Friday, May 20, 2016

Mom's On Strike in the Black-Eyed Susan, Nyquist in Preakness

"Value" is a term revered by many horseplayers and public handicappers, but even as a fan of long-shots sometimes the "free square" is the best value in multirace wagers.

Such was the case two weeks ago, where I keyed long-shot Shagaf in my Derby wagers but still came out ahead in hitting back-up Oaks-Derby double and Derby trifecta bets by using Nyquist as well.

The Black-Eyed Susan/Preakness double poses a similar scenario, where Nyquist appears to be a shoe-in to go for the Triple Crown in three weeks in the Belmont Stakes.

Save for Cherry Wine, the "new shooters" (non-Derby horses) are unappealing, and with Exaggerator 0-for-4 against Nyquist, he's an underneath horse on my tickets until proving otherwise.

Regardless of conditions, Nyquist is the classiest 3-year-old of the bunch and both can handle a wet track (Saturday's forecast for Pimlico is grim) and either win on or just off the pace.

Drawn inside the "need-the-lead" types, I sense Mario Gutierrez can use Nyquist's tactical speed to either place forwardly or force the outer flow even wider out on the track, similar to Victor Espinoza's astute ride in California Chrome's 2014 Preakness victory, and make it to the finish line first.

Nyquist will be a "single" for me in allocating a small bankroll to the Friday-Saturday card.

Photo courtesy of
Track Philosopher
In terms of playing the Black-Eyed Susan/Preakness double, I will make a $10 straight double, identifying Mom's On Strike (#14) as a very playable long-shot in the Black-Eyed Susan and pairing her with Nyquist (#3).

Contrary to my view that the Derby runners in Saturday's Preakness will maintain their form against middling rivals, I have doubts about the two Black-Eyed Susan favorites (based on first odds) winning -- Land Over Sea (#3, 2-to-1) and Go Maggie Go (#5, 5-to-2).

Cathryn Sophia exposed these horses in the Kentucky Oaks as a lesser cut, in my opinion, and the short turnaround (two weeks) between Grade 1 stakes races poses the potential that the odds maker's choices could fall flat on Friday afternoon (4:50 p.m. ET post time; NBCSN coverage starts 3 p.m.).

In a 14-horse (scheduled) field where two runners have yet to win a race and a third won twice exclusively by disqualification, the Black-Eyed Susan screams long-shot.

Mom's On Strike makes sense at 15-to-1

The primary concern is that Friday represents Mom's first race against winners -- the equivalent of winning your club pro championship in golf or tennis and next finding yourself in match play versus Jordan Spieth or Roger Federer.  The jump from "maiden" victory to Grade 2 stakes is huge, but video replays suggest this horse has a world of hope to pick up the pieces late on Friday.

And none of the opponents are of the caliber of Messrs. Spieth or Federer.

A lightly-raced filly, Mom's On Strike got her first victory in her second lifetime race at Oaklawn Park on April 16 and stalked a slow pace before wearing down the leader.  The speed figures were nothing to write home about, but her prior effort on debut at Fairgrounds on March 17 was far more impressive and telling, in my opinion.

Mom's On Strike ran third that afternoon against eight other non-winners in a six-furlong sprint, but she was bumped very hard a half-dozen times out of the gate and settled so far back before missing a second-place finish by a neck.

The winner of that race came back with a decent effort against a good allowance field at Keeneland, beaten by a horse from trainer Joe Sharp's barn; Sharp is the trainer of Mom's On Strike.

Generally I am not a big "gallop out" proponent, but the race replay gives a clear indication that the horse wanted to continue running, as evidenced on April 16, and could prove a late factor in a Black-Eyed Susan where I sense the pace will be modest and no one else jumps off the racing form.

To recap, here's where I'm likely to wager on the Black-Eyed Susan:

  • $10 Black-Eyed Susan-Preakness double: Mom's on Strike (14) with Nyquist (3)
  • Black-Eyed Susan exacta and trifecta box key: Mom's on Strike (14) with Dothraki Queen (2), Land Over Sea (3) and Go Maggie Go (5)
Consistent with my Derby handicapping, here's a list of positions where I think certain horses could finish first through fourth, but anticipate maybe just a small trifecta or superfecta wager and reserve judgement on Saturday's forecast before determining bankroll; my range is $50-$100 in total.
  • 1 -- Nyquist (3)
  • 2 -- Cherry Wine (1), Exaggerator (5)
  • 3 -- Cherry Wine (1), Exaggerator (5), Fellowship (10)
  • 4 -- Cherry Wine (1), Exaggerator (5), Lani (6), Collected (7), Fellowship (10)

Friday, May 6, 2016

Cathryn Sophia in the Oaks, Shagaf in the Derby

I know everyone has been waiting for the obscure blogger from Central New Jersey to post selections for the two big races this weekend.

