Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Gunning for Scott's Dad in Del Mar November Contest

Strictly in jest, the bull's eye this November is squarely on fellow New Jersey resident and NHC XVI qualifier Steven Nico, champion of the Del Mar 2014 Online Handicapping Challenge.

Playing under the pseudonym scottsdad, Nico was the champion of this summer's free online NHC qualifier offered by Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.  As billhobo, I finished second. 
Courtesy: prodygal.com

I assure you that Steven, like me, will not hide from the competition in gunning for a second spot in the 2015 National Handicapping Championship, worth $2.2 million in purses, in Las Vegas, January 23-25.

I had the November Del Mar contest already on my calendar, but Steven reminded me last week that, beginning this Friday and running through November 30, Del Mar will offer another 2 seats to NHC XVI at Treasure Island.

"Bing Crosby Season," as billed by the Club in press releases, is a 15-day race meet that mark's the first autumn racing at Del Mar since the late 1960s.  In short, Del Mar is picking up some of the dates vacated by the 2013 closure of Hollywood Park, and at the same time being very generous to contest horseplayers -- a lesson that other U.S. race tracks can learn.

Why Not Be Greedy?!

Regardless of the industry's reception to Bing Crosby Season, I am most interested as an unofficial ambassador of the contest circuit in spreading the word among fellow handicapping contest players about a great no-cost opportunity to qualify for NHC XVI (and pick up hotel accommodations and a travel stipend) through Del Mar, and even picking up a second NHC seat or some NHC Tour points along the way. 

The Tour a few years back changed the rules to allow NHC Tour members to qualify twice for the annual championship.  Surely qualifying once in my first four years on the circuit was hard enough, but what the heck...I'd sign on for a second seat in Las Vegas in a heartbeat!

For those who have never played Del Mar's online contests, the rules are simple -- accrue the biggest bankroll possible and finish in the Top 2 to qualify for the National Handicapping Championship.  

Players receive a notional $100 per day to make win, place or show bets on a predetermined race each day of the meet.  A player must make mythical wagers of at least $50 on at least 10 of the 15 racing days, and unlike most contest I have played, can hedge bets by playing more than 1 horse in each day's race.

Del Mar posts each day's contest race about 24 hours in advance and provides free past performances for players to analyze each race.

Not a Bad Deal, Right?!

I intend to stick with my strategy of $100 win bets per day, as supported by my tracking of the summer online contest, which ran more than twice as long (36 days) but where playing undervalued horses proved to be the winning strategy.  

The shorter Bing Crosby meet, in my opinion, should not discourage the prospect of some overlooked horses paying outsize prices in each contest race. 

Furthermore, and ultimately this may not be the case, I anticipate a smaller field of contestants for the November contest, since Del Mar may not yet be on everyone's radar in the wake of the Breeders Cup and considering the "newness" of the meeting.  

As of this publication, and within just 3 days of the sign-up deadline, less than 650 players signed on for the Del Mar November Challenge.  

Granted, I suspect there are many procrastinators who will sign up either late Thursday or Friday, but it is hard to imagine that 3,000 fresh players will register in the next 72 or so hours to match the contestant base in this summer's online handicapping contest (~3,750).  

I certainly hope that all readers will consider signing up for the Del Mar 2014 November Challenge, especially my other friends from New Jersey who have yet to qualify or, like me, would not mind playing two tickets (of an estimated 500) next January for a shot at the estimated $1.1 million first prize for winning the National Handicapping Championship. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Loosey-Goosey Nearly Pays Off

I entered the Monmouth-Woodbine Handicapping Challenge on Sunday, September 14 a looser-than-normal contestant after qualifying about a week prior for my first-ever National Handicapping Championship (NHC).

In the wake of my maiden NHC score, I was in the unusual position of having already locked up a berth in the NHC finals, to be held January 23-25 at Treasure Island in Las Vegas, and so I had a different perspective than normal.

No concerns about going oh-fer the contest.

No "guess I'll have to wait until next year" mentality about NHC qualification.

No "could have used that hundred bucks a better way" lamentations.

