Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Unsung Stars At Monmouth Park: Q&A with Racing Ambassador Liaison @MonmouthParkKid

The buzz surrounding Triple Crown winner American Pharoah's potential entry to the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational on Sunday, August 2 has kept Monmouth Park in the racing headlines since the horse's dominant victory in the Belmont Stakes.

Reserved seats to the Haskell are already sold out (fortunately I bought mine last week), and it's safe to say the Haskell would break attendance records if Pharoah is entered, giving our home track much-needed stimulus and a glimpse at an all-time 3-year-old champion.

Although Saratoga remains in play according to Wednesday's Albany Times-Union, Pharoah's trainer Bob Baffert has saddled a record-high 7 Haskell winners and owner Ahmed Zayat lives in New Jersey and has expressed interest in running his horse at Monmouth Park.

Whether or not American Pharoah is Haskell bound, throughout the 2015 racing season there are a handful of individuals sharing their love for thoroughbred racing on select weekends (and, unofficially, by appointment) with Monmouth Park's visitors.

Monmouth Park's "Racing Ambassadors"

In its second year, the Ambassador program is a grassroots campaign of volunteers tasked with cultivating new thoroughbred racing fans.

I worked the grounds on Food Truck Saturday and during the Irish Festival, providing patrons interested in learning more about the sport an insider's view of the racing product, from watching horses get saddled and mounted in the paddock, to watching and discussing the race from the Winner's Circle, to instructing folks how to read a racing program and place wagers.

Being an Ambassador is my way of giving back for a few days a season to the sport that gives me much enjoyment, not to mention a great way to engage new fans and get people to recognize all of the effort that goes into the product and why a beautiful place like Monmouth Park is special.

Meet Mike Tacak

This year, the program is spearheaded by fellow racing enthusiast Mike Tacak, a 28-year-old architectural designer and project manager from Bridgewater, NJ, who stepped forward as liaison to track management at a time where the program was in limbo.  Mike goes the extra mile to give fans a great experience, even making it to Monmouth one afternoon where his car was rear-ended on the Garden State Parkway en route to his ambassador stint one Saturday.

Mike and the other ambassadors I have worked with (all younger and very well-informed, and including Brian Lecke and Kevin O'Keefe) are integral in introducing the younger generation to an industry that desperately needs it.

I caught up with Mike (@MonmouthParkKid) for his thoughts on the program and invite anyone planning a day at Monmouth Park to look for any Racing Ambassador in a Navy-collared, logo golf shift to learn more (or contact us in advance; info below), but especially a legend for giving out a $497 winner to some customers.  Read on.

NJ Horseplayer: How long have you been a horseplayer and when did you first get into the sport?

Mike Tacak:  I've been into horse racing since I was 14.  I lived 5 minutes away from Monmouth, but the funny thing is the first track I ever went to was Penn National.  My friend Marky and his father Big Rich used to get fireworks in Grantville (PA).  One year I went with them, and Big Rich is a longtime horseplayer, so he asked if we wanted to go watch the races.  I was so down to go.  Big Rich is my mentor.  He got me in the game and helped me out.  He even cashed a 19-1 future on American Pharoah. 

NJ Horseplayer: What is your most memorable on-track moment (e.g. best winning bet)? 

Volunteer Making a Difference
Mike Tacak, Monmouth Park's
Lead "Racing Ambassador"
Mike Tacak:  2013.  I played a $16 Pick 5 that went 1 x 1 x 4 x 4 x 2.  Got my two singles home and was live (going into the final leg) to $3,000 or $15,000.  Still remember to this day, I had the 3 and 6 (in the finale).  The 6 was the bigger price and they turn for home; neither in the top three, so I'm thinking I'm done. Then the 3 comes flying up to take the lead, and out of nowhere the 6 nails him on the wire.  It was a turf race with (Jose) Lezcano up and nailing (Joe) Bravo at the wire and it paid $15,000 and some change.

NJHorseplayer: How about your worst beat?

Mike Tacak:  My worst ever came at Santa Anita.  I'm alive in the Pick 4 and all are paying commas.  ("Commas" is parlance for a $1,000-plus win.)  I tossed the fave and went 5 deep in an 8-horse field.  Turning for home, I'm golden; the top 4 were my picks.  Then the fave comes storming home.  Well, my horse came out and won but got taken down (by racing stewards) in an inquiry.  If my horse stayed up it would have been an $8,500 ticket.  (Winners got $2,000 to the favorite). 

NJHorseplayer: What compelled you to join Monmouth Park's Racing Ambassador program?

Mike Tacak: I saw a Tweet last year and was like, "hell, that would be fun," especially since I took part in (fan education site) Horse Player Now chats for a few years and would like to attract younger people to the track.  So far the program has been good, but it can be better.  

NJHorseplayer: Any new Ambassador program initiatives in particular that you're hoping to roll out this year?

Mike Tacak:  Mr. (Brian) Skirka (Monmouth's marketing manager) gave me a chance (to run it), and this year I have a lot in store, starting with (us) getting on the live feed and also the TVG feed.  Also, I'm hoping to use a white-board to let people know what we are betting and suggested plays for all types of budgets.  I've got a few other things in the works too.  Stay tuned, and if you do attend (Monmouth) live, look out for one of the Ambassadors and we will be sure to make your time memorable and profitable.   

NJHorseplayer: Profitable?