Cathryn Sophia is a steal at a 9-2 morning line in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, to be run at a mile-and-an-eighth Friday at Churchill Downs at 5:49 p.m. 

Just about every "expert" that I follow and respect has panned Cathryn Sophia, saying she was exposed as a "one-turn" (sprint type) horse in the Ashland Stakes on April 9 at Keeneland, where she finished third by half a length.  

I, on the other hand, recognize that the Ashland was her first try in a race involving two turns (her first one-mile race was just one turn), and think she benefitted from the experience, both in terms of a slight check into turn one and that maybe she's averse to the whip; she seemed to shy a bit after jock Javier Castellano tapped her in the stretch as she appeared to flatten just a bit.   Her hand-ride and stalking tactics in previous starts suggests, in my view, that post 12 today is a benefit and she's simply the most talented filly in the field.

In my Oaks-Derby wagers, I will use Cathryn Sophia and Rachel's Valentina (#11, 7-to-2 morning line and the only other horse I think can win the Oaks), with three horses -- Shagaf, Nyquist and Gun Runner.

Shagaf (#16, 20-to-1 morning line) remains my top selection and betting key.  

Contrary to popular opinion about Shagaf as too slow (based on past "speed" figures) or inferior based on his Wood Memorial effort on April 9, my view is that trainer Chad Brown knew the horse had a Derby spot locked up after winning the Gotham Stakes in March and used the Wood to experiment with tactics.  

The replay validates this logic.  After a suspect start and getting hemmed in on the rail, jockey Irad Ortiz settled Shagaf about 10 lengths off the speedy front-runners in the backstretch, but it's easy to see the horse was moving easily, even in the face of kickback of mud, before Ortiz rode Shagaf up on the heels of others and had to put on the brakes,  Simply, the horse was asked to do too much throughout the race and simply wilted in the homestretch.

Any person who has competed in a road race knows, too, that it's hard to stop from a full head of steam and restart again on a dime. especially three-quarters of the way through the race.  My call is that Shagaf simply lost all momentum.  I am more confident in the horse, too, with jockey Joel Rosario aboard and am just as bullish on trainer Chad Brown as I was back in January when submitting my Derby futures wager on Shagaf.

In the Kentucky Derby, I love his draw; post #16 is to the inside of the auxiliary gate and finally provides Shagaf with a good stalking position off the early speed.  

Ignore the speed figures; this one has faced just about every scenario, even modest trouble in the Gotham, and so I think he is simply battle tested and has experienced adversity already, which is optimal in a 20-horse stampede.

I'm bullish on Shagaf and will use him with 3-to-1 favorite Nyquist, who also gets an advantageous post and is perceived as a need-the-lead type but showed in the Breeders Cup Juvenile he can stalk.  

I also like 10-to-1 Gun Runner a bit, if for no other reason than he's a proven stalker who should get a rail trip and run the least amount of ground, breaking from post #5 with zero speed to his inside and the "speed" horses flanked to his outside.

Rather than a "here's how I bet," here's a list of the positions where I think certain horses who could finish first through fourth.  I'll key Shagaf and use Nyquist as a backup and assume he finishes in the top two or well out of the money, then include closer types to round out the top four.
  • 1 -- Nyquist (13), Shagaf (16)
  • 2 -- Gun Runner (5), Nyquist (13), Shagaf (16) 
  • 3 -- Creator (3), Gun Runner (5), Exaggerator (11), Shagaf (16)
  • 4 -- Suddenbreakingnews (2), Creator (3), Mo Tom (4), Gun Runner (5), Exaggerator (11), Shagaf (16)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Churchill Being Churchill

The casino operator that, on the side, also happens to run thoroughbred racetracks and hosts the industry's most coveted stakes race, and whose stock has more than tripled in value since late 2011, apparently has nothing better to do than foster ill will during Kentucky Derby week.

Churchill Downs, fresh off record-high quarterly revenue and reversal to a $2.8 million profit, and about to unveil to customers on Derby weekend $18 million of renovations to its private suites, has prevented my ADW (TVG/4NJBets) from carrying the Churchill feed thus far this week.

In trying to watch replays on Tuesday night of that afternoon's card to observe potential track bias ahead of Saturday's Run for the Roses, I noticed race replays were unavailable on 4NJBets.