Photo courtesy of
Spiegel Online
Sure, winning a second NHC finals berth for a Top 2 finish would have been nice.

However, last Sunday was the first time that capturing the top cash prize ($10,500) was at the forefront of my process -- a foreign feeling, but, oddly enough, admittedly an afterthought when trying to qualify for a $1.8 million tournament in Las Vegas.

From a handicapping perspective, I was not disappointed with 4-of-15 in-the-money finishes.

Perhaps playing 15 of 21 carded races reflects a lack of selective decision-making, but in live-money contests such as last Sunday's my goal is to generally to survive and accrue enough to make a late splash.

I hit with two winners, 4-to-1 Theogony in Race 7 from Woodbine and 5-to-1 Social Network in Race 10 from Monmouth, and two for place that would have produced nearly $600 of winnings had the horses scored on the win end of my wagers.

Specifically, 33-to-1 Soniko ran lights out but faded to second in Race 5 from Monmouth.  The $10 win portion of my wager would have produced roughly $350 of earnings and perhaps altered my thesis entering the second-half of the contest card.  That's irrelevant at this point.

Meanwhile, in the second-to-last contest race, 11-to-1 Lady Diba lost by a head at the wire.  Hitting the win portion of my $20 win-$10 place wager there would have produced another $235 or so of earnings and based on my real bankroll at the time, given me around $370 for the final contest race.

Instead of being in the top 5 heading into the final (mandatory) race, I was left with a still-respectable $159.50 bankroll heading into the Woodbine Mile.

The leader at that point had amassed a little more than a $1,000 bankroll, so I figured I needed at least a 6-to-1 or 7-to-1 in the Woodbine Mile to have a shot at winning the tournament, and assumed that a good number of players ahead of me were shopping that price range as well.

I landed on Lookout, a Mark Casse-trained sprint closer stretching out but that I thought made sense at a 17-to-1 overlay (off a 10-to-1 morning line) in a speedy field.  Lookout, however, looked on while beaten by half of the 11-horse field and finishing a never-threatening sixth to British invader Trade Storm.

Mission accomplished in having enough to make one big play at the end, but $100 win-$50 place on Lookout went out the window, leaving me at a final $9.50 bankroll, which I held in the event that a bunch of others went "all in" and maybe I could collect a few cheap points in the NHC Tour standings.  Ultimately, $9.50 was good for 22nd place but no Tour points.

The final wager was infinitely my largest ever and well outside my comfort zone, but was the correct decision and sort of monumental in my history of contest play, in that I had no regrets about backing a horse with conviction and giving myself a true shot at a significant victory.  Maybe other players ahead of me in the standings landed on the same horse and ultimately would have beaten me regardless, but I have to believe that others bet "safer" horses than Lookout.

If nothing else, I can look back on the September 14 contest as a great learning experience.

Perhaps I should have been more aggressive than $10 win-$10 place on Soniko earlier and said "so what" if I crapped out with half a race card to go and the horse ran dead last as the betting public had expected.  

Perhaps I should have been paying closer attention to the late odds on Social Network, which I wagered at 7-to-2 with about two minutes to post time but I had not noticed was sent up to 5-to-1 and started the race before I could increase my bet by another $20 to win as I had intended.

Perhaps I should have gone "all in" on Lady Diba.  In hindsight, I liked her a lot more than Lookout a race later.

None of these hypothetical scenarios mean anything in the end, but the real-life cash management and wagering choices last Sunday inspire a greater sense of self-confidence in advance of future live-money contests, namely next winter's Simulcast Series Challenge.

In the meantime, I have no other live-money contests on my radar until next season (another luxury of NHC finals qualification), but in the meantime will focus on online tourneys as time allows and to stay fresh and hope to see you there!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Vegas Here I Come!

The reality is starting to sink in that I am one of 500 qualifiers for the 2015 National Handicapping Championship (NHC XVI) from January 23-25 at Treasure Island in Las Vegas.

Final details from the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club officials are yet to come, but I received congratulatory email from NHC Tour officials signaling that my second-place finish (under the nickname "billhobo") in the 2014 Del Mar Online Handicapping Challenge puts me in Vegas.  