Mike Tacak:  I've given out a bunch of winners so far, including a $497 dime super (superfecta, where bettors need to select the top 4 runners in order of finish) to a group of "newbies" about 20 years old.  All 5 of them hit.

The ticket was cheap, $3.60.  (After the race) they say "c'mon, Mike, did we win?" Then one girl goes "I think we won." Then she says, "I wonder how much...$10, $20?"  I said they had to wait until the payouts but promised it will be a nice amount, especially with a 9-1 (winner) on top of the super.

Then the prices flash...$497.  They all looked at me and say, "are you serious?!,"  with all 5 of them holding winning tickets.  I take (the one girl) over to the (automated betting) machine.  She drops it in and presses "finish," then looks at me and says a few words I can't say here, while the other 4 jump up and down like they won Mega Millions. Meanwhile, I didn't play the ticket, LOL.

NJ Horseplayer: And the story doesn't end there, does it?

Mike Tacak: Now, they message me on Facebook and always ask if I'm going and (which horses) I like and "can I help them."  Well, here's the best part.  The very next weekend they message me and say they're bringing a few friends.  I get (to Monmouth Park) in the picnic area where they sit and there's about 20 of them, so I hosted a little handicapping seminar.  Now here's the kicker.  The pressure is on since I won them a decent amount of money (the prior weekend) and, well, I lose one race and then lose again.  As I had other things to do, I wrote down my selections (for them) the rest of the day.  All of a sudden this girl comes running up and tries to give me $100 and I'm, like, "no, you keep it, what's this for?"  She says "you just gave us a $200 winner (trifecta) in the 6th race and we all played it."  So I go back to where they were and they are all pumped reading the program and asking questions.  Now I get a message every weekend about my picks and got a bunch of younger 20-something guys and girls hooked.

NJ Horseplayer: And there's more...

Mike Tacak: Last weekend I'm at the Meadowlands and all of a sudden someone taps me on the shoulder and it was one of the girls (from Monmouth).  I was surprised, so I hung out with them all night and helped them with harness racing too.  It is definitely one of the best racing moments as an Ambassador.

NJ Horseplayer: What is the value to Monmouth, or the industry itself, of volunteers pitching in to promote the sport?

Mike Tacak: The value to Monmouth is tremendous.  (The Racing Ambassadors) get nothing but great reviews and comments, and volunteering doesn't hurt (Monmouth Park's) pockets at all and the program is very, very valuable.

NJ Horseplayer: Your dedication's admirable, Mike.  You even fulfilled your commitment after a little fender-bender on the Parkway en route to the Food Truck Festival, yes?

Mike Tacak:  Yeah, I got rear-ended by someone texting (while driving).  I could have just called it a day and gone home, but I had a commitment to go to Monmouth Park for the Ambassador program, hosting a few VIPs in the owner's box.  I was contemplating going home but I couldn't.  I already made a promise to them that I would be there.  Maybe it's just my passion and love for the sport, but nothing can keep me away.

NJ Horseplayer: How has the fan feedback been toward the Racing Ambassador Program? 

Mike Tacak:  Amazing, honestly.  Nothing but rave reviews.  I also built some friendships with a lot of people, some in their 20's all the way up to their 60's.  For example, there is an older lady and husband that go (to Monmouth).  He didn't care to give a listen, but she makes (picking winners) a competition between them. 

Her favorite bet is the 3-horse exacta box.  So, just recently, her husband comes over and asks what I'm teaching her and "can you teach me the same?"  So, obviously, she has been doing a lot better then him.  It's really cool how everyone has their own preference.  Some just want me to pick bets for them, but when that happens I turn the table on them and keep nudging them to pick a horse or 2 and I'll give them 1 and play a exacta or trifecta box.  Some like to bet to win, but I've noticed a lot of newbies like the trifecta.

NJ Horseplayer: What can Monmouth Park do to advance your vision of the Ambassador program?

Mike Tacak:  My vision is someday to be on payroll, LOL.  But I'd like it to really take off and have us their every live racing day.  I'd like to be more visible and have a nice tent out front with a TV and lounge area.  I'd like for Monmouth to believe in us and our value and give us some more things to promote.  I'd like to hold handicapping seminars during a live race.  We have a lot to offer, but we get shut down by the track a lot.  I would like to go on the live feed between every race and promote it...also have a newbie come on the live feed and give a pick out and tell the track how good the ambassador program actually is.  I have many ideas and I'll tell you one thing...I'm gonna put them in action.  I'll fund out of my own pocket.  I just believe this program is really valuable and the track is only using us at 50% and there is a whole lot more we can do.  Getting a home base is key so that (visitors) actually know where to go if they need help, but keep an eye out for us Ambassadors and we will help you out and make your visit to the Shore's Greatest Stretch a memorable one and you will be wanting to come back daily for live racing. 

NJ Horseplayer: Thanks, Mike, and keep up the great work!

Mike Tacak:  Thanks for the interest in me and what I do for the program.  If anyone has questions/comments/concerns, please email me at and I will be glad to help you out.  Once again, thanks, and have a great day and good luck wagering! 


