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. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Awful Picks, Great Experience

Five hours of handicapping the "mandatory" 8 (of 15) Friday races on last night's flight to NHC XVI in Las Vegas yielded zilch for me on Day 1 of this $2.6 million tournament, but I'm not out of it.

I have no regrets about any picks (I had 7-8 finish 3rd or 4th), and amazingly am not far outside the top 50 on what was a favorite-heavy day, where winners came in at relatively short odds in the majority of contest races.

In short, I'm optimistic I can find 4-5 good "price" horses tomorrow and make a run at the Top 50, which would get me to Sunday's "Final Table."

Thanks for all of the texts, Tweets and whatnot the past 24 hours and keep them coming. Positive vibes from all around are wonderful.

FYI, too, that the experience itself is entirely amazing and well worth the trip, and it's been wonderful to meet great folks on the NHC circuit and, shockingly, even a few readers; very flattering.

Now it's time to enjoy a dinner and some drinks with a college buddy who lives out here full-time, and maybe rub elbows later on with fellow NHC Tour players.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Ready To Take NHC Flight

Thursday's announcement of Friday's 8 "mandatory" races for the prestigious National Handicapping Championship (NHC) swiftly made my qualification for NHC XVI more an immediate reality.

The only thing separating me from a shot at the estimated $800,000 top prize is a safe flight to Las Vegas this evening, good handicapping/horse selection, and health and some breaks in the course of running for the horses that determine my contest fate.

Avoiding bad sushi and alcohol poisoning would probably help, too.

Photo courtesy of
I was pretty patient up until this week and just went about my routine -- work, family, coaching, school board, etc. -- considering that I had more than four months to sit on the concept of competing for big dollars against some of North America's top handicappers and horseplayers at Treasure Island this weekend.  In between that time as well, not a day has gone by without thoughts of the family of my fellow Del Mar qualifier by way of New Jersey, Steven Nico, who unexpectedly passed away around Thanksgiving.  I carry his spirit with me to the NHC.

So, how to prepare for a contest where I will play 30 of about 150 carded just the first two days of the NHC alone?!

Just Stay The Course

In general, my process is pretty organic.

I will not shift strategy from how I normally play, leaning toward playable but undervalued long-shots, nor am I overwhelmed by the number of races each day (about 70-75 from 7 U.S. racetracks).

After wrapping up work on Wednesday, I mapped out the chronology of races on the Friday and Saturday cards, considering the NHC entails 15 selections (mythical $2 win-$2 place bets) per day -- 8 mandatory, 7 optional -- as a primer for which races look more playable than others, and so that I do not get distracted by trying to analyze and watch every single race.

Simply put, I need to find and be disciplined in handicapping/playing 7 races in my wheelhouse.

On first blush, I am a little more inspired by Saturday's races, since turf sprints and Santa Anita's downhill turf course are my strongest suit and likely to be my optional plays (5 total).

I am less enthused, but unperturbed, about Friday's mandatory card (Saturday's isn't out yet), featuring deep fields (9-12 horses) but bottom-level claimers from Tampa (Race 4) and Oaklawn (Race 4), plus tracks like Aqueduct (Race 7) and Santa Anita (Race 7) prone to scratches.

The four other "mandatory" (meaning that all 600 or so contestants must play) races are Gulfstream 5, Fair Grounds 7, Santa Anita 5 and Golden Gate 7.

Tonight's homework on the flight is locking down my top 2-3 choices for the mandatory races. Otherwise, I plan a relatively organic approach for my 7 optional race plays, likely focusing on my most familiar winter tracks -- Gulfstream, Tampa and Santa Anita.

Over the last two weeks, I managed a few after-work online tournaments to build confidence approaching the NHC and won 4 of 9 on, while finishing second in another and third in two more.  Sure beats 0-for-9 with lots of last-place finishes.

The difference in beating 9, rather than 599, players is night and day, but each victory provided reassurance that playing out-of-favor horses (including one with an 8-to-1 morning line that was sent off at more than 20-to-1) can translate to contests of a grander scale.

Too Many To Thank

Speaking of grander scales, I need to thank a host of people for making my NHC qualification possible, first and foremost wife Kathy and kids Kaitlyn and Shane -- my three-pronged foundation, who support my passions (plural) without complaint and are living reminders that a bad contest day is a minuscule part of life's grander picture.