Apparently, the live feed from Churchill, as well as 4NJBets' use of the TVG2 live stream, also were blocked on Tuesday (and appear to be on Wednesday).

Upon contacting 4NJBets customer service, I received a vague "Churchill Downs has suspended our permission to live stream or provide race replays."

...or the Horseplayers
Strictly a guess, since Churchill's corporate news page is devoid of an announcement and I could not find media confirmation elsewhere, but it appears that racing fans, yet again with Churchill Downs, may be at the short end of a simulcast feed dispute.

Recall that, last summer, New York's OTBs dropped the Churchill simulcast feeds (covering other CDI-owned properties such as Arlington Park).  The Mid-Atlantic Cooperative has been at the center of similar disputes.  A few years back, I encouraged (successfully) Monmouth Park to ditch Churchill Downs from one of its spring handicapping contests as a result of a simulcast feud, arguing that MP should not support money going into Churchill's parimutuel pool.

Churchill Downs in its latest 10-Q filing with the SEC did not break out first-quarter revenue or profitability derived from its simulcast signal; and although I recognize the inherent leverage of that feed as a revenue source, it is increasingly obnoxious to cut off the signal to handicappers, especially during the week of its single biggest event.  (The company's 2015 annual report -- in a year where revenue surged 49% to $1.21 billion and net income approached $4 per share -- merely lists "simulcast and ADW receivables" of $14.8 million on its financial statements.) 

The assumption, then, is that simulcast revenue is chicken feed and a loss leader in the big picture.

Blocking the simulcast and replay feed to ADW customers is just another example of why, for the second straight year, I will exclusively wager on Saturday's Derby and no other race at Churchill Downs properties the other 364 days of the year.

The company can afford grandiose expansion of its flagship track for high-end Derby clientele and, most recently, $25 million expansion of a casino in Maine, but otherwise seems to care less about daily simulcast users, similar to its treatment of a Hall of Fame star at the 2014 Derby.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Honing In On A Tour Championship

As I languish toward the bottom of the NHC Tour standings in the wake of awful performances to start the 2016 handicapping contest campaign, my friend Eliot Honaker from NHC 16 is on fire thus far, locking up the maximum two berths to NHC 18 next January and just 630 points off the Tour points standings lead.

The winner of the year-end Tour points standings receives a $75,000 cash prize and automatic qualification into NHC 19 in January 2018; plus, Eliot already has a good jump on the field on the first-half standings prize of $10,000 cash or $10,000 entry into the Breeders Cup Betting Challenge that goes to the first- through fifth-place leaders as of July 31.

Even from the sidelines, I check in on live online handicapping contest competition to gauge how friends are faring in contest play, and on February 13 on I found "Eliot H" of Louisville, KY far atop the leaderboard of that afternoon's NHC qualifier and happily saw him cruise to victory.

Little did I know as my professional and personal schedule gave me no time for voyeuristic pursuits over the next five weeks that Eliot ran roughshod over competitors in three more online handicapping contests, finishing second in the March 19 event to lock up his second NHC 18 berth and picking up 3,000 points in two other online tournaments to tally 10,299 thus far.

Eliot came out guns ablaze after missing out on NHC 17, and so I wanted to catch up with him to discuss not only his recent success, but to glorify his pursuit of the Tour championship as a guy who's not a full-timer on the circuit, but rather a full-time job in sales for an investment firm and is married with two boys, ages 6 and 3.

Eliot & Sarah Honaker at
the '15 Travers
Perhaps there are some tidbits from our discussion below that other weekend players can find valuable.

NJ Horseplayer: Eliot, clearly you've taken no prisoners since missing out on NHC 17.  Is there something new in your diet...spiking your coffee or Kool Aid with something different this season?

EH: Nothing new in the diet, although I could use one. I have been more disciplined in my approach. Over the holidays I started watching videos of races each night for that day's races of Santa Anita, Aqueduct and Gulfstream. Also I started taking trip notes and using the notes function in DRF Formulator. Also, checking Trakus each night to incorporate in my trip notes.  Actually when you wrote your blog last year (A Front-Runner To Vegas) after you qualified you had a piece on how a friend of yours said you reached too much in some of your prior contests.  I was guilty of this as well and said to myself just pick logical winners and go with what you think will happen. This sorta woke me up, so thank you Bill!  I was upset I wasn't able to make it back to the NHC last year so I was dedicated to getting back!

NJ Horseplayer:  Take me back to Valentine's Eve.  I took a peak into that afternoon and saw you atop the leaderboard with 5 of 7 winners early, including a $29 winner.  You were far ahead of the pack from the jump.  What were the keys to wrapping up your first berth to NHC 18?

