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.

Courtesy: Zazzle.com
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 HorseTourneys.com 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!

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
Championship
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
http://va.milesplit.com
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.

Conclusion


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.