In my fourth year on the Tour as predominantly a part-time weekend player, I face the prospect of competing against the best in the U.S. (and Canada) for a projected $1.8 million purse

NJ Horseplayer earns first-ever
berth to National Handicapping
Of course the blind squirrel finds a nut every so often, but I figured I would qualify at some point; just never through a 3,752-player free online tournament where, especially in the latter stages, people were gunning for Del Mar's top prize of NHC berths to the top two finishers. 

Reflecting over the last week about my success in the Del Mar contest, I kept coming back to the value of my homework ("Seven Bullets Remaining," August 27) ahead of the final week.

Perched in 8th-place going into the final six races of the contest, my goal was simply to get into the Top 2 and get to Vegas.  

I contemplated strategies and consulted with some close contest handicapper friends before deciding that it was best to continue to ID playable long-shots and solely play (mythical) $100-win wagers, breaking from my earlier hedge of $50 to win and $50 to place.

The latter strategy got me into the top 10, but I realized that one well-placed $100 win wager could pay dividends. 

After starting the final contest week 0-for-3 and watching eventual contest champion "scottsdad" score three consecutive $100 win wagers to vault all the way up from 17th to 3rd (six spots ahead of me and, yes, I was tracking the Top 20 every day to gauge possible patterns), the two of us secured our NHC berths with $100 to win on 29-to-1 Meinertzhageni in Race 8 on Saturday, August 30.

The $2,940 of notional profit put scottsdad about $800 ahead of me in the standings and yours truly $1,225 ahead of the third-place finisher with three races remaining in the contest.

Admittedly, I was so gassed by handicapping Saturday's big score that I sat out Sunday's card, but returned with two unsuccessful (strictly defensive...more on that later) $100 win wagers on Monday and Wednesday.

A 15-to-1 horse named Calculator made me sweat it out a bit in the Del Mar Futurity (the final contest race on Wednesday, September 3), but ultimately second-choice American Pharaoh won going away to guarantee my second-place contest finish.

Key to Success: Long-Shots

Scoring four enormous long-shots (24-to-1, 29-to-1 twice and 39-to-1) and, overall, "in the money" finishes on 6 of 8 days where the winning horse went off at double-digit odds set the tone.  

I did not exclusively play ridiculous bombs either, picking up earnings on four horses sent off between 4-to-1 and 10-to-1.  

I predominantly focused on potential overlays (horses sent off at odds above their morning lines), including Meinertzhageni, listed at 8-to-1 in the past performances.  Never did I imagine getting $60 per $2 of win bet on such a logical upset prospect.  It happened, however, and the rest is history.

In the end, I finished in the money on 8 of 34 plays (24%), with wins in 5 of those (15%). 

Top 3 wagering choices won at least half of all 36 contest races, a pretty high strike rate.

Otherwise, in tracking the leaderboard over the last week, I surmised that most contest players toward the top gravitated to long-shots as well, considering that no more than one or two players on any day scored with $100 win wagers on horses at much shorter odds.  This reinforced my confidence in pursuing a $100-win strategy exclusively.

Final Thoughts

The final race (the aforementioned Del Mar Futurity) proved painstaking for me and provides potential fodder for another column down the road about "playing defense" in handicapping contests.

Each contest is unique, and therefore a one-size-fits-all strategy for handling a late contest leader probably would not suffice.

However, I learned a valuable lesson about protecting leads in the Del Mar online contest.

Recognizing that the player in third would need to pick an 11-to-1 winner or higher (combined with a "billhobo" $100 loss) to surpass me in the standings, I was excited that the contest organizers selected the Futurity as the final race.

The morning line maker installed only 1 horse above 15-to-1, and so I figured that maybe one more would go off at double-digit odds and I could divide my bankroll $50-$50 between two horses to protect second-place.  

Rather than actually handicapping the race to identify a winner as I had done throughout the contest, I crossed out all horses 5-to-1 in the program and below, and ultimately was left with 4 horses from which to choose as defensive plays.

Of course the best laid plans never seem to work out, as bettors hammered one horse (Skyway) and left not 2, but 4, others dead on the tote board, and I could not cover all 4 (sent off at odds of 14-to-1 or higher) to protect my lead.

A strong mid-pack run by Calculator (15-to-1, but whom I insufficiently covered with a $20 win selection) appeared threatening turning into the homestretch, but in the end the outcome did not change.

Still, I was left with some food for thought down the road if ever I am in a position of having a target on my back. 

Optimistically, I would relish being that target again, but at the 2015 National Handicapping Championship next time around.


Daily Results for 2014 Del Mar Online Handicapping Contest
(*=post-time favorite, **=second-choice, ***=third-choice)
(yellow=picked winner; grey=picked runner-up)

Date Profit/Loss Race Winner Win Place Bankroll
7/17/2014 ($100.00) 8 3-1* $7.80 ($100.00)
7/18/2014 ($100.00) 6 4-1** $9.40 ($200.00)
7/19/2014 $330.00 9 10-1 $22.80 $13.20 $130.00
7/20/2014 $1,555.00 9 24-1 $50.40 $15.80 $1,685.00
7/23/2014 ($100.00) 8 21-1 $43.60 $1,585.00
7/24/2014 ($100.00) 8 8-1 $18.00 $1,485.00
7/25/2014 ($100.00) 7 8-1 $17.60 $1,385.00
7/26/2014 ($100.00) 8 3-1** $8.00 $1,285.00
7/27/2014 $135.00 6 4-1** $10.80 $9.40 $1,420.00
7/30/2014 ($100.00) 5 1-1* $3.80 $1,320.00
7/31/2014 DNP 7 2/5* $2.80 $1,320.00
8/1/2014 ($100.00) 7 7/2 $9.20 $1,220.00
8/2/2014 ($100.00) 6 2-1** $6.00 $1,120.00
8/3/2014 ($100.00) 7 4-1** $10.20 $1,020.00
8/6/2014 $790.00 6 8-1 $15.80 $1,810.00
8/7/2014 ($100.00) 7 2-1** $6.20 $1,710.00
8/8/2014 ($100.00) 4 11-1 $24.80 $1,610.00
8/9/2014 ($100.00) 7 11-1 $23.40 $1,510.00
8/10/2014 ($100.00) 6 5-1*** $11.80 $1,410.00
8/13/2014 $2,350.00 6 39-1 $72.00 $3,760.00
8/14/2014 ($100.00) 7 3-1** $8.40 $3,660.00
8/15/2014 ($100.00) 6 1-1* $4.00 $3,560.00
8/16/2014 $170.00 8 9-1 $20.20 $10.80 $3,730.00
8/17/2014 ($100.00) 8 3-1* $7.80 $3,630.00
8/20/2014 ($100.00) 7 5-2* $6.80 $3,530.00
8/21/2014 ($100.00) 7 6-1 $14.40 $3,430.00
8/22/2014 $1,905.00 6 29-1 $59.20 $5,335.00
8/23/2014 ($100.00) 8 3-2* $5.20 $5,235.00
8/24/2014 ($100.00) 10 1-1* $4.40 $5,135.00
8/27/2014 ($100.00) 8 5-1 $12.40 $5,035.00
8/28/2014 ($100.00) 7 9-2 $11.40 $4,935.00
8/29/2014 ($100.00) 5 7-2** $9.80 $4,835.00
8/30/2014 $2,940.00 8 29-1 $60.80 $7,775.00
8/31/2014 DNP 6 6-5* $4.60 $7,775.00
9/1/2014 ($100.00) 9 9-2 $11.20 $7,675.00
9/3/2014 ($100.00) 8 3-1** $8.40 $7,575.00

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Seven Bullets Remaining

Right now, I'm sitting in 8th place among 3,700-plus players in the 2014 Del Mar Online Handicapping Challenge, or about as close as ever to reaching my goal -- four years in the making at this point.