More 4-1-1 on Mike Tacak:

  • Twitter handle: @MonmouthParkKid
  • Favorite Track(s): Monmouth Park, Meadowlands, Saratoga
  • Favorite Wager(s): Pick 4, Pick 5, $0.10 superfecta, trifecta key (1 horse on top of 3)
  • Another Memorable Score:  $3,280 ($328 x 10) payout for a 50-cent Pick 4 ticket from Hollywood Park. "I had just won about $40 on a 10-cent superfecta at the old Meadowlands and put what I won into the Pick 4 at Hollywood.  So I keep looking at the past performances and get a good, strong opinion and went 2 x 1 x 2 x 2 for a 50-cent (base) play and punched it 5 times, and then 5 more times.  All I remember was (jockey, now-retired) Garrett Gomez winning by daylight to cash my Pick 4."
  • Specialty as a Racing Ambassador:  "Teaching them how to read the program and how to break it down easier, and trying to come up with very cheap plays than can (produce) a decent amount of money.  No one wants to bet $2 to win $5.80.  As I stated earlier, I helped a group win $497 and then again about $200.  Also a bunch of smaller wins in the $30-$60 range.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Company You Keep

Just about everyone has given their two cents on American Pharoah in the Belmont Stakes.

The "experts" have already spent three weeks dissecting Pharoah's past efforts, pedigree and chances, but the one thing I have yet to find is an analysis of the company that Saturday's 8 horses have kept in the lead-up to a mile and a half on "the Big Sandy" and how that could play into handicapping, and so I delved a little deeper to conclude that, yes, American Pharoah will become the first Triple Crown winner in nearly 40 years.

Readers will note, based on my front-page heading, that I generally look for long-shot value.

Pharoah beat better
I just do not see it in the 2015 Belmont Stakes.

One can talk about pace, track conditions and so forth until blue in the face, but in the end my position is that Pharoah is simply the highest-quality horse in the field that, perhaps, is simply not that great a quality by historical standards.  Only time will tell.

That said, I will keep in all likelihood to small-ante multi-race "exotics" and perhaps a straight trifecta or exacta, in addition to using Pharoah as my pick in Saturday's NHC qualifying tournament at

In my breakdown, I took a look at each runner's "company lines" for each 3-year-old race in 2015, attempting to evaluate the strength of Saturday's field with the "next out" performances of horses in common races earlier this year.  It may seem unscientific, but in trying to find some "underneath" horses for exacta, trifecta and superfecta, I needed to ascertain whether 20-1 Keen Ice (#7), for instance, is a better play than 12-1 Madefromlucky (#3), which I believe to be the case.

Rather than give picks as a public handicapper would, I will give my 1-8 rating of the field:
  • #5, American Pharoah (3-5): I toss the so-so "speed figures" and focus instead on the ease with which he has won 6 of his last 7 races, noting too that the late rally in the Kentucky Derby proved Pharoah can stalk a bit and deal with slow fractions.  I anticipate him sitting second into the final turn and outlasting the others to the wire.  If he gets beat, it'll be late...and brutal.
  • #6, Frosted (5-1): I thought about him again for tomorrow after Kentucky Derby win and exacta bets atop Pharoah (and Carpe Diem), but I think he's distant second-best in the Belmont who gets a strong-handed rider who could coax Frosted enough to get a share.  The Wood field that Frosted beat was sub-par, with only 1 horse entered next-out (Tiz Shea D was 4th in the Grade 2 Peter Pan); but Frosted in the Derby improved over 3 horses who beat him in the Fountain of Youth: Itsaknockout, Upstart and Frammento, so I give a slight edge.
  • #7, Keen Ice (20-1): I generally ignore Kent Desormeaux horses on dirt, since I think his patience is not conducive to closer-type horses, but Ice's 7th-place Derby finish was sneaky good and he exits a Holy Bull Stakes in January at Gulfstream where 3 of the 9 runners won stakes races (Upstart - Florida Derby, Frosted - Wood Memorial, Bluegrass Singer - PARX Derby) and Frammento participated.  Ice's 3rd- and 4th-place finishes in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby were against International Star, a legit one who scratched from the Derby.
  • #4, Frammento (30-1): This is where I think the field gets really bad.  I'll give a pass for all of the bumping he took in the Kentucky Derby and figure he'll maybe sit midpack, perhaps holding on for a piece of the purse.  I just think he's a cut below the top 3, but the Toyota Bluegrass Stakes at least had four other Derby runners and a fifth horse, Classy Class, who came back to win an allowance next out and is in the Grade 2 Woody Stephens on Saturday.
  • #8, Materiality (6-1): I am not as enamored with his Derby effort as others and anticipate he will be the rabbit for the rest before fading into the stretch.  In line with what I have seen others write, I think Pletcher picks easy spots, as borne out in Materiality's company lines.  In Materiality's 3 wins, only 2 horses boast wins since -- at the optional claiming ranks.
  • #3, Madefromlucky (12-1): In my opinion, he would have lost the Peter Pan if not for a poor ride from Shaun Bridgmohan on runner-up Conquest Curlinate.  Two wins against only 4 other horses, including a $75,000 optional claimer at Gulfstream, have me passing on this one.
  • #1, Mubtaahij (10-1): The gaudy $1.5 million of lifetime winnings is inflated by big-money stakes in Dubai, and the Derby effort was nothing to write home about.  I might have given this one a break, having shipped from Dubai just 6 weeks prior to the Derby and perhaps jet-lagged, but Mubtaahij beat up on a South American horse (Ajwad) in his prior two, while the other rival (Maftool) finished 14th in his next out in a Grade 1 in Longchamp.  Pass.
  • #2, Tale of Verve (15-1): Maybe Gary Stevens pulls off a shocker as he did in the Preakness two years ago, but for my money, Tale of Verve's second-place in the Preakness (7-plus lengths behind Pharoah) was smoke and mirrors.  Verve passed a bunch of tiring Derby horses in mud and still has yet to win outside the maiden level.  Two fast works do not obscure the fact that the five horses Verve beat in his maiden breaker are 0-for-30 lifetime.  Pass.
If anyone wants the full spreadsheet of each horse's company lines for 2015, please include your email address in the comment field and I'll have no problem sharing. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Handicapping Contests Drive Business

Monmouth Park has yet to publish its usual press release with official results of Saturday's National Handicapping Championship (NHC) qualifier, but according to the NHC Tour leaderboard page, I finished 21st out of 219 to pick up 578 more Tour Points to land around 200th in the standings.

