Sunday, August 3, 2014

Tripping with Stormberg

The adage about never being too old to learn is completely valid.

I spent a good part of an overcast Saturday at Monmouth Park volunteering for my third time this meet as "racing ambassador," with a grassroots goal of cultivating and educating new or inexperienced fans one at a time about thoroughbred racing.

In educating these fans to the best of my ability, however, I find myself learning a lot as well, proving extremely beneficial as a part-time handicapper ultimately attempting to qualify for the National Handicapping Championship.

Jockeys and trainers have come into focus of late, since as an ambassador I get to take patrons into the paddock to watch trainers saddle their horses and can eavesdrop a little -- a really great experience that yields valuable insight as a handicapper.

Saturday afternoon, I was introduced to top local trainer Kelly Breen in the paddock prior to race 6 and listened to his pre-race instructions to jockey Victor Santiago aboard second-time starter Jackie O' Mine.

Even in a fourth-place finish of nine starters, the jockey followed his trainer's instructions to a tee, with Jackie O' Mine -- an inexperienced horse with more of a two-turn pedigree and not the best early speed -- urged from the gate in a 5-furlong sprint in the slop (to see how she would respond) and giving the connections some valuable information on the horse moving forward.

A race prior, Santiago made a race-winning move aboard 9-to-1 Karobushka in a 6-furlong claimer, navigating his horse through a wide opening along the rail left by front-runner Iron Dale Al, who floated wide into the homestretch and lost valuable ground.

I already have immense respect for jockeys, but after just a small two-race sample I came away with tremendous respect for Santiago, who has a 9% lifetime win percentage, according to Equibase, and in 2014 had a mere 8 wins in 140 mounts heading into today.

The jockey theme is one that leads me to a horse named Stormberg in Race 7 today at Del Mar ($62,500 optional claimer at 1 mile on the synthetic track) -- my selection of the day in the Del Mar 2014 Online Handicapping Challenge.

Stormberg is 15-to-1 on the morning line, but the change in trainer and jockey is what proves intriguing off the horse's last three efforts on the 6 1/2-furlong downhill course at Santa Anita.

If you do not have an online wagering account, sign up for free at (free replays at all California tracks) and watch the last three race replays for Stormberg. 

The horse, in my opinion, got three horrible trips with jockey Tyler Baze and trained by high-percentage California trainer Jeff Bonde.

Granted, based on breaks in the horse's past performances, it looks like the 6-year-old Stormberg has had health issues, racing only 13 times and netting $108,615 of lifetime winnings -- a bad return on the $450,000 purchase out of the 2009 Keeneland September sale.  The horse ran only one race in 2013 (Gulfstream in March) for trainer Michelle Nevin before shipping out west to the Bonde stable.

Stormberg made his 2014 debut on April 20 and finished an extremely game third of 10 horses off a 13-month layoff.  Next out, on May 24Stormberg ran very well but lacked room, checking at one point and re-rallying to finish third.  On June 20, under the same conditions ($62,500 optional claimer on the downhill turf), Stormberg again was run into trouble, steadying hard in the stretch to finish sixth of seven behind winner Rangi, who finished second next out in the $90,000 Wicker Stakes.

On paper, Stormberg's performances appear less than stellar, which along with the horse's first try on synthetic surface in nearly three years and stretch-out to a mile may help to explain the 15-to-1 morning line.

Beneath the surface, however, the change in trainer to Robertino Diodoro and rider Fernando Perez are bullish angles, in my opinion, and the horse kept some pretty good company in his recent races.

This jockey-trainer combination has 4 wins in 19 tries over the last 60 days, and Perez has proven a formidable and underrated rider at the Del Mar meeting.

Horses coming off downhill turf sprints at Santa Anita seem to have played somewhat well on stretch-outs, from the Del Mar races that I have seen.

In addition, the scratch of rail horse and 3-to-1 morning-line favorite Secretsatmidnight inspires confidence that Stormberg can get to the lead from an outside post without much difficulty.  The horses to either side of Stormberg show more of a stalking tactic, in my view, freeing Perez to get Stormberg to the lead into the first turn.

With front-end speed holding up pretty well at Del Mar, I am banking on Stormberg benefiting from the stretch-out from a three straight sprints to two turns -- an angle where Diodoro wins 19%-22% of the time and is in the money nearly 50%.  Diodoro is also winning 25% of the time on new horses to his barn.

We'll know for certain a little after 8 p.m. ET, but I'm going a notional $50 win-place on #9, Stormberg, as my selection in the Del Mar online contest, which would go a long way in improving my 210th-place standing of 3,500-plus players.

It'll be interesting to know whether or not a new jockey and trainer make the difference for a horse with apparent talent but has simply ran into a lot of trouble of late.


For additional reading on jockey angles, take a look at this valuable piece from Joe Kristufek for America's Best Racing.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Consistency, Where Are You?