Otherwise, and in order of impulse, not importance:

  • First and foremost Terry Flanagan, who introduced me to the NHC circuit and whose friendship and guidance improve my standing as a person and horseplayer. 
  • My contest circuit crew at Monmouth Park, including Steve Fitzpatrick, Paul Zerbst and Ray Wallin, all of whom (among others) reached out to me in the last week or so with nothing but positive vibes, including Ray's flattering blog earlier this week.  It's great to know that I have wide-reaching support from the Garden State.
  • Tony and Lorraine Holobowski, my parents and horseplayers in their own right, for far too many reasons to name here, but namely for everlasting support and encouragement of the notion of sometimes taking chances and not living with regret or fear of failure.
  • The Tinton Falls community (too many to name), where great friends, mentors and fellow racing enthusiasts, including Chris & Diane Skurat, Pete Karavites, Paul Ford, Coaches Dan and Steve and DJ Frankie P, either ask me how the contest circuit's going, or let me ramble on several topics of interest, but namely racing.  Each will be with me in spirit at the NHC and build my confidence in going toe-to-toe with mostly professional handicappers. 
  • Steven Nico, a kindred spirit whose passing I continue to mourn and whose spirit I hope to channel.  Lucy Nico reached out to me this week with her support, and I hope my blog readers will keep her and the Nico family in their prayers this weekend, for Steven's absence from the NHC is a big void for the circuit.   

Where To Track NHC Updates

Since people have asked, I am aware of no live TV coverage of the NHC, but the subject might be discussed sporadically on TVG and HRTV (315 and 316 on our FiOS system at home).  

Other sites to track include the NTRA's NHC Tour homepage and the Daily Racing Form's DRF Live.  If I recall correctly, each will post "post-game" video with tournament leaders, for instance, and the day-end leaderboards, so those are probably the best sources of updates.

I'll try to blog from Vegas if possible and use Twitter from time to time (@NJHorseplayer).

Monday, December 22, 2014


Amid the chaos that is Christmas season, let us not forget the "reason for the season," so a blessed Christmas to those who observe, and may the Light of the Lord fill everyone's house!

Now, for far more frivolous matters, I burned my final vacation day from work today for exciting endeavors, like sitting in the AAA service center (as we speak) to have my wife's car serviced after much procrastination and addressing other priorities. 

Source: Technology Buzz 101
Nothing says vacation day or "Merry Christmas" like a large bill for maintenance and new tires. 

Every day since Thanksgiving Eve, really, has been a whirlwind of nonstop activity -- some good, some bad...mostly mundane compared to competing in handicapping contests.

In catching up on email, however, one message really caught my eye.

NHC Information

Those of us on the NHC Tour (remember to register soon for 2015) are accustomed to the entertaining and information weekly Tour newsletter, but the last correspondence I received had additional meaning.

I saw, but did not really read until this morning, a message sent by Michele Ravencraft, including several attachments pertaining to the actual 2015 National Handicapping Championship.

As I worked through each attachment, participating in the NHC at Treasure Island in Las Vegas (January 23-25) suddenly became far more a reality than it had even seemed back in September when I qualified via the Del Mar Online Handicapping Challenge. 

T Minus...

In reality, there's only 1 month until the Championship, so now I'm even more anxious to get out there, compete, enjoy...and win.

I will absolutely shoot for the top. 

Above all, I am grateful for the opportunity.  

I recognize that the odds are somewhat stacked against me, considering the depth and quality of the NHC field, including several dual-qualifiers (e.g. people playing 2 tickets), full-time and professional handicappers, past NHC champions, qualifiers who have competed on TV, and several others who have taken thoroughbred handicapping far more seriously than me for far longer.  

Regardless, I anticipate going in guns ablaze and sticking to my long-shot focused strategy.

When my mind has not been cluttered with thoughts of family duties, work, coaching and, well, general clutter, I have contemplated how to prepare for the NHC.

I'm a first-time qualifier, after all.

Seeing in the recent Tour email the list of 7 potential tracks and NHC rules reiterating that I will have to play at least 40 races and upwards of nearly 50 over 3 days, I know that I must remain grounded.  

The volume of true "handicapping" -- video analysis, poring over past performances -- could prove overwhelming in my busy daily schedule, but a month from the event, I will not get wrapped up in trying to be perfect in Vegas.  

For the time being, I am simply using the time leading up to Christmas and the New Year to relish filling my phone's calendar with every little item on the NHC's recent email.