There's a lot of tournament season to go, but finishing in the Top 150 come season's end would advance my goal to reach a second-straight NHC at Treasure Island come January 2016.

That quest continues this Saturday, with my hard-earned entry in the NHC qualifier; a win would be nice, but building up more Tour Points is becoming a realistic option to advancing to the NHC in Las Vegas, even as a part-time player.

Last week I discussed the NHC Tour points topic and got some interesting feedback.

To recap, I argued that the 2015 NHC Players' Committee needs for next season to reassess its valuation of multi-round on-track handicapping tournaments, specifically Simulcast Series Challenge (SSC) at Monmouth Park.

Data from this past Saturday's contest at Monmouth only underscores my thesis and at the same time validates the parimutuel value to U.S. racetracks of hosting on-track handicapping contests.

The SSC is a $200 buy-in ($100 bankroll and $100 takeout-free prize pool) with 4 rounds of "pre-qualifiers" where the Top 20 finishers in each advance to an "invitational" for two spots to Vegas.

In a break from past years, however, the Players Committee ruled this year that NHC Tour Points would only be awarded to contestants based on the number of SSC Invitational qualifiers (80), rather than a total of entries through the four pre-qualifier rounds (more than 800).

This is a significant difference that could deter NHC Tour members from playing the SSC series.

I, for one, would forgo the SSC again under today's Tour Points structure and budget my money toward online contests with more-favorable NHC Tour points allocations.

I maintain, as written last week, that a) competitors in the 2015 SSC Invitational got stiffed, b) Monmouth needs to leverage its on-track contest circuit lead (30 NHC seats of 600 awarded; most in the country) to endorse change to the benefit of its contest customers, and c) the NTRA should be on board with this logic, since the NHC Tour points allocation devalues the SSC and could hurt Monmouth Park's winter simulcast business through reduced parimutuel pools.

At this past Saturday's NHC qualifier, which awarded NHC spots to the Top 5 finishers, contestants funded an initial $100 bankroll and another $200 each into the prize pool.

As the contest bankroll is "live," contest players bet real money into the pools at Monmouth, Belmont and Pimlico.

A quick look at the data proves interesting.

According to Daily Racing Form, there were 8,055 in attendance at Monmouth Park on Saturday, with $553,095 bet into the mutuel pool on track of a $3.97 million total, or about 14% of the total (on par with a 14.7% average the last 7 live racing days inflated, specifically, by Sunday's Food Truck Festival -- 22%; Saturday's and Monday's got little bump.

The average of wagers per person, however, this past Saturday was $68.66 -- 30% above the 7-day average and a whopping 66% better than the 3-day Food Truck Festival average, and indicative of the value of core customers betting on the actual races/core track product.

Delving deeper, my initial $100 bankroll -- after "churning" back some winning bets into other races -- produced $261 of total bets across the three contests tracks, including $170 into races at Monmouth Park (and a brutal loss at the wire by Loverbil in the Reilly Stakes for my $40 win wager that compromised my hopes of winning the contest). 

That's nearly 150% above the average customer.

Let's assume that every contest player on track loses his/her initial $100 bankroll without a single winner.  That's nearly $22,000 of wagers (including $11,000 specifically into Monmouth Park's races; contest rules require that players make at least five wagers of at least $10 each on races at Monmouth, or $50 per player); that's nearly 2% of the on-track mutuel pool alone. 

Each $50 increase per contest player on bets into Monmouth's on-track product yields another percentage-point gain in terms of total mutuel pool contribution; so, if 219 players, on average, win a few wagers and "churn" $200-$300 back into Monmouth, they'd comprise nearly 4%-6% of the day's on-track mutuel pool, or nearly 4x the average customer before any cash wagers they may also make outside the contest competition on races at Monmouth.

Keep in mind, too, that contest players are not the casual customer, who might "cash out" after hitting, say, a $200 wager on a race and head home.  They're also inflating the win, place and show pools (the only races available for Monmouth Park's contests)

By virtue of the NHC contest player's goal to secure a seat in Vegas, he or she needs to continue betting until the contest's conclusion in order to build top bankroll, so the proposition to the host track is very appealing (i.e., likelihood that the majority of each contestant's money will be kept by the host through losing wagers) when factoring the "churn" element.

Fortunately, not sold on going "all in" on a particular horse in the contest finale with my entire $137.90 bankroll at that time, I wagered $60 and held onto $77.90 to backdoor into 578 NHC Tour points, and so Saturday's game effort (including 28-1 winner Padre Graz in Race 9 from Monmouth, which kept me alive in the contest) was not a complete loss.

What would be a complete loss is if, approaching next season, the NHC Players Committee and NTRA continue to devalue a unique multi-round on-track contest such as the SSC, which funnels real money into the coffers of tracks but gets short shrift by today's NHC Tour Points system.