Sidetracked by several professional and personal matters, I have had little time in the last 4-5 weeks to pursue (or write about) my bid for a berth in the National Handicapping Championship

This season in particular, I am finding it difficult to generate any consistency as a part-time player on the NHC Tour, and when I have the scant time to play between professional licensing exams, shuttling kids all over creation and other priorities, I have been beset by bad fortunate.  

Take this afternoon, when a shortfall of player entries into a late-afternoon bankroll builder contest on (HT) prompted cancellation.  

Sums up recent fortunes for
NJ Horseplayer
Whereas I could not hit the broad side of a barn with my picks in Sunday's NHC Tour qualifier at Monmouth Park, this afternoon I ID'd the opening race winner of Friday's HT event to no avail.  

Picking an $8 winner is nothing to write home about, but after this past Sunday, getting off on the right foot for once inspired confidence.  You know the expression about best-laid plans.

Backtrack to Sunday's Monmouth Park tournament, I had no plan.

Perhaps was not a good idea, but based on a 1-for-36 start (-$52.80) to this season's online contest at the Public Handicapper, winging it seemed as good a plan.

My 0-for-10 performance at Monmouth ultimately proved otherwise, but I would chalk some of that up to rustiness or lack of consistent daily handicapping.

Strike 1

In Race 5 at Monmouth on Sunday, I knew that Magic Mesa was the best sprinter in an 5.5-furlong, 11-horse turf sprint and told my playing partner Red Rock or Bust as much, but as stupidity would have it, let an easy $8.40 winner pass in search of "better value."  

My horse, 16-to-1 Trish's Wish, finished a decent fourth about 3 lengths back, but instead of running my starting bankroll from $90 to at least $132, I ended up down $20 (to $80). 

Strike 2

As an equity research editor by day and extremely familiar with the stock market and Wall Street compliance, I know that past performance does not measure future success, but made an awful selection in Race 7 from Woodbine based on sentiment.

Surtsey scored for me at 41-to-1 last July in an online contest and was a long-shot in an 8-horse field where I thought Deceptive Vision was the best horse, even if a short 2-to-1 morning line.  Deceptive Vision lost by a nose, but Surtsey never really had a shot, getting hemmed in on the rail.  

The loss was only a $10 setback, but by then, and with the top two on the contest leaderboard already at $1,000-plus and $500-plus, I felt sort of drowning in the tide.

Strike 3

The nail in the coffin was my fifth wager -- $10 to win on 3-to-1 overlay Constantino in an allowance race from Woodbine (Race 8). 

In a 6-horse field devoid of early speed, I liked Constantino and figured he could dictate tempo and wire the field.

Two other bullish indicators, for me, were second time at two turns off a decent second-place finish on June 15 and top Woodbine jockey Patrick Husbands riding for high-percentage trainer Mark Casse.

All went according to plan as Constantino carved out slow fractions under scant pressure (three-quarters of a mile in a dawdling 1:13) until 2-to-1 Steel Dust Dancer got up in the final strides.  

Ballgame Over!

Down to $50 and deflated, I took some wild stabs with my last batch of selections, figuring I needed a big price to have a puncher's chance at a Top 2 finish needed to secure an NHC berth.

Yes I do, poet Dan Liberthon...
from "The Pitch Is On The Way"
In hindsight, that proved accurate as the winner and runner-up finished with respective bankrolls of $2,093 and $1,845. 

Regardless, I had a dreadful performance on Sunday, underscoring what with the exception of one Simulcast Series Challenge qualifier this winter has been a dreadful season in on-track tournaments.

On the other hand, as of this posting I am in 78th place of 1,279 remaining active players in Monmouth Park's Survival at the Shore online contest (with a "life preserver") to boot, so not all is lost.

Consistency, however, seems well out of reach and probably to be expected when entering contests off a sporadic work tab.

Next Up - Summer Freebies

In addition to Survival at the Shore, I will "refresh" my handicapping skills with more-daily online play, focusing on a select few races per day instead of jumping into the 8- to 10-race feeder-type tournaments on HT or now, which is cannibalizing the market with a similar "bankroll builder" concept that Horse Tourneys first perfected (more on the latter theme in a later blog post).

Other part-time players could benefit as well from two "freebies," in particular.

Public Handicapper remains a weekly option, offering its usual card of 4 notional win-bet races per weekend, and I would highly recommend any players (and NHC Tour members, in particular) sign up for the Del Mar 2014 Online Handicapping Challenge.

First off, top 2 finishers win berths and a travel stipend to NHC XVI.

Otherwise, NHC Tour points are awarded for strong performance. 

The Del Mar contest runs from July 17-September 4 and gives players up to $100 notional dollars per day to place a win, place or show bet (or combination thereof) on a pre-selected race each day.  This is a season-long bankroll building contest and one I have played for a few years.

Free past performances for the daily race are generally available on Del Mar's contest site, making for a seamless and fun experience, even for the casual player. 

Here's to getting back on the horse and maybe establishing some consistency as the NHC Tour moves into the second-half of its 2014 calendar.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Trainer Intent

I have never been a party to the decision-making that goes into placing a horse into a race, but a question posed during my latest stint as volunteer fan ambassador at Monmouth Park this past Sunday, and my glance at a particular entry on Friday card, prompted me to reach out to an owner friend on the topic.