Flight from New York and NHC registration 31 nights from now.

Daily breakfast and lunch at the Caribbean Foyer of Treasure Island each day of the NHC.

The NHC Awards dinner on Sunday night.

If nothing else, I anticipate a wonderful experience and opportunity, and delving headlong into my preparation for the National Handicapping Championship at the start of 2015.

Everyone please be safe this holiday season, and best of luck, too, to my NJ Horseplayer brethren competing on Saturday, December 27 in Monmouth Park's last-chance NHC qualifier.

I appreciate you reading my blog and anticipate more fun with it in 2015!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Remembering Steven Nico

The last email correspondence I received from Steven Nico was on November 14.

Steven Nico, 53, of Long Valley
Fellow New Jersey Horseplayer
"Another 2nd-place finisher today. Every day so far...incredible."

Ah, spoken like a true horseplayer.

You see, Steven -- under the pseudonym "scottsdad" -- was the Champion of this summer's Del Mar Online Handicapping Challenge

As his runner-up, I can attest that Steven's victory was no easy feat; and based upon our futility in Del Mar's November tournament (which Steven referenced above; the first 4 horses he picked to win all finished 2nd), it took mettle to beat out thousands of generally anonymous, but highly skilled players for one of two coveted prizes.    

See, the two of us -- both New Jersey guys -- captured our first-ever berths to the National Handicapping Championship, the Holy Grail for contest horseplayers, and exchanged emails in the weeks after taking down a virtual tournament, ironically, hosted 3,000 miles away. 

Steven was the first to make contact after finding my email, flatteringly, through this blog.

Our conversations thereafter were light and bordered on giddy, ranging from flight plans to handicapping to jokes about whether the travel stipends would leave room enough on Del Mar's dime for us to enjoy a fine steak dinner out in Las Vegas (home to the NHC), or merely a cup of coffee. 

Either way, we'd finally get to hang out and revel in our success through Del Mar.

Conflicting work schedules, family matters and personal commitments and some 50-60 miles of distance got in the way of a face-to-face meal or beverage here in New Jersey.  

At the least, however, we were excited that we'd be in Vegas from Jan. 22-26, each getting a 1-in-500 shot at winning $1 million in a thoroughbred handicapping championship against real professionals. 

In a cruel twist, a message with the subject "please read" arrived in my inbox late Wednesday.

I received an email from Steven's wife, Lucy, that her husband passed away on Tuesday after suffering a heart attack on Thanksgiving.

Steven Nico was 53.

The kinship I felt with this man, whom I had never met but shared a unique bond on account of something that may seem child's play to some but is serious business to others, helps to explain the heavy heart with which I share my short brushes with Steven. 

Although I had my obvious suspicions about what "scottsdad" represented, from the obituary that Lucy shared it's abundantly clear that Steven's horseplayer pseudonym represented rich commitment as a husband and father to four children (Ilissa, Michael, Joseph and, yes, Scott).  

I knew from our correspondence that Steven worked nights, but much as we do with many acquaintances in life sometimes we neglect the details.  

According to a story on Long Valley Patch, Steven worked the night shift in order to care for his sons during daytime hours.  Anyone who has worked nights (myself included) can attest that it's no easy task.

By this account, Steven's caring extended beyond his own kids and had to be part of the formula, I would suspect, for his job was as a Behavioral Supervisor at the Daytop of New Jersey in Mendham, a residential treatment center for teens in need of "comprehensive substance abuse treatment and education programs"

Seeing that kind of resume is a fresh reminder that I, along with others on the handicapping contest circuit, encountered a true gentleman who gave nothing but a first-place effort in life.  

Please join me in keeping Steven and his family in your thoughts and prayers, and consider a small donation through this fundraiser started by his colleagues.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Biding My Time

It seems like an eternity since I qualified in early September for my first National Handicapping Championship.

The wait for my flight to Las Vegas on January 22, 2015 for the $2 million NHC seems even further away.

Fortunately, in the interim, I have been occupied pretty extensively with work, a new endeavor coaching a church parish basketball team that formed this year, and the usual humdrum and autumn activities.

A trip to Keeneland and Lane's End Farm in mid-October as part of a Rutgers football weekend in Columbus, Ohio broke the monotony and was a ton of fun.

The contest circuit and ruminations (blogs) about how to qualify for the NHC have been absent, however.