The top two finishers, regardless of whether they are members of the NHC Tour, will win berths to the 2015 National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas, so my goal over the final seven racing days at Del Mar is to find some way into the Top 2.

The standings have me at a $5,135 bankroll (all players started at break-even and were granted a notional $100 bankroll for each predetermined race).  The leader is at $5,930, and second is $5,716.

Photo courtesy of
If nothing else, I am in pretty good shape to get nearly 3,000 NHC Tour points assuming I finish in the Top 30 (30th has a $3,645 bankroll at present) and long-shots that I do not pick do not dominate the rest of the contest's race results.

Otherwise, I come away with absolutely nothing, which would be crushing.

In any event, I wanted to analyze the outcomes of the contest races thus far as a potential guide to how to play the remaining seven races, beginning with Wednesday's Generous Portion Stakes -- Race 8, going off at 8:35 p.m. ET.  I will not publish a pick, since I have done poorly the 2-3 times I justified my pick on particular days.  Bad karma.

There are some pretty interesting data points through 29 contest days.

Long-Shots A Must

I can safely credit my 8th-place ranking at present to identifying and hitting the three longest shots in the contest: 24-to-1, 29-to-1 and 40-1 (the latter capped at 35-to-1 by contest rules).

Identifying playable long-shots is the premise of my blog in the first place, and the only second-guessing comes in having played $50 win-place wagers instead of $100 win wagers.

Assuming I had played $100 straight win wagers per day, and subtracting three $50 place wagers where I cashed, I would now have a $5,900 bankroll, which is good for second place and one of the two NHC spots in Vegas.

However, with plenty of contest action remaining, a lot can clearly change.

Still, crunching the numbers at least gives me the impetus to ponder an alternate final-week strategy, if necessary.

Better "In" Than "Out" Of The Money, But Too Early For Capital Preservation

Hitting the board in 7 of 28 contest plays equates to being "in the money" 25% of the time, which based on handicappers' assessments of trainers and jockeys is a nice number.

Of those, I have 4 winners and 3 runners-up, so if I can find another horse or two over the last seven contest days, I should improve my chances of catching the leaders or least securing Top 30.

Friend and contest colleague Stephen Fitzpatrick shared a thought with me this past weekend that "show" wagers can be a useful tool for capital preservation.

I have blogged on that concept in the past (see above link) and would typically give it much greater weight, but from my analysis, the show payouts at Del Mar are extremely paltry.  Ann of the Dance, my 29-to-1 winner this past Friday night, for instance, paid a measly $6 or so to show -- not much reward for identifying the longest shot on the board as the winner.

Perhaps it makes sense to use show wagers on more of the "sure thing" horses in the final contest day or two, but I am not sold that an incremental $20-$25 of winnings at this point is worth the effort.  At the same time, in the chalky Pacific Classic on Sunday, only 2-3 of the Top 30 players either sat on the sidelines or placed winning contest wagers, suggesting most are still playing "full bore."

Were I way ahead of the field, then maybe show bets would make sense, but I have to make up ground.

Slim Pickings On Contest Long-Shots

The favorite has won 8 of the 29 Del Mar contest races thus far, with only two above 3-to-2 odds.

The second and third betting choices boast another 8 wins, meaning the chalkiest horses have won 55% of the contest races, most of which have had at least 8 runners and 12-13 in a few instances.

On the days where I failed to find the correct long-shot, only three went off at double-digit odds: 22-to-1, and 11-to-1 (twice).  So, in sum, I scored on double-digit odds horses in 6 of 9 such instances.

Assuming Del Mar offers deep fields over the final week, I am speculating that it will take at least another logical long-shot for me to land in the Top 2 regardless, since players lower in the standings will no doubt go the same route.


Outside of finishing one spot away from an NHC berth, the worst-case scenario for me with seven contest races to go is seven losses at $100 apiece decreasing my bankroll to $4,435 (good for 14th-place and some Tour points, based on today's leaderboard values) and falling outside the Top 30.

It is entirely possible for players further down the standings to hit 3-4 $100 win bombs this week and throw a monkey wrench into my equation, but over the first six weeks of this contest, a bomb has hit about once per week on average.

The law of averages suggests a slim chance of multiple 35-1 cap winners and, say, 100 players moving up the standings by hitting three such bombers.

That being said, I will likely continue to play long-shots, although I may lean toward $100 straight win plays instead of the $50-$50 win-place split I have employed thus far.

Historical data from this summer's Del Mar contest would validate that approach, considering as we speak I would be in second, rather than eighth, had I gone "all in" at $100 to win each race.

In any event, Sunday's analysis alone (where all but 2-3 of the Top 30 did not wager) would suggest that making no more wagers and sitting on $5,135 is not a winning formula.  Getting in through "the back door" is unlikely, as I see it.

Clearly the players above me in the standings are great handicappers, probably slanting toward the same long-shot logic that so many contest players employ in most handicapping contests.

In my opinion, it all comes down to being able to pick 1-2 winners at good prices to make a dent.

The ride has been fun thus far, but approaching the finish line I need to rely on smart handicapping to find a few horses to ride to Las Vegas next January.

Maybe in the last day or two I could consider conservatism, but it's too early to go that route.

I'd be curious to know, how would you play it?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Cogito, Ergo Win

I think, therefore I win.

OK, give me credit for appearing confident about tonight's Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap, which is the race of the day in the Del Mar Online Handicapping Challenge and where I spent far too much time trying to talk myself out of my $50 win-place selection of #12, Cogito, at 20-to-1.

Sharing my thoughts on the blog about select races this Del Mar contest season has generally proven the death knell for my hopes, but this particular race really got me thinking about how confidence can turn from mild to strong in an instant.

This particular contest got far more interesting for me last night with a successful $50 win-place wager (notional; no real money exchanges hands in this contest) on 29-to-1 Ann of the Dance in Race 6, which moved me into third-place of 3,750 contest players and, for now, a spot away from qualifying for the coveted National Handicapping Championship.

There are several parallels between Cogito in tonight's mile-and-three-eighths Del Mar Handicap on turf and Ann of the Dance in Friday night's contest race (same distance), as I see it.  Each horse:
  • boasts commendable distance turf pedigree -- Ann of the Dance an English Channel and Cogito sired by Giant's Causeway
  • second off a layoff -- (before this weekend's races) a 6-7 month rest for Ann of the Dance and exactly one year away for Cogito
  • ran against much tougher than most other foes last night and tonight -- Ann of the Dance competitive at Gulfstream Park against multiple stakes winner Angelica Zapata and Cogito spotted in the 2012 Breeders Cup Turf (a somewhat troubled seventh-place) and the Eddie Read in 2012 and 2013.
  • dismissed by the morning-line maker at 20-to-1 and, hopefully tonight, a big overlay.
The law of averages suggests it is highly improbable that I hit back-to-back bombs, but the more I reviewed the past performances, my selection of Cogito improved from lukewarm to increasingly confident.

As I see it, the scratch of 5-to-1 Quick Casablanca is significant, since I viewed his off-the-pace running style as similar to Cogito's and perhaps my alternate selection, and the top competitor to 7-to-2 favorite and two-time Grade 2 winner Fire With Fire.

The drawback to Fire With Fire, as I see it, is that #5, Bright Thought, looks to me like a one-paced type who needs the lead (and is nowhere near his Grade 2 San Luis Rey win in March 2013) and #10 Unbridled Command (another whose better days seem to have long passed; Grade 1 Hollywood Derby winner in November 2012) is running with blinkers for the first time and may challenge early.  I pass on all three.

The rest of the 10-horse field have questions in terms of class and/or form.

Cogito finished last of six in the Eddie Read on July 20, but the effort was not that bad off a year's layoff, with Cogito making what I saw as a strong middle move into the final turn before tiring in the stretch.  Losing to Tom's Tribute and Summer Front is no shame, and in fact I reckon Cogito is in a much softer spot here.