EH:  I got out to a great start and really stayed the course.  In the past I have reached for my B's and C selections too soon if I was behind, but getting off to a great start was vital to my confidence. When I got the tweet from you I knew I was close to clinching it.  I couldn't believe it and I was pumped to be going to back to Vegas!

NJ Horseplayer:  As if one berth wasn't enough, you picked up 3,000 more NHC Tour points in subsequent and DRFBets contests, then a second NHC 18 berth with a second-place finish on again on March 19, but with a slightly different tactic, yes?  A near-capper in the 10th contest race and a shorter price in the finale...

EH:  I thought, well, I am clearly playing well, so I should play as much as I can, so I played in the weekend tournaments.  In the NHCQualify tournament for my second seat, I really like the new race flow feature in the DRF PPs, and it helped me take a closer look at the capper horse that day (Emotional Drive, Santa Anita Race 7).  It drifted up to 25 or 26-1, but I loved that horse and it won rather easily. I looked over at my wife and said, "damn, I may have another seat."  I really liked Cupid in the Rebel and even though he was a short price, I went with gut (I had a trip note and a good Trakus # on him in his prior race so I went with him.  I don't think my wife knew I could get another seat.
NJ Horseplayer: Now that you're atop the NHC Tour Leaderboard, how do you anticipate mapping out the duration of what's still a long handicapping contest season and your pursuit of the Tour points crown?

EH:  Unfortunately as I write this I fell to 2nd place.  Is your Blog like the Sports Illustrated cover curse?  I need to work on some live events and will play in the Keeneland Big One Gamble in April. I really look forward to it, but it will be a huge challenge as I expect to see the heavyweights and professionals there.  There a few other local live ones at Kentucky Downs and Indiana Grande that I may play in as well.  I love the contests, so I will play as much as I can.  I am just having a lot of fun and enjoying the ride!

NJ Horseplayer:  I still view the NHC as a rather insular theme, where a lot of track regulars still have no idea about the benefits of the circuit or membership; but have you been bombarded with more "press" or been asked to advocate more as a result of your resounding success in the early stages of this season? 

EH:  I have been on the DRF players podcast and really enjoyed it and love Pete's (Fornatale, of write-ups on a weekly basis.  I am all for promoting the contests as I think there are still a lot of handicappers that don't know much about it.
NJ Horseplayer: What type of handicapper do you consider yourself -- pace-focused, turf, sprint over route?

EH: I guess I am a hybrid, I have really tried to focus #1 on pace and I love Turf races and have had some big scores on them at Gulfstream and at SA (hit a 5K Pick 4 at SA a few weeks back) in the last few weeks. I love handicapping, as it is like solving a different puzzle every time you look at race. 

NJ Horseplayer:  As a guy like me with a full-time career and family, how do you go about rationing your time to be able to prepare for handicapping contests? 

EH:  Great question.  When the kids go to bed I print my forms and get to work.  It is tough and it will be tougher now that family will be getting more active with the weather getting nicer outside.

NJ Horseplayer:  And any new elements of your contest preparation that you wish to share? I know you've mentioned to me in sidebar a greater use of video replays, for instance. 

EH:  As mentioned prior, the notes function in Formulator has helped me tremendously, as has Trakus.  Another thing I did over the break was watch the Dan Illman DRF DVD on trip handicapping so I could watch replays and what to look for and this helped a lot. 

NJ Horseplayer:  In your view, what's been the single-most gratifying part of your success this season, and now that you've already locked up two NHC berths, will your dabble in new tactics or tracks, or tweak your preparation in any way? 
Accustomed to the winner's
circle (with Keen Ice); is an
NHC 18 win in the offing?!

EH:  Having 2 NHC berths before the end of the first quarter is a huge relief and makes me crave even more success. I consider myself a student of the game and will always try to learn about ways to improve my game and continue to soak up as much as I can.

NJ Horseplayer:  In closing, tell my readers about your experience as a horse owner. You were part of a pretty significant win last season if I recall and have a big prospect on the trail this season, yes?

EH:  I have been blessed to dabble in being a small partner in Donegal Racing and my first partnership experience was being a part owner of Keen Ice.  Living in Louisville and having a very small piece of a horse in the Kentucky Derby (finishing 7th) was an absolute dream come true. Getting to do the walk over from the barn to the paddock before the Derby was surreal. My wife and I were lucky enough (also) to attend the Travers, where arguably the greatest upset in horse racing history occurred when Keen Ice defeated AP (American Pharoah).  I love all aspects of it from the stable updates to attending the sales at Keeneland, it's truly a unique and rewarding experience!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Big M To Host First NHC Qualifier Since 2008

In a first in eight years, the Meadowlands this Saturday will host a handicapping tournament for 3 seats to next January's National Handicapping Championship (NHC) at Treasure Island in Las Vegas.