I suppose this is a good thing.

On the other hand, I have had a hard time getting inspired by or involved much in terms of NHC-focused handicapping tournaments over the past few months.

I suppose that's natural, but a new feeling for me as the unofficial king of qualifying lament.

If not for an 0-for-11 start in the Del Mar November Challenge, I guess I might be more excited about that contest, or broken up about the close calls (all $100 win bets that finished a game second) like Rousing Sermon at 16-1 on Sunday, Power Ped at 8.5-to-1 on Thursday or Number Five at 13-1 on November 8.

Otherwise, I wagered (with real money and no success) the Breeders Cup and try to stay sharp in small-ante tournaments, but to no avail.

Monmouth Park: Reasons To Get Excited

I anticipate that my real juices will be flowing again on Saturday, January 10, when Monmouth Park will host its first of four 2015 Simulcast Series Challenge (SSC) qualifiers, kicking off the new NHC qualifying season.

Credit to Brian Skirka and the rest of the Monmouth Park team for already setting the dates for what I consider to be one of the most fun and challenging tournaments on the circuit.

As always, players will have four opportunities to qualify for the SSC Invitational, scheduled for Saturday, April 25 and offering two qualifying spots to the 2016 National Handicapping Championship.

The format is similar to past years, where the Top 20 from each qualifier (the other three are slated for Saturday, February 21, Sunday, March 15 and Saturday, April 11) earn cash prizes and advance to the April 25 play-in to Las Vegas.

It's still very early, but I assume the buy-in will remain $200 for the SSC qualifiers.

In response to a survey that Monmouth Park took in the run-up to announcing the SSC dates, I proposed doubling the number of NHC prizes (to four) through the SSC Invitational and taking those two extra seats away from tournaments later in the season, but that concepts did not gain traction.

Still, for NHC Tour members who did not receive or take part in that survey, rest assured that Monmouth Park is really upping its tournament game, in my opinion, as the track is giving consideration to hosting TWO, instead of one (as in 2014), 10-seat super-qualifiers.

I suspect that concept will appeal to NHC Tour players with deeper pockets and who are at this game full-time, but for me (a horseplayer on a budget) the concern is that an additional super-qualifier makes the SSC format less appealing.

Assuming the 2015 super-qualifier fee remains $400 as was the case in 2014, I think the more budget-conscious player might consider passing on the SSC format and holding out for the tournaments offering five times the number of NHC seats.

The rationale is that one might have to pay $800 total to first qualify for the SSC Invitational ($200 per qualifier) and another $200 simply to play in the Invitational (a $1,000 total investment) giving away just two seats, rather than spend $400 a pop in a tournament without pre-qualifiers and with about the same number of competitors but giving away 10 spots to the NHC.

Basically, pay $400 and win 1 of 10 NHC berths in a single-day tournament, or pay upwards of $1,000 for 1 of 2 NHC berths and have to place in two tournaments in order to get there.

As a big fan of the SSC format, I am concerned that the super-qualifiers will cannibalize not only the SSC, but also subsequent Monmouth-Woodbine contests during the live racing season that also cost $200 but give out just 2 NHC seats as well.

Now, based on apparent record-high turnouts for SSC#2, SSC#3 and SSC#4 in 2014, perhaps my concern will prove unfounded in 2015.  And, hey, the fewer people that turn out, probably all the better for my chances to advance to the SSC Invitational.

However, I contend that the turnouts for the Monmouth-Woodbine qualifiers portray less interest in those particular tournaments and NHC Tour players would rather see 1 or 2 of those NHC berths go toward the SSC Invitational.

Regardless of where you might stand on the topic (and feel free to continue the discussion below), as a New Jersey-based horseplayer, I am ecstatic that Monmouth Park is doing so much to enhance the on-track NHC tournament product and soliciting player feedback.

The 2015 contest offering is a marked upgrade over past years, where far fewer NHC berths were offered than the number considered for next season.

Closing Remarks

As the trees are bare and snow and sleet are upon many of us, I guess it is a sign that I should simply embrace the comfort of knowing that I have already accomplished my goal of simply qualifying for the NHC and bide my time until taking off for Las Vegas.

Heck, that's less than 60 days away!

In the meantime, I am thankful that the new NHC qualifying season is just around the corner and will at the same time serve as real-word preparation for the real thing -- the 2015 NHC.

Everyone have a safe and healthy Thanksgiving!