It may not work out, as Cogito has not won in two years and I was never a huge fan of jockey Mario Gutierrez in turf races (although he is winning at a respectable 11% in 109 starts), but at least I think, no, I am confident that this mid- to late-pack closer can fend off the likes of deep-closer types #4, Big John B, and #6, Starspangled Heat in the stretch.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Beach = Clear MInd

On the heels of a great but financially unproductive weekend in Saratoga, I am extremely thankful to spend the rest of my vacation on the Jersey Shore.

All that's cooking on the handicapping front for me is the Del Mar Online Handicapping Challenge, where miraculously I am 25th of 3,700 players with a bankroll around $3,700 and about $2,000 behind the leader. 

For me, the outcome could prove significant, as the top two finishers get to the National Handicapping Championship next January. Otherwise, it's NHC Tour points (generally meaningless for a part-time Tour player like me) to the Top 30, and moral victories for anyone on the outside. 

I guess the worst place to finish is 31st.

Nonetheless, between soaking in the rays all day and enjoying the warm surf boogie boarding with my kids, I made some time to over-analyze today's Del Mar contest race, landing on Philip D'Amato trainee Oeighter in Race 7.  My play (with mythical money) is $100 to win. 

After committing way too much time handicapping Saratoga this past weekend, I vowed to myself (with my wife's endorsement) never to spend too much time poring over past performances. 

The preparation was fruitless and the butt-whooping at the betting window proved exhausting. 

Granted, Saratoga's one of the most difficult tracks to handicap, but still, outside of a chalky $20 win score, the closest I came to cashing a ticket was a first-third finish on an exacta where my horses were 13-to-1 and 33-to-1; and realistically, it was not really that close for second.

Oeighter, on paper, looks like a capable long-shot at an 8-to-1 morning line facing winners for the first time in a 9-horse allowance field (n1x) at 1 mile on turf (3-year-old fillies).  

Past performances understate the talent that, in my view, this horse has shown through three lifetime starts, and I am guessing there's a chance that Oeighter will be an overlay.  

I sense that 4-5 horses may gun for the lead into the first turn (Disregarded, Gratification, Tacit Approval and 5-to-2 favorite Alexis Tangier).  I have typically leaned toward what I perceive to be a front-end speed bias as Del Mar, but am not enamored with that group.  I considered Disregarded (8-to-1) on the game Grade 3 Senorita Stakes try in late-June, but would not expect to get above 9-to-2.  No value for me.

Oeighter, on the other hand, may get dismissed coming off a maiden score on dirt on July 5 at Los Alamitos, where horses on or near the lead almost always won.  Such was the case in Oeighter's victory that day.

Whether or not Oeighter caught a softer field or just liked the dirt on July 5, her two races prior (both on turf, including one at a mile) offer hope this evening.

In Oeighter's debut on the Santa Anita downhill turf on May 11, she got out slow in a $75,000 maiden claimer but drew the dreaded inside post before closing like gangbusters (to finish 5th) and blowing by the winner on the gallop-out. 

Next out, stretching out to a mile, Oeighter got forced about 6-7 paths wide into the first turn by a horse who blew the turn, then cut off in the home stretch by a tiring horse, before finishing a game fourth of 10. 

It is worth watching the replays for those with the time, but I am relatively confident that Oeighter has a good shot off her first win and off a short rest, and will be able to close on the field to score at a decent price in Race 7.  Second-time blinkers and Joe Talamo's familarity are other bullish themes. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Tripping with Stormberg

The adage about never being too old to learn is completely valid.

I spent a good part of an overcast Saturday at Monmouth Park volunteering for my third time this meet as "racing ambassador," with a grassroots goal of cultivating and educating new or inexperienced fans one at a time about thoroughbred racing.

In educating these fans to the best of my ability, however, I find myself learning a lot as well, proving extremely beneficial as a part-time handicapper ultimately attempting to qualify for the National Handicapping Championship.

Jockeys and trainers have come into focus of late, since as an ambassador I get to take patrons into the paddock to watch trainers saddle their horses and can eavesdrop a little -- a really great experience that yields valuable insight as a handicapper.

Saturday afternoon, I was introduced to top local trainer Kelly Breen in the paddock prior to race 6 and listened to his pre-race instructions to jockey Victor Santiago aboard second-time starter Jackie O' Mine.