During one of the educational tours that I organized on Sunday (contact me if ever interested), I was asked by interested handicapper Diane Skurat of Tinton Falls why Tannery scratched out of the $200,000 Grade 2 Monmouth Stakes. 

I could only speculate that either the horse had a short-term health issue or that Colts Neck Stables did not want to put its filly up "against the boys," opting instead for a softer race or all-female condition down the road.

This led to a discussion on how horses end up in particular races.  

Again, I have my theories, but coming up with the answer tends to be yet another component of the educated guesswork that goes into handicapping horse races.

Upon reviewing the first of three races for Friday's Survival at the Shore online contest, the placement of Lovefindsaway in Race 5 caught my attention.  

This 3-year-old Giant's Causeway maiden colt, making his third career start and first since January, is for the first time entered for a $20,000 "tag" (claiming) against six other betting propositions that, on paper, appear to validate Lovefindsaway's 3-to-2 morning line.

As reflected in the horse's two past performances, respected trainer Eddie Plesa placed Lovefindsaway into much more challenging spots against protected maidens ("maiden special weight").

Lovefindsaway finished fourth as the even-money favorite in his career debut at Monmouth last July but went to the bench, not appearing in a race until a fading fifth-place effort at Gulfstream Park on January 25.

The horse did not have a published work until six weeks later and has since clocked a half-dozen (in my opinion) uninspiring workouts.

In a betting context, I find 3-to-2 way too short and a clear "play against."

Instead, I selected 5-to-2 Justa Little Evil out of the hot Jorge Navarro barn.

Not a great price either, but I only identified 3 plausible contenders.

The field for Race 5 is middling and lacks significant pedigree.

Nonetheless, Lovefindsaway's connections are willing to sell their horse, purchased as a two-year-old at the April 2013 OBS sale for $120,000, for a bargain-basement $20,000 tag.

As a handicapper, the question I have about the huge class drop from protected maidens to claiming for Lovefindsaway becomes whether the horse is sound and the connections are hoping to steal an easy purse without a prospective buyer ponying up $20,000 to purchase a non-winning horse well off form, or if the owners just want to unload a horse that has under-performed his six-figure purchase price.

I respect and sought the advice of Robb Levinsky, founder and managing partner of Kenwood Racing, a very above-board partnership that hosts ownership seminars at Monmouth Park and, in my view, is refreshingly candid about the ownership side of the business.

On the handicapper side: 

"First, I agree with you that I wouldn't touch any horse with (Lovefindsaway's) form at what are likely to be short odds," Levinsky said.  "He's clearly capable of winning in a romp, but also clearly could get beaten as a heavy favorite.  I'd look to cautiously bet against him if I found another horse I liked."

In terms of intent of the connections:

"I can't really say without being part of that barn," Levinsky continued.  "I do know Eddie Plesa is a reputable, capable trainer.  If the horse wasn't safe to race I'm sure he'd not be in the race.  That said, obviously you don't run a horse that cost $120,000 for $20,000 for nothing."

For Lovefindsaway, Levinsky drew what I viewed as a suitable parallel to Lebron James, who had to sit out for key stretches of Game 1 of the NBA Finals against San Antonio with excessive leg cramping in 90-degree conditions at an AT&T Center with a broken air conditioning system.

"Virtually ALL athletes, human and equine, have issues.  Ask Lebron James," said Levinsky, "about the stress of high-performance competition.  I'm sure (the connections for Lovefindsaway) are looking to build confidence for both the owner and horse by placing him where he should be tough to beat.  That's smart."

We'll have a better idea of the ultimate outcome around a quarter-to-3, when Race 5 at Monmouth Park concludes and whether Lovefindsaway walks away with an easy $10,200 winner's take of a $17,000 purse AND their more-confident horse fresh off his first win, or someone who maybe saw Lovefindsaway as a 2-year-old at the April 2013 OBS sale sweeps in with a bargain claim.

Postscript to My Analysis

Once in awhile things go according to plan, as was the case with Race 5.

Justa Little Evil and first-time starter Uncle Chubb got the jump on Lovefindsaway out of the gate to finish first and second, respectively, while Lovefindsaway wilted to finish sixth of seven.

Interestingly, Justa Little Evil and Uncle Chubb were claimed out of the race for $20,000 apiece, while Lovefindsaway remains with owners Majestic Racing Stable and Laurie Plesa.

I generally do not have the time to go into handicapping claiming races to such depth, but keep an eye on future entries for these three to see where they land.

The lesson as a handicapper may be to put less stock in purchase prices.

The last two finishers in Race 5 cost $120,000 and $30,000, respectively, at auction, whereas the nondescript New Jersey bred first-time starter Uncle Chubb ran a game debut and appears somewhat promising.

Friday, June 6, 2014

An Ambassador and Samraat Kind of Weekend

A quick note, first, that I will serving as a volunteer racing "Ambassador" again this Sunday at Monmouth Park, so anyