditions outside my comfort zone).

There's really no moral to the story, other than the NHC is a tough road that I absolutely expect to hit again, and I would posit that all handicappers (not just me) go through stretches where they cannot find a winner or their top selection simply gets a bad trip or loses a photo finish.  Sometimes the handicapping is great but the anticipated outcome is not.

In Vegas, my handicapping was the opposite of great, but I guess so was that of hundreds of others, even people with multiple entries in the tournament who failed to crack the Top 50 or make it to the final table.

With that, I am back down to the claiming ranks, building my bankroll through some online tournaments, getting back into the NHC swing through an unsuccessful qualifier this past Sunday, and bracing for Simulcast Series Challenges #2 through #4 this winter.


Next up: NHC XVI Recap: Part 3 - Recommendations To Improve NHC XVII

Monday, February 2, 2015

NHC XVI Recap: Part 1 -- Phenomenal Experience, Great People

It was an interesting experience to say the least.

First off, by now you've figured that I was not a factor at all in my first berth to the National Handicapping Championship on January 23-25.

My face was not plastered all over the Daily Racing Forum, an honor bestowed solely upon NHC XVI champion John O'Neil.

Oh, well, someone's
$10 poorer
It took me 28 races (of 30 through Friday and Saturday) just to get on the scoreboard, but that did nothing to deter what was a wonderful and valuable learning experience on several fronts.

I was just outside the Top 20 of Sunday's consolation tournament with a few plays remaining, but could not connect on another winner; even if I did, I still would have fallen short, as the last two race winners were 2-to-5 and 6-to-5 and would not have produced enough winnings to finish even 20th.

Rewind to Thursday evening, however.

After an uneventful flight from JFK on which I handicapped the 8 mandatory races for Friday the night before the contest, I was unlucky enough to be assigned a taxi driver who conned me into being "long-hauled" via the Interstate to host site Treasure Island at twice the normal cab fare.

Ominously, we hit some traffic at the scene of a nasty car accident, where a deceased person lay covered by a blanket in the fast lane of the interstate a good 10 yards past a half-dozen police on the scene.  The poor person could not have been left more out in the open.  It was a surreal experience for me, and all I could do was say a prayer for that person as we passed the accident scene.

As we're pulling into Treasure Island, the accented cab driver insisted I tell an approaching police officer that I asked him to deliver me by interstate.  The officer, however, made clear that I had been taken, told me to call the cab company for reimbursement (since received), and next time to ask any Vegas taxi driver to be returned to the airport by the most direct route.

Pretty interesting first 15 minutes in Las Vegas, eh?!

Anyway, I'll get more into my awful contest performance in a subsequent post, since I am still gathering my thoughts about that personal aspect of the trip.

At this time, I would rather focus on the positives, of which there were several.

Experience of a Lifetime

The NTRA provides an outstanding experience, in my opinion.

From the point of contest check-in through the Sunday evening banquet that concludes the 3-day NHC, service was top notch.

Tournament staff in the ballroom were extremely visible and accessible to players.

Contest betting terminals were readily available, with barely a wait to make a contest play.  The continental breakfast and lunch spreads were high-quality, and the main ballroom offered enough room for players to operate and mingle.

In short, the atmosphere was extremely conducive to thoroughbred handicapping contest play.

The piece that I relished the most, however, was bonding with some wonderful individuals and handicappers from around the U.S.

Top-Quality People

Now, by coincidence, 3 of the 7 players at my table were fellow New Jersey residents -- proof once again that one never truly escapes the Garden State.

Two seats to my right -- Peter Pruzinsky of Wayne, another NHC first-timer, whom I had met a few weeks prior through mutual friend Paul Zerbst at Monmouth SSC#1.

Two seats to my left -- Josh Kamis of East Brunswick, in his second trip to NHC and a qualifier through

In between were Kenny Shaw of Illinois, Bill McKinney of Pennsylvania, Eliot Honaker of Louisville, KY and Bob Schintzius, fresh off 8 feet of snow at his Buffalo, NY-area home.

Meanwhile, two random encounters warmed my heart.

About mid-afternoon on Friday, a fine gentleman sauntered over to my table to introduce himself as a big fan of the NJ Horseplayer blog.


No, Dan Camoro, who stumbled upon my blog from his Oregon home.

Hanging with Dan Camoro
before Sunday's finale
Dan was even more brave than I could ever imagine, not only having the courage to walk up to a complete stranger, but wagering $10 of his hard-earned dollars on "B Holobowski" to win the NHC!

