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!

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. 

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!