A far richer analysis of this angle would only validate this point, in my opinion, and one the relevant parties might want to investigate more deeply.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Point of the Matter

If there is one, the upside to finishing three-quarters of a length from winning berths to both the 2016 National Handicapping Championship (NHC) and the $382,000 "The Big One" at Laurel Park this September is that I am now the proud owner of 2,341 points in the NHC Tour standings.

By virtue of a 7th-place finish in the Preakness Day NHC qualifier through, I picked up enough "Tour points" to draw within arm's reach of the Top 150 in the Tour standings, at least at this still-early stage of the 2015 NHC season.

Horseplayers belonging to the NHC Tour can qualify for the $2 million-plus national championship in Las Vegas each January by winning an NHC-sanctioned qualifier, or by accruing enough Tour points in a season to land inside the Top 150 in the Tour standings.

Tour points are awarded for finishing in the top 10% of a tournament's standings and allocated by an Excel formula too difficult for me to describe, but that basically rewards about 3,000 points for first place and graduated down, taking into account the number of individuals (not total entries).

The 280-player tournament I recently played awarded Tour points down to 28th-place, while the NHC Tour's "free" online tournament featuring 1,700 players pays down to 170th.  Tournaments at a racetrack pay a 25% points premium compared with online tournaments, encouraging members to play handicapping contests at their nearby racetrack.

Photo courtesy of
Let's Go Arts blog

NHC Tour Points Reward Quality...

Ken Jordan, of nearby Farmingdale, NJ, qualified for (and ultimately won $250,000 as runner-up in) the 2015 NHC through what I'll dub the points "back door," playing well enough throughout the 2014 season and then accruing enough Tour points in a late-season NHC qualifier to win a seat in Vegas this past January.

No matter the avenue, every NHC Tour player's goal is (or should be) to reach Vegas for a shot at the $750,000 top prize and to play against the top players in North America at the 3-day national championship, hosted by Treasure Island.

So, as consolation for one of my selections (14.5-to-1 long-shot named Gemmabeto in Race 5 at Santa Anita on May 16) getting nabbed by 2 others 50 yards from the wire in a nondescript $20,000 maiden claimer (a horse none of the six folks ahead of me in the standings had played), I now have a decent amount of points to at least need to consider the prospect of working my way up to the 7,500 points or so needed to get to Vegas through the back door.

The easiest way for me to return to Vegas for a second-straight season will be an outright win in Saturday's upcoming tournament at Monmouth Park, where the top 5 finishers receive packages to the 2016 NHC.  However, another 2 top 10-type finishes could net me enough NHC Tour points to sniff the Top 150 in the year-end standings.

...and Quantity...

Generally speaking, the NHC Tour points route to Las Vegas is far more difficult for part-time players to attain, since the leaderboard is rife with full-time players who in some cases have already won the maximum 2 spots to the NHC but buy multiple entries to several tournaments and subsequently play handicapping contests to win points for $175,000 of cash awards to the Top 20 in the standings at year's end, including $75,000 and a 2017 NHC berth for the winner.

To be sure, one player I tracked in last year's points standings played in around 80 NHC qualifiers last season, compared with 12-15 that I estimate I played in 2014.

Presumably, a big bankroll and lots more free time than I can afford are needed to load up on points, but I understand and support the concept of rewarding full-time players who pay more into the system and financially support the NHC more than yours truly.

In reality, however, the notion of cracking the Top 20 is impossible for Tour members like me (unless I do extremely well and/or get lucky in the scant number of qualifying tournaments I play), is a tad far fetched, and so I typically play every tournament to win, rather than accrue Tour points.

...but Devalue Monmouth Park's Winter Simulcast Series

With that in mind, from a budgetary perspective, I got to thinking about perhaps my absolute favorite tournament, the 4-part Simulcast Series Challenge (SSC) at Monmouth Park each winter and how the NHC Tour points scoring system essentially devalues on-track tournaments of the type that use multiple rounds of play to determine a champion.

For background, the Tour counts each player's Top 6 scoring events throughout the season to determine the scoring champion.  Of those, 1 event must be a "live" tournament at the track, while the other 5 can come from online tournaments (or a second or third "on-track" qualifier as well).

The mandate of one on-track tournament score is, in part, to encourage business at NTRA-member tracks, such as a Monmouth Park, which benefits when players in its NHC qualifying tournaments are wagering real money into the actual betting pools and creating so-called "churn" -- a favorable proposition to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and its member tracks.

The alternative for an NHC Tour player is to sit at home and play a tournament online through or another non-NTRA venue, where no money is placed into the betting pools (players pay, for instance, a $155 fee to play in a tournament where no cash prizes are paid or money is bet into the pools) but, rather, tournament outcomes are based on mythical $2 win-place wagers.

In this scenario, entry fees go to the tournament host, who has operating costs and pays double the fee (around $7,500) to NTRA to buy the NHC "seats" to Las Vegas to award as contest prizes.  NTRA-member venues, such as Monmouth Park, pay half the rate.

Proposal for a Workable Solution to Protect an NTRA Affiliate

I contacted NHC Players' Committee chairman Christopher Larmey to express my concern that the SSC is scored only as an 80-player contest instead of considering that there were around 800-900 paid entries at $200 each across the four rounds (players are allowed to buy 2 entries per event).

One can theorize that only 100 individuals each bought 2 entries to each of the 4 SSC qualifiers, thereby making the 800-900 entry figure appear grossly inflated, but several people I know (myself included) only buy 1 entry per SSC qualifier.   So, if I had to guess, across all four rounds of contests leading up to the SSC championship, there were somewhere between 300-400 unique entries.

