Thursday, July 14, 2016

2 Free NHC Seats, Tour Points Up For Grabs In Del Mar Online

"Cool As Ever" is appropriate branding for a free NHC-focused handicapping contest offered by Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and that gets underway with Friday's start of the prestigious summer meet.

NJ Horseplayer all about feeding
the Pokemon GO frenzy; $100 to
win on Pikachu & Ash
In 2014, I qualified for the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) through this contest by virtue of a second-place finish over 4,000-plus contestants, so I can attest to its value, especially for lower-budget players or those curious about playing the handicapping contest circuit but hesitant to take the cash bankroll plunge.

It's a free spin (Del Mar even provides past performances for each day's race), so there's no better time to sign up than now.

Registration closes on Friday.

Make no bones about it, this is a difficult contest to win, but at no out-of-pocket cost, it's one certainly worth playing, especially for NHC Tour members since Tour points are awarded to the Top 10% of finishers.  (On the latter, I picked up Tour points in 2015 via the (separate) November contest, so signing up here can only help those trying to qualify for the NHC by accruing Tour points.)

The premise is simple -- build the highest bankroll by Labor Day -- as are the rules:
  • Make at least 20 mythical win, place and/or show wagers of $100 (the daily bankroll). 
    • Del Mar selects one race per day, generally that afternoon's feature.
  • Enter selections before the post time listed on that day's contest race. 
  • The goal over the course of the 39-day meet is to make as high a profit as possible.
    • A successful $100 straight "win" play on opening day on a 10-to-1 shot would, for example, put you atop the leaderboard at $1,000 ($22 win mutual x $50 minus $100 bet).
    • A losing $100 wager puts you at -$100; 5 days of losing $100 bets = minus $500.
  • The win "cap" is 30-to-1 (i.e. $3,000 of notional winnings).
  • Starts Friday, July 15 and ends on Monday, Sept. 5.
  • Top 2 finishers get 2017 NHC seats plus a $1,000 travel and hotel stipend.
  • Top 50 finishers receive prizes (TBD),
  • NHC Tour points to the Top 10% finishers.

Keys To Success

Hitting some long-shots is a necessity.  In the year I finished second, my $7,575.00 bankroll was about $800 below the winner but $1,125 ahead of the third-place player.  Other season-ending leaders had $6,500 (2015) and $5,068 (2013) for the summer contest, and $7,870 in the 2015 fall contest -- extremely solid returns on investment. 

If you have the time to make your pick closest to post time, seek value.  In the 2014 contest, I hit "cap" horses (39-to-1 and 29-to-1), but these were generally totally dismissed by the betting public (contest odds and mythical payouts shift as they would with real-money wagers).  In one such win, Meinertzhageni was an 8-to-1 morning liner who drifted up to 29-to-1 at post time.

Remember that California bettors hammer the favorites.  If you do not watch the California circuit that much, be aware that your 5-to-2 morning line favorite from trainers Bob Baffert or Phil D'Amato will be bet down to 3-to-5 by post time.  See "seek value" just above.  Either play another horse where there's more value or just skip the race if you cannot make the case for a rival.  Recall that you need to "bet" just 20 races to qualify, so a one-day pass at least sustains your bankroll. 

Avoid "chasing."  Say you end this coming weekend 0-for-3 and tied for last at minus $300.  Your inclination might be to ditch rational handicapping and take fliers on bombs in hopes of hitting one at the 30-to-1 cap.  Remember that, with a $100 daily bankroll, you can make up a lot of ground on the field with back-to-back 5-to-1 and 8-to-1 winners that make sense to play.  Stay patient.

Stick to "win" bets.  The spreadsheet on my September 2014 season recap taught me that I left money on the table in splitting my $100 bankroll into $50 win and place rather than going full bore with $100 to win on each day's selection.  Now, if you're way ahead of the pack in late August and are looking to sustain bankroll, I would endorse the more-conservative strategy or sticking to the sidelines.  Otherwise, $100 win is the way to go to move more quickly up the leaderboard. 

Use the contest for practice.  The chances of a Top 2 finish are slim, so take advantage of the free past performances, access to free race video and replays (via to increase your contest handicapping and playing skills. 

Have fun, and see you at the finish line!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Creator In The Belmont; Key With Exaggerator, Suddenbreakingnews

Two horses can win the 2016 Belmont Stakes, in my opinion -- #11 Exaggerator (9-to-5) and #13 Creator (10-to-1).

Unlike the Preakness Stakes, where I identified the top three finishers but foolishly did not wager a trifecta box that paid $70+ for a $1 base wager, I will likely use those two with #4, Suddenbreakingnews, in Saturday's Belmont.

Creator is my top selection.

Photo credit:
You'll widely hear that closer-types generally rate poorly on the Big Sandy and it's difficult to make up lots of late ground on a deep track where recent winners have been within just a few lengths of the leaders, but I'm a bit of a contrarian.

For my money, the Belmont field just isn't strong outside my top two marks. 

As I see it, the pace will be relatively hot, and it begins from the middle of the starting gate with #6 Gettysburg and #7 Seeking the Soul, both at 30-to-1, rushing to the front.  

Todd Pletcher's two runners, #2 Destin (6-to-1) and #5 Stradivari (5-to-1), join the fray, and in my opinion neither is capable of getting the mile and a half and both are overhyped.  Destin beat lesser at Tampa Bay Downs this winter and Stradivari looked one-paced and barely held on for fourth against Lani in the Preakness, and Lani (#10) to me is way better value at 20-to-1 to at least hit the board.

Exaggerator will sit right behind, and I expect Creator to be slightly more forwardly placed than during his efforts in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby; the latter of which showed his mettle as he ran from 14 lengths off the pace to gun down a good field that included Suddenbreakingnews, who is 10-to-1 on Saturday with an interesting rider change to Mike Smith, two-time Belmont winner.  

Here are some bullet points on each runner, and I'll cap my analysis by listing runners I anticipate will finish either first through fourth.
  • #1, Governor Malibu (12-to-1): improving form, but inside draw, little gate speed, and a disinterest for passing foes on the gallop out tell me his ceiling is third or fourth at best only with a clean ground-saving trip.
  • #2, Destin (6-to-1): not a huge fan; should be well-placed, but the best horse he beat this year (Outwork) barely beat a maiden (Trojan Nation) in the Wood Memorial, and the third-place runner in the Tampa Derby (Star Hill) is 20-to-1 on the Belmont Stakes undercard.  Pass.
  • #3, Cherry Wine (8-to-1): backers note the second-place effort in the Preakness, but recall that last year's Preakness runner-up (Tale of Verve) did zilch after that race and, here, Cherry Wine's still a horse without a stakes win; best win was vs. optional claimers. Fourth is the ceiling.
  • #4, Suddenbreakingnews (10-to-1): interestingly gets jockey Mike Smith, who won the Belmont at double-digit odds in 2010 (Drosselmeyer) and 2013 (Palace Malice); only concern is that this horse has shown zero early speed in any of his 9 lifetime races.  Ceiling is second if Smith works out a good trip and can avoid trouble; should hit the board.
  • #5: Stradivari (5-to-1): Pletcher's second runner and not much different, in my view, than counterpart Destin; will press the pace but stamina is my concern. Pass.
  • #6: Gettysburg (30-to-1): Worth using "underneath" on trifecta and superfecta tickets; perhaps gets brave on the lead, and note that he broke his maiden at a mile-and-an-eighth...not Belmont-long, but video replays show some gutty front-end work;  Fourth, at best.
  • #7: Seeking the Soul (30-to-1): Pace-setter trying winners for the first time; reach. Pass.
  • #8: Forever d'Oro (30-to-1): Another trying winners for the first time; a bigger reach. Pass.
  • #9: Trojan Nation (30-to-1): At least #7 and #8 won a race; Trojan still a maiden. Pass.
  • #10: Lani (20-to-1): Quirky horse, but his late run and gallop out in the Preakness tell me this son of Tapit is still developing.  One that could come from way out of the clouds and hit the board; using third and fourth on my tickets.
  • #11: Exaggerator (9-to-5): A LOT going on here, especially with jockey Kent Desormeaux shuttling back to Belmont out of alcohol rehab specifically for this race.  That doesn't concern me, but the question becomes race tactic and whether this one's a mudder or can win big on a dry surface.  I sense that Exaggerator will sit within 4-5 lengths of the leaders down the backstretch and look to turn it on into the far turn and gut out a victory over the late-closing types.  Exaggerator's Delta Jackpot effort in November gives some clue of the trip I anticipate -- let the speed go for a bit, then turn on the jets and hope to have enough in the tank.  For my money, there's no middle ground; Exaggerator either finishes Top 2 or off the board, with Desormeaux using discretion on whether the horse feels energetic enough to win. If not, we're looking at a Big Brown-type underperformance and unhappy supporters. 
  • #12: Brody's Cause (20-to-1): Horse's two wins outside the maiden ranks were at Keeneland, so maybe a bit of horse-for-course angle at play here; otherwise do not like to see a horse get a 1-mile workout and then come back with a so-so sprint workout a week later (sort of my runners' philosophy where you use distance runs to get quicker at shorter lengths).  Will be running late; minor spoils, maybe third or fourth.
  • #13: Creator (10-to-1): Toss the Kentucky Derby, similar to Suddenbreakingnews; sense he's an improving three-year-old with lots of upside and some pedigree for the distance. As I see it, the key will be whether jockey Irad Ortiz gets out well and tracks Exaggerator at all, and whether he saves or wastes ground down the backstretch; expect stalking trip and strong close ala Arkansas Derby to win, or bust goes NJHorseplayer. 
With a $100 budget, I might simplify and go a three-horse trifecta box (4, 11, 13) and key 11 and 13 atop 4, 11 and 13 for the exacta, then play a small superfecta ticket with runners in the spots below; anything at the 10-to-1 morning line also makes Creator a win bet and daily double prospect.
  • 1 -- Exaggerator (11), Creator (13)
  • 2 -- Suddenbreakingnews (4), Exaggerator (11), Creator (13)
  • 3 -- Governor Malibu (1), Suddenbreakingnews (4), Lani (10), Brody's Cause (12), Creator (13)
  • 4 -- Governor Malibu (1), Cherry Wine (3), Suddenbreakingnews (4), Gettysburg (6), Lani (10), Brody's Cause (12), Creator (13)

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.