The entry fee is $400 ($200 live bankroll, $200 entry fee) and walk-in signups are from noon-2 p.m. 

I caught wind of this NHC qualifier within 24 hours of returning to Jersey from NHC 17 and, immediately, a few questions came to mind, but primarily surrounding the Big M's motivation for returning to the thoroughbred handicapping contest circuit after such a long hiatus and potential to cannibalize New Jersey's on-track tournament circuit, now dominated by Monmouth Park. 

"The majority of our simulcast bettors are thoroughbred-only players and we wanted to give them a contest with a strong prize pool," emailed Rachel Ryan, Marketing Manager at Meadowlands Racing & Entertainment, which runs North America's top standardbred track and boasts five consecutive (live harness) cards surpassing $3 million of all-sources handle.  

Speaking of the prize pool, the $200 non-refundable entry fee will fund a cash-prize structure that, according to the contest brochure, will pay the winner 40% of the pool, then 20% for second, 10% for third, 7.5% for fourth, 5% for fifth and 3.5% each for sixth through tenth.  

The top 3 finishers, of course, also win the grand prize -- a berth to NHC 18, including the 4-night stay at NHC host TI (but not airfare). 

NHC T-bred Simulcast Tourney 
returns to Big M, Sat. Feb. 20
EQUI-Photo, Bill Denver
"We know all the major players want to play in NHC qualifiers for a chance to win a seat," continued Ryan, in her 12th year working for the Meadowlands racetrack.  "Running a NHC qualifier just made sense.  It would attract new players to our track and also get our regular T-bred players involved."

The payout structure and format are not too different for those familiar with NHC qualifying tournaments at Monmouth Park, which postponed Simulcast Series Challenge #3 to February 27 to accommodate the Big M and remains the top NHC qualifying track in the U.S., with at least 25 NHC berths up for grabs on its 2016 handicapping contest slate.   

The biggest differences for NHC regulars who would otherwise have played the SSC tournament originally scheduled for this Saturday are the $20 minimum bet per race (instead of $10), the ability to make "show" wagers (Monmouth scaled back its SSC slate to just win and place; Big M is using win, place, show and/or WPS -- a plus, in my view), and using 4 simulcast tracks instead of 3.  

Saturday's tournament will feature Aqueduct and Gulfstream, but also Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park, which according to Ryan produce the larger handles for the Big M.  Plus, the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds adds appeal as a Kentucky Derby prep with a deep field highlighted by the much-ballyhooed Mark Casse prospect Airoforce.

After visiting the new Meadowlands last October for the first time to take in the thoroughbred turf meeting, I can attest to the quality of the facility itself and its aesthetic.  The last time I had visited the Meadowlands before that was for a Horseplayer World Series contest at the cavernous and dank old monolith in 2011. The atmosphere was cold and the turnout small (less than 100 players).

The new building, to the contrary, is absolutely gorgeous, swanky and should easily accommodate NHC Tour players in the tri-state area looking to qualify for Vegas early in the 2016 calendar.  

Meadowlands Racing and Entertainment, according to Ryan, is hopeful that months of in-house advertising to core on-track customers, plus press releases, social media and placement on the NHC Tour website could yield 200 entries this Saturday -- potentially a key determinant to whether the Meadowlands eventually dips back into the NHC pool. 

A lot is at stake for the Big M this Saturday, as I see it.  

According to my sources, the cost to host an NHC qualifier is steep for brick-and-mortar or Internet-based venues outside the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA runs the NHC) and who pay double the roughly $4,000 per NHC "seat" cost to NTRA members (e.g. Monmouth Park). 

"If we have a strong player turnout and a big handle figure on Saturday, I am positive we will make the NHC qualifier an annual event," said Ryan.

As I see it, with no cap on number of entries per player, reaching 200 should be no problem if NHC Tour members with deeper pockets come out in droves and fork over, say, $2,000 on 5 entries.  

The question then becomes whether lower-budget scrubs like me know about the Big M's fresh bid as an NHC qualifying hub, or if the $400 price point, absence of airfare as part of the package and/or selection of contest tracks are potential deterrents.  

Admittedly, I was on the fence at first, if for no other reasons than the price is a bit outside my comfort zone and my lack of familiarity with the Fair Grounds and Oaklawn circuits; to be sure, I generally avoided playing those tracks (save for the mandatory contest races) at NHC 17.  