Edward Lambert, the 7th-place finisher in the SSC Invitational on April 25, won only 772 Tour points for finishing in the same spot in the standings as I did in my 280-player contest on Preakness Day.

And, unlike simply forking over a $155 entry fee as I did to enter the HorseTourneys contest, Lambert had to make it through nearly 200 entries to the January 12 SSC pre-qualifier just to make it to the SSC Invitational, comprised of the top 20 finishers of each of the 4 qualifying rounds invited to play in late April for 1 of 2 berths to the Vegas championship.

By comparison -- 1 tournament for $155 and 2,341 NHC Tour points, vs. 2 tournaments for at least $400 of entry fees and a mere 772 NHC Tour points in what is without question a harder format.

On paper, and setting aside that the SSC pays some meaty cash prizes (with a 0% takeout on entry fees) to the Top 10 finishers in each leg of the SSC, it gets me thinking that the SSC is a riskier, less-valuable cost AND points proposition.

"Monmouth (Park) has a great schedule of contests this year with all sorts of formats and opportunities for players," emailed Larmey. "The sort of variety is exactly what we are hoping to promote and we certainly don't want to do anything to discourage Monmouth from continuing to provide such great opportunities to Tour players."

Monmouth Park offers the most
on-track tournament seats to the
2016 National Handicapping
I expressed to Larmey and will reiterate to the Players' Committee when rules are drafted or reconsidered for next season that the Tour needs to at least return to the system whereby NHC Tour points are allocated based on the total number of entrants throughout the SSC Series, similar to when I finished 13th in the 2013 SSC Invitational and earned 1,000+ Tour points since 300+ entries were factored into the scoring methodology.

My concern is that SSC on-track tournament players such as Edward Lambert got shortchanged and may contemplate NHC Tour points values in determining whether to compete on-track; in this case, at Monmouth Park, where contest organizer and marketing manager Brian Skirka has clearly stamped the Oceanport, NJ track as North America's leader in on-track NHC qualifying contests, offering nearly 30 spots (of 600) to Las Vegas in January 2016.

Monmouth Park, in my view, should be able to leverage this stronghold to protect the SSC, which is as close as any tournament I have played as the National Handicapping Championship itself, melding the need to analyze several dozen races from multiple simulcast tracks in a 5-hour window down to 10 or so contest plays, but (contrary to the NHC itself) at the same time managing a live-money bankroll that goes into the real mutuel pools in a quiet winter racing season where there's no live racing in Oceanport (an implied benefit to the NTRA and an NTRA-member track).

The fact that 2015 NHC champion John O'Neill and 2015 NHC runner-up Kenny Jordan (who, coincidentally, as I understand from a friend qualified for Las Vegas by scoring enough Tour points to barely finish in the Top 150 in the year-end points standings) practically dominated Las Vegas in January signals the value of their handicapping experience garnered from the difficult Simulcast Series Challenge.

I would encourage the NHC Tour Players' Committee to revisit the scoring of the SSC, since sitting today around 300th (of 5,000 members) in the Tour standings I'm thinking I would have been better off from a points-building perspective just sitting out of the January, February and March SSC qualifiers and entered an online tournament sponsored by host that's not an NTRA member or contributing money into the real parimutuel betting pools of North American racetracks.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Preakness Preview: Perception Again Trumps Reality

The May 3 Bloomberg Business postscript to the Kentucky Derby headlined "American Pharoah Whipped 32 Times in Victory" was as low as they come and better reserved for the Animal Times of the media, not a presumably distinguished newswire, and no less from an acquaintance I have spent a few pleasant afternoons alongside at Saratoga.

Ironic that, the morning after the $100-a-head Mayweather-Pacquiao mockery of boxing where no one sustained so much as a hangnail, thoroughbred racing exited its own ring the next morning with a major shiner and sent the industry into damage control mode.

Bloomberg author David Papadopoulos, whether by design or sabotaged by a headline editor with a vengeance or ax to grind against thoroughbred racing and/or riding crops, sparked a mini controversy over American Pharoah's winning ride in the Derby by Victor Espinoza, whose "use of the crop fell within (Kentucky) regulations," according to a subsequent ruling by Kentucky racing steward.

End of story, right?

Certainly not from the PETA set, nor from the perspective of handicapping the Preakness Stakes, where American Pharoah drew the rail and is the 4-to-5 favorite in Saturday's reunion with Kentucky Derby runners up Firing Line and Dortmund, and facing five "new shooters" potentially as fabulous but just as unknown as the Third Tenor.  Heck, there's one named after a Steely Dan song who was 115-to-1 in the Remsen Stakes and is a juicy 20-to-1 in the Preakness Stakes on Saturday.

Odds that American Pharoah wins
the 2015 Preakness Stakes: 4/5

Odds the average American can
name the Third Tenor: 99-1
In all likelihood, I will not bet the Preakness as a singular race as I did with the Kentucky Derby, where my money was mostly on Frosted over American Pharoah (in my view, Frosted could have won had Joel Rosario recalled that he, too, had a riding crop to prompt Frosted - 4th-place finisher and by far the best late runner of the bunch - sooner than he had in the stretch).

The only value on American Pharoah as a straight bet in the Preakness will be the 3-to-2 "odds boost" on up to a $25 win wager through the TVG mobile betting app from noon-1 p.m. ET on Friday.