Even in a fourth-place finish of nine starters, the jockey followed his trainer's instructions to a tee, with Jackie O' Mine -- an inexperienced horse with more of a two-turn pedigree and not the best early speed -- urged from the gate in a 5-furlong sprint in the slop (to see how she would respond) and giving the connections some valuable information on the horse moving forward.

A race prior, Santiago made a race-winning move aboard 9-to-1 Karobushka in a 6-furlong claimer, navigating his horse through a wide opening along the rail left by front-runner Iron Dale Al, who floated wide into the homestretch and lost valuable ground.

I already have immense respect for jockeys, but after just a small two-race sample I came away with tremendous respect for Santiago, who has a 9% lifetime win percentage, according to Equibase, and in 2014 had a mere 8 wins in 140 mounts heading into today.

The jockey theme is one that leads me to a horse named Stormberg in Race 7 today at Del Mar ($62,500 optional claimer at 1 mile on the synthetic track) -- my selection of the day in the Del Mar 2014 Online Handicapping Challenge.

Stormberg is 15-to-1 on the morning line, but the change in trainer and jockey is what proves intriguing off the horse's last three efforts on the 6 1/2-furlong downhill course at Santa Anita.

If you do not have an online wagering account, sign up for free at www.calracing.com (free replays at all California tracks) and watch the last three race replays for Stormberg. 

The horse, in my opinion, got three horrible trips with jockey Tyler Baze and trained by high-percentage California trainer Jeff Bonde.

Granted, based on breaks in the horse's past performances, it looks like the 6-year-old Stormberg has had health issues, racing only 13 times and netting $108,615 of lifetime winnings -- a bad return on the $450,000 purchase out of the 2009 Keeneland September sale.  The horse ran only one race in 2013 (Gulfstream in March) for trainer Michelle Nevin before shipping out west to the Bonde stable.

Stormberg made his 2014 debut on April 20 and finished an extremely game third of 10 horses off a 13-month layoff.  Next out, on May 24Stormberg ran very well but lacked room, checking at one point and re-rallying to finish third.  On June 20, under the same conditions ($62,500 optional claimer on the downhill turf), Stormberg again was run into trouble, steadying hard in the stretch to finish sixth of seven behind winner Rangi, who finished second next out in the $90,000 Wicker Stakes.

On paper, Stormberg's performances appear less than stellar, which along with the horse's first try on synthetic surface in nearly three years and stretch-out to a mile may help to explain the 15-to-1 morning line.

Beneath the surface, however, the change in trainer to Robertino Diodoro and rider Fernando Perez are bullish angles, in my opinion, and the horse kept some pretty good company in his recent races.

This jockey-trainer combination has 4 wins in 19 tries over the last 60 days, and Perez has proven a formidable and underrated rider at the Del Mar meeting.

Horses coming off downhill turf sprints at Santa Anita seem to have played somewhat well on stretch-outs, from the Del Mar races that I have seen.

In addition, the scratch of rail horse and 3-to-1 morning-line favorite Secretsatmidnight inspires confidence that Stormberg can get to the lead from an outside post without much difficulty.  The horses to either side of Stormberg show more of a stalking tactic, in my view, freeing Perez to get Stormberg to the lead into the first turn.

With front-end speed holding up pretty well at Del Mar, I am banking on Stormberg benefiting from the stretch-out from a three straight sprints to two turns -- an angle where Diodoro wins 19%-22% of the time and is in the money nearly 50%.  Diodoro is also winning 25% of the time on new horses to his barn.

We'll know for certain a little after 8 p.m. ET, but I'm going a notional $50 win-place on #9, Stormberg, as my selection in the Del Mar online contest, which would go a long way in improving my 210th-place standing of 3,500-plus players.

It'll be interesting to know whether or not a new jockey and trainer make the difference for a horse with apparent talent but has simply ran into a lot of trouble of late.


For additional reading on jockey angles, take a look at this valuable piece from Joe Kristufek for America's Best Racing.