However, I intend to make the trip north on Saturday and reinvest my Vegas side-bet winnings for a shot to return to Las Vegas for a third-straight season and a potentially sizeable cash prize pool, and hope the turnout is strong enough to add more live qualifiers in the New Jersey market and increase interest in the NHC Tour.  

Thursday, February 4, 2016

NHC 17 Recap: Some Consolation

Save for my outcome in the tournament and flying home without an oversized cardboard $800,000 first-place check, National Handicapping Championship (NHC) 17 was a wonderful experience in every regard for me as a weekend warrior.

I returned home with a bit more cash than when I left, which is good for any Vegas trip.

In between the mentally taxing (and it IS, more than my professional work perhaps) handicapping tournament, I took in Mountain West hoops (UNLV vs. Boise State), caught up with fellow Scarlet Knight and ESPN and Sirius radio personality Steve Cofield, and had a blast with my cousin and her husband over Hot N Juicy crawfish and, later, a great 80s hair-metal tribute act on Fremont Street.

Recapping NHC 17
Onto "business" was great seeing Monmouth-area friends Terry Flanagan and Jennifer Prince in the Top 10% at the end of Day 1, plus ally Dan Camoro (Oregon) in second-place heading into the championship round.

And, as is the norm in all courses of travel, I sat with even more New Jersey people (Pete Rogers, Caitlin Findley and Frank Gryboski), plus Delaware Blue Hen alum and SF Bay area qualifier Dan Fischer, scribe and Laurel Park-area resident Lenny Moon, and aspiring stand-up comedian and professional horseplayer James Timinck from Suffolk Downs.

Aside from some gut-busting antics, getting to pick my colleagues brains on handicapping and tournament play was invaluable.  Anyone who has visited a racetrack knows there's lots of free but bad info or "tips" available, but the NHC offers a treasure trove of good info for the open minded who continue to work at the handicapping craft.

The reality of a weekend player competing against full-timers and some of the best in the game who've been at it far longer is even clearer for me than my first appearance last year, but a few things happened along the way to confirm that I am getting closer to my goal, first to score a Top 10% finish in an NHC and, ultimately, make it to the final table and score that big check.


It did not necessarily show on the state sheet, but over the first two days of the tournament I handicapped the tournament races far better, coming away with a handful of winners after only scoring once (a $16.60 place runner) in 30 races during the first two rounds of NHC 16 last January.

There's no consolation for finishing the 2-day play-in to the Championship round tied for 519th-place (of 626), but I had some longer-priced horses that were game and finished 3rd or 4th at high odds and outperformed some "logical" horses in deep fields.

Last year, I went long too often and, in some cases, on illogical horses.

A strong ending to Day 2 was a confidence booster entering Day 3's consolation tournament.

Now, the notion of consolation sounds anticlimactic when the $800,000 championship is the Holy Grail, but the NHC puts $50,000 up for grabs in the college hoops equivalent of the NIT tournament.

As a weekend player, however, I now have a greater appreciation of the value of teams still wanting to compete in the post-season, albeit for lesser rewards.

In the case of the consolation tournament, top prize is $10,000 cash plus a $10,000 entry to the Breeders Cup Betting Challenge and, candidly, just as lucrative as finishing 15th place in the NHC (a $20,000 cash prize).

After ending Day 1 with a mere $21.20 bankroll, I saw value earlier in the Day 2 card in some races at Aqueduct and Tampa and came away empty.  Far behind the leading pack, I took some big swings mid-tournament on Friday and missed, then decided to use the final few mandatory races to simply notch a victory or two to gain some momentum heading into Saturday's consolation tourney.

The final "mandatory" was on perhaps my favorite course to handicapping - the 6.5-furlong downhill turf at Santa Anita Park.

In contest play I landed on 8-to-1 Behest, a sprinter trying the course for the first time and trained by Phil D'Amato.

Now, I make very few cash "side bets" when competing in tournaments, but I liked the horse's chances enough against a suspect field and put Behest atop 7-to-2 Q'Viva in a $10 straight exacta and cashed that, as well as a straight win bet, for ~$500 of profit, so Friday ended on a high note.

Friday's late score gave me added confidence in making a run on Saturday, where everyone started with a clean slate and the option to play 10 of 29 races carded for the consolation round.  (Players in the Championship bracket also played by the same rules.)

Third lesson learned, perhaps, is that racing luck is at least part of the equation.

Much as I heard from a reliable source that the NHC runner-up benefited from three horses being "put up" to first after another horse in the race was DQ'd (including horses around 45-to-1 and 14-to-1....basically $100 of tournament bankroll), I on the other hand ended Saturday's consolation round a nose from finishing around 15th-place (worth a $1,250 prize)...and a length from probably taking down the $10,000 cash and $10,000 BCBC top prize.

The leaderboard showed me tied for 34th-place in the end with a $109.90 bankroll.

I could go two ways here -- discouraged that I finished out of the money even after one of my best afternoons as a tournament handicapper, or realizing that next time back to Vegas for NHC that I can put up as big a day as the rest of 'em.

The silver lining to Saturday was that I stuck to my initial strategy to merely sprinkle in (rather than largely rely upon, as happened in NHC 16) long-shot picks, even as a few "cap" horses padded rivals' bankrolls by the maximum $64 of winnings in the contest's earliest stages.

I missed on 3 of my first 4 (of 10) selections, scoring just $6 of place money in the other.

NHC 16's NJ Horseplayer would have swung for the fences, but not so at NHC 17.

In the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct, I picked up $13.70 of win-place money on 7-to-2 (ironically) Jersey-bred Sunny Ridge in just a 6-horse field.

Finding additional value in another short field, with my next (6th) selection I took a shot on horse-for-course J.R.'s Holiday in the Kitten's Joy Stakes from Gulfstream. Jockey Emisael Jaramillo rode to perfection to score for me at 19-to-1 and run my bankroll to $72.90 with 4 "bullets" remaining.

This is merely speculative, but based on an otherwise quiet ballroom with no one else seemingly rooting for my horse, my next selection was the one that likely would have put me up top to stay.

Race 6 from Gulfstream set up as a paceless turf race with just one true front-runner, Thinking of Mom, a local (NJ) horse trained by Eddie Plesa that I figured could dictate tempo and lull the others to sleep.  The horse was totally dismissed by the bettors and sent off at 48-to-1, or 2x-3x the morning line from what I recall and so offered great value.

Now, (and can verify this) I gave heavy consideration to ultimate winner Sawyer, but viewed him as a consummate hanger who would not pass Thinking of Mom in the lane, which is entirely what happened, even though Thinking of Mom set dawdling fractions conducive for this slightly "lower class" horse to wire the field.  She was courageous, but just tired in the end.

Even knowing the outcome, I still would make that selection again.

My next selection, in hindsight, was the aforementioned "nose defeat" that kept me from coming home without around a $1,250 NHC prize check. 

Although I generally eschewed maiden races during the entire tournament and opted as a pre-contest strategy to stick with the caliber of races more in my comfort zone, I used my 8th pick on a first-time starter, but on the downhill turf at Santa Anita.  

The field in Race 1 (link to the Bloodhorse video) was middling at best, but 9-to-1 Algorhythmic drew a favorable outer post position and the services of accomplished turf rider Brice Blanc and I thought had a shot.  

If the race goes another 50 yards, Algorhythmic passes the winner and nets me roughly $20 of win bankroll to complement the $7.40 place payout, but them's the breaks when running off the pace. The horse flew late, but ran out of time.

I remained in the hunt with my next pick, nailing 8-to-1 gate-to-wire winner LaInesperada in Race 7 at Aqueduct for $29.60 more of winnings to get to a $109.90 bankroll with one selection to go, but my need-the-lead pick in Race 2 from Santa Anita was sluggish and did not factor.

I am not one for moral victories, and was equal parts "bummed" finishing just out of the money, but as a weekend scrub against stiff (and often full-time) competition, nearly a week later the 34th-place finish of 450-475 consolation tournament entrants is quite the morale builder.

For whatever reason I performed my best in NHC 16 and NHC 17 in the consolation rounds.

Perhaps those who miss out on the Championship round mail it in and play half-heartedly, giving an upstart like me an opportunity to pounce on peoples' indifference.

Maybe everyone's sort of worn out from pouring so much preparation and emotion into the first two rounds of the NHC, leaving little else for minor spoils.

Or, maybe I am simply better "on the fly," spending less time analyzing races and talking myself off of winners and sticking with my gut instinct on who can win.

The latter theme is not a magic formula, but one that I'm finding more useful in my broader contest play, and one that I'll consider in my bid to qualify this season for a third-straight NHC berth.

It's a long road to get back to Vegas and my expectations are generally realistic if not tempered, but having done it in back-to-back years I expect to test my mettle at the Treasure Island in January 2017 and use this space about 12 months from now about coming home with prize money.

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Front-Runner To Vegas

On my flight home from a fun experience at the Lone Star Park handicapping contest on December 5 (recap to follow before year's end), and in subsequent conversations with friends on the NHC Tour, I resigned myself to turning the page on qualifying for this season's National Handicapping Championship (January 28-30, 2016) and focusing instead on next season's NHC.

Sincerely, I was content to cheer on my friends who qualified for next month's $2.5 million championship from afar, but I had a gut feeling this past Saturday about other events of December 19 and at the last moment entered the NHC qualifier on  

Saturday would be my day, I thought to myself that morning.

My CYO basketball team of 7th-8th graders had a really good week of practice and seems to be developing as at least a competitive second-year team in an established league, so as coach I rolled the dice on a full-court diamond press to cure our sluggish starts thus far this season.  

The boys responded, forcing several turnovers and jumping to a 10-2 early lead and winning 32-25.

Emboldened by our first win of the season in four tries, my mission for the NHC qualifier Saturday was to start fast as well.

I did so in the opener with 10-to-1 Little Popsie in Race 7 from Aqueduct to tie 32 others atop the leaderboard at $32.30.  

Popsie's early speed from a rail draw and no other $40k claimers of merit proved wise in a 5-length victory. 

In the third of 12 mandatory contest plays, I landed on another front-running type, 7-to-2 Financial Modeling, in a 6-horse stakes at Aqueduct with sexier names (Kid Cruz and Mylute among them) and watched him roll by 4+ lengths to gain $13.20 of bankroll.

Two and three contest races later, 5-to-1 Solemn Tribute and D'bunnyphone were nursed toward the leads of their respective races and vaulted me to the top of the leaderboard halfway through an event featuring six more races and three from FairGrounds, including two with larger fields scratched down to half their size, making it hard for my rivals to make up ground through enormous long-shots. 

Two "place" scores in the second-half of the contest were enough to cap my bankroll at $93.30 and a 5th-place finish of 519 contestants, securing my passage to Las Vegas next month.

Priceless Conversations, Valuable Friendships

In hindsight, I had some great discussions with friends on the NHC Tour last week (Paul Zerbst, Damian Sasso and Dan Camoro among them) that proved extremely valuable to Saturday's success. 

Foremost, however, was a pep talk of sorts from NHC XVI and BCBC qualifier James Timinck, an extremely talented contest player and handicapper who, as any true stalker would, scouts my play and noted that I had gone "too long" with the long-shots of late in small-dollar online tournaments.  

As anyone who has visited this site knows by now, my premise is to find playable long-shots; not to fish for huge prices and hope to get lucky, but maybe an 8-to-1 or 10-to-1 morning line runner who takes zero money but can win at a price.  I live to find inefficiencies in the market. 

On Saturday, I kept in mind James' observation that incremental scores of $7-$8 often are the contest players' friend, and so I scaled back my expectations a bit for which long-shots could win, especially in a month where I find the fields nationwide (outside of 2-year-old prospects) generally bottom-of-the-barrel and that horses who get the lead tend to score.  

To be sure, Saturday's race victors were almost exclusively on or near the lead and Little Popsie proved to be the longest-shot to win.

Grinding through small-dollar scores is normally not my recipe to contest success, but in doing so I accomplished my last-minute goal, which made James' advice all the more valuable. 

Lessons Learned

Outside of my enthusiasm for qualifying for the NHC for a second straight year, and getting to hang with usual playing partner (and first-time NHC qualifier) Terry Flanagan and reunite with some other great Tour players I met at last year's NHC, I can approach Vegas from a far savvier perspective.

I have been through the ringer once already, so to speak, and now know what to expect in terms of travel, accommodations and set-up/layout of the contest venue and format.

It's no longer that oasis in the desert.

Last year, I was more excited and almost content just to be there among the pros.

Next month, I will return to Treasure Island with a mindset of a competent handicapper looking to crack the Top 10% and return to Monmouth County with a larger prize. 

I also return to Vegas with a bigger bank of knowledge, gleaned from conversations with my newfound friends on the NHC Tour -- an extremely welcome and honestly unexpected byproduct of my $50 annual membership fee.  

There are others, like me, who compete part-time on the circuit but are excellent contest players and, first and foremost, quality individuals willing to help others succeed at the track.

Surely there are others with bad info or who will never take me (or other part-timers or long-shot players) seriously on the NHC Tour, but in my five years on the Tour I have become adept at vetting the advice and the personalities.  

Approaching Christmas, I am lucky and thankful to have found such a classy group of peers, so a tremendous "Thank You" to folks like those named above and the likes of Stephen Fitzpatrick, Marie Jost, Peter Pruzinsky, Josh Kamis and others so giving of themselves in shaping me as a better handicapping contest player.