Maybe if American Pharoah drifts up to 1-to-1 or 6-to-5 and I'm atop the leaderboard in Saturday's NHC-Big Game handicapping contest at he might get my pick (huge favorites generally are not worth playing in notional-dollar handicapping contests, since the win-place points are too low), but otherwise I am not sold on the upstarts in the field merely to fish for a price and will be urging American Pharoah on verbally in front of a TV.

In the wake of the riding crop sidebar that has sapped my interest in extensively handicapping the Preakness, I am hoping for a Secretariat-in-the-Belmont-type 30-length rout by Pharoah that silences the riding crop debate.

Namesake of Steely Dan B side
gets shot against the big boys
in 2015 Preakness Stakes
Nonetheless, from a research sense, I wanted to delve a little more into the riding crop issue and whether Victor Espinoza's heavy "encouragement" of Pharoah on the Churchill Downs oval was a) as much an eyesore to others in the industry and/or b) compromises the horse's Preakness chances.

From the humanitarian perspective, the ideal might be for a governing body to ban riding crops from thoroughbred racing, but humanizing an equine animal does not seem rational.

"(The) focus on the whip, while understandable and appropriate, is at times exaggerated.  Horses being whipped and whipped and whipped is not good for horses or beneficial to the racing outcome," said Robb Levinsky, lifelong horseman and the founder, co-managing partner and racing manager at Kenwood Racing, a growing NJ-based partnership. "People sometimes relate horses to themselves, but the horse is a very different physical and physiological being than a human."

Levinsky relayed two stories to corroborate this theme.

The first involved a Kenwood horse named Long May You Run, a 5-year-old gelding with 4 wins in 12 tries and nearly $100,000 of earnings.

After an easy victory in a $25,000 claimer at Penn National last June, Levinsky said trainer Mark Salvaggio, in a rare move, encouraged Levinsky to wheel Long May You Run back a week later against tougher company, citing the horse's peak form. True to form, the horse won a $33,000 state-bred allowance by nearly five lengths and was not physically taxed.

The second involved an unnamed 9-year-old horse in training at Calder in Florida.

Levinsky noted that the exercise rider ignored the trainer's instructions to refrain from any encouragement or use of a whip on an older horse merely out for a gallop.  The rider used the riding crop twice on the horse and returned to a disgruntled trainer.

Now, on the surface, an outsider could look entirely differently on these seemingly unrelated scenarios (to each other and American Pharoah), all without understanding the context.

One could say that a race horse should never run two races seven days apart, and even Levinsky admitted some apprehension about the notion, since Kenwood puts the welfare of its horses above all else.

In the latter scenario, a clocker could simply take notes on the workout and be indifferent to the two whip taps of the exercise rider on a horse out for a breeze but be totally unaware of the trainer's dismay over the rider ignoring explicit instructions to not use the riding crop on the horse.

Point being...most of us, whether a horseplayer, part-time blogger, seasoned member of the thoroughbred racing media, supporter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), or casual observer, have zero clue about the intentions of a race horse's owner, trainer, jockey and handlers, which is what makes handicapping (and judgement of others) so difficult, and fun.

"Sometimes you have to trust (a horse's) connections running the animal," said Levinsky, who as the recent astute buyer of a pair of 2-year-old fillies by Pioneer of the Nile (sire of American Pharoah) has a clear rooting interest in Pharoah this Saturday; a Pharoah win makes his stables purchase of Makanow Pharoah and Sonny's Pharoah that much more compelling.

Of utmost importance to most of us that follow thoroughbred racing is the horse's welfare, but a respectable media outlet's use of a shocking headline focused on a jockey's use of a legal racing tool in a major race is rash and irresponsible, in my view.

Espinoza, who clearly rode American Pharoah hard in the Derby and six days later was fined by Santa Anita Park stewards for causing a "break in the skin" with a riding crop in an unrelated race on April 4 in California (a state that last November toughened its riding crop restrictions), did not break Churchill Downs' "house rules" on riding crop usage, according to Kentucky race stewards.

The replay of this year's Kentucky Derby could be picked clean and lumped together with aggressive rides of Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont Stakes, Real Quiet in the 1998 Kentucky Derby and Silver Charm in the 1997 Kentucky Derby,

To the contrary, consider this from Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye in an October 19, 2011 Jay Hovdey column in Daily Racing Form. "One year I got fined here in California for not hitting a horse. It was on a bad track, and he was sore. But I got fined anyway. Go figure."

Hovdey ended that column with a Delahoussaye quote - again, from 4 years ago - that best encapsulates where insinuating through a headline that Espinoza abused American Pharoah is askew.

"You can hit a horse only five times and cut him up bad, or you can hit him 20 times in the stretch, keeping in rhythm, and the horse will be fine," Delahoussaye told Hovdey in the 2011 column.

"It's up to the racing officials to know the difference between abuse and proper use."

A 4-to-5 morning line on American Pharoah suggests the betting public will be undeterred by the grueling Kentucky Derby effort.

But, will feelgood story (back-to-back Derby winner) turned media whipping boy Victor Espinoza think twice in the Preakness when in another stretch duel with Dortmund or Firing Line (or one of the five Jose know, the Third Tenor)?

It'll be interesting to see what impact the riding crop has on the outcome of the 2015 Preakness.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Kentucky Oaks: Birdatthewire A Clear Single

Offering picks is usually not my theme with this blog, but Oaks-Derby weekend is a must, since everyone tosses their hat in the ring and acts all "expert."

I still have some work to do with Saturday's Derby, but give Birdatthewire the nod over Include Betty, Condo Commando and I'm a Chatterbox in my exacta and trifecta for today's Kentucky Oaks.

The trip that Birdatthewire got in the Gulfstream Park Oaks sold me.

Birdatthewire appeared to be headstrong and basically strangled by jockey Irad Ortiz down the backstretch, ran into the heels of horses approaching the second turn, and blew by the field (and that same horse) in a race with a dawdling pace.

In the Oaks, I like that she drew an outside post and think she'll get enough speed to run into and mow down front-runner Condo Commando, who looked hand-ridden to me in her win in the Gazelle at Aqueduct but I'm not sure has been challenged by credible foes just yet.

Include Betty has an outside shot, as I see it, at 20-to-1, but my only hesitation with putting her on top is that she's the deepest of closer types and I'm not sure the pace will be frenetic enough for the others to wear down.  This, of course, is contingent upon I'm a Chatterbox reverting to her form two back, where unlike the easy front-running score in the Fair Grounds Oaks, she rallied clear late to win.

Anyway, I'll likely invest between $30-$40 in the race, using:

  • Top pick (single): 13
  • Second: 3, 5, 8
  • Third: 3, 5, 8, 10, 11
  • Fourth (possible superfecta): 3, 5, 8, 10, 11, 14
  • Oaks-Derby Double: 13 with 2, 15, 18

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Parx Visit Fuels Hope As Eventual NHC, BCBC Stop

After previewing Parx's first handicapping contest since 2008 last week, I drove the Jersey and Pennsylvania turnpikes 55 minutes to Philadelphia to compete in Saturday's live-money tournament and am impressed by track management's organization and hospitality, and the venue itself as well.

The positives far outweighed my miserable contest picks on a day where the races appeared wide open and just 2 of 9 post-time favorites won, but the handicapping contest winner built a $60 starting bankroll into $1,030.50 (impressive, on a day where the highest win mutuel was $13) to take down the zero-takeout $1,880 first prize.

Rail-bird view of Saturday's opener
Saturday was my first visit to Parx.  I was unsure what to expect, but found promise as a comfortable, player-friendly venue that should consider expanding into contests tied to the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) or Breeders Cup Betting Challenge (BCBC).  

More than 90 players turned out with scant publicity, so with concerted marketing and lessons gleaned from Saturday, Parx likely could draw a much bigger audience, considering its close proximity to major mid-Atlantic markets (NYC, Philadelphia and Baltimore). Parx is an easy ride and right off major highways.

The expense for NHC or BCBC "seats" would presumably be more prohibitive to Parx as a non-NTRA track (non-members pay double the fee to buy "seats" to the NHC, as I understand it), but my views are outside the realm of any track management's financial and operational planning and merely from a weekend player and NHC Tour member perspective.

Phonebet manager Beth Coale and her team did a wonderful job with the logistics, in my view, citing the seamless sign-up, clear instructions on the use of contest wagering cards and articulation of contest rules, plus quick scoreboard updates.   

Parx's race facility itself has a fresher vibe than my local track, Monmouth Park, though I would not necessarily attribute that to the live racing element.  

The track sits separate from the much larger casino venue but features a really nice poker room and dining as well, is far smaller and clean on the inside, and gives the handicapper plenty of options with two levels of dining service plus a cafeteria-style venue where service is quick and food and drinks are fairly priced and quite good.  No, "sorry we're out of that" or "that'll be ready in about 10 minutes" at the dining venue as sometimes found at my home track.

Funky, Xanadu-like color pattern,
but very nice on the inside
A nice bar at the center of the ground-level area, flanked by cocktail tables with ample seating and lots of simulcast TVs, enriches the building's energy.  This is certainly not to pan Monmouth, which is far more scenic and historical but has several nooks and crannies and is simply more cavernous and, therefore, finds customers spread out across a wider plain. 

At Parx, you're more among your horseplayer peers by force, and for this reason (and with a casino mindset at play) could serve as a great venue for more handicapping contests.  

I could envision a section (similar to the poker room) set aside for tournaments, where much like at the NHC in Vegas two rooms are dedicated to the contest customer, creating a player-friendly and social atmosphere (rather than contest players sprinkled here and there with the ordinary track visitor). 

The track and racing product itself is merely functional, in my view.  There are not many great places to watch the races and sight lines are modest at best.  The paddock is spartan, but I was not there to hang outside anyway on a windy and cold winter afternoon. 

Saturday's card was OK but not top-flight weekend racing by any stretch, and I found myself generally taking educated guesses in races mostly filled with claimers, akin to other casino-funded racing venues where the on-track product appears secondary to the core casino product.  

For this reason, I would encourage Parx to incorporate other racetracks into its contest mix to attract players, similar to when Monmouth cards live racing but co-mingles, say, a Woodbine or Saratoga, which offer often tougher races and deeper fields.  Saturday offered key Derby preps elsewhere, but I get Parx's intent to try and showcase its own racing product. 

Considering that Parx hosts live racing year round, in my opinion there is an opportunity for Parx to capitalize on voids in the on-track contest season, especially in October, November and December, when (based on the NHC Tour calendar) there's only one on-track tournament (Aqueduct) in the region for NJ-based horseplayers, 

Whichever direction Parx management goes with the handicapping contest theme, Saturday's effort gets thumbs up and proved enough of a success to consider expanding the initiative, in my opinion.