Not the soundest investment, but hey, nothing wrong with blind faith!

We struck up a wonderful conversation that afternoon and in the days after, and I even met Dan's wonderful daughter, a very artistic young lady much like my daughter.

Perhaps it's time to expand the operation to

Meanwhile, I finally got to connect with Damian Sasso, a great young man from Rutherford, NJ, who when all was said and done took home $6,500 for a third-place finish in Sunday's consolation tourney.

Damian (and his wife) allege to be readers as well, so go figure.

Unfortunately I did not connect with some other folks who read my blog and that I had hoped to meet, but admittedly got a little bit lost in the business at hand -- trying to win what is an exceedingly difficult handicapping contest.

Close Call For One

The aforementioned Kenny Shaw came closest of our table, taking home nearly $20,000 for 17th-place finish in the "Final 50" and a few noses or head-bob away from legitimately making the final table and having a shot at the top $800,000 prize won convincingly by Mr. O'Neil.

I felt really guilty on Sunday at the conclusion of the consolation bracket because my lone winner of the entire tournament, 10.6-to-1 Jilleah, nosed former NJ-owned (Kenwood Stables) Raro in a 7.5-furlong turf race at Gulfstream Park.

A win by 4-to-1 Raro would have improved Kenny's Top 50 tournament standing, and by that point one thing I learned from my first NHC experience is that once out of the running to win NHC, players will live vicariously through hopefuls with a real shot at winning the whole tournament. Kenny played the entire tournament like a champ, yet came out on the short side of at least 2-3 photo finishes and collected only place money rather than win-place.

Overall, however, with each person's selection came a "good luck," or a "great call" congratulatory remark whenever someone at the table hit a race.  I found the atmosphere extremely supportive and really appreciated the moral support of my playing partners, especially after some really bad selections on Saturday morning.

In sum, what impressed me the most were the players and the quality of the contestants as people.

On the return flight home into the impending blizzard last Monday, I had the time to read all of the bios of each of the hundreds of NHC players, compiled in a book given to all qualifiers.

Here's just a flavor of what I came across and wish to share (courtesy of NTRA):

  • Mark Aylward, Waxhaw, NC, on his most memorable horse racing experience: "...taking my dad to Saratoga for his last trip before he passed. It was just so special to go one last time with him."
  • Greg Bone, Dallas, TX, on his proudest accomplishment: "I'm constantly amazed and thankful for all the great people in my life -- family, friends, colleagues. I don't know that I can claim it an accomplishment, but I've certainly been very lucky."
  • Francis Boustany, Lafayette, LA, on his most memorable racing experience: "In 1998, my dad was terminally ill and I decided to claim a horse, Foreign Pass. He was a huge fan of horse racing, so I knew I could try to boost his spirits and tell him that he needed to get out of the hospital so he could go to the racetrack and watch the horse. He passed October of 1998, and the first race with Foreign Pass, I looked up to the sky and said "Dad, ride Foreign Pass today!" Not only did the horse win the race, but he also set a track record at Fair Grounds for the 5 furlong distance.  He ultimately went on to become claimer of the meet."
  • Steve Decaspers, Forest Park, IL, on his proudest accomplishment: "When my four-year-old nephew Jacob needed to have a bone-marrow transplant, I led a fund-raising effort to support his family and cover their expenses during a full-time, year-long journey. I'm proud to say that Jacob is 11 now and healthier than he's ever been."
  • Frank Scatoni, literary agent from Del Mar, CA, on his proudest accomplishment: "I'm a big advocate of literacy, and I think it's important for everyone to try and contribute -- in their own way --- to the cultural landscape of our society. I'm extremely proud of the fact that I've worked on books that not only have entertained but, more importantly, have also affected change, helping people open their minds and view the world in different ways."
  • Larry Burns, Voorhees, NJ, on his most unique experience: "...or should I say my most frightening experience, happened in February 2005 when I was carjacked, held hostage for over two hours, & eventually shot four times by my assailants and left to die on the NJ Turnpike. Miraculously I survived that horrific night, and now I'm coming to Vegas to hopefully win the 2015 NHC."
These are the types of individuals and stories that the thoroughbred racing industry need to promote, and ones that make me feel extremely proud to have competed in such classy company at NHC XVI.

Next up...a far less-rosy endeavor: the unhappy recap of my handicapping at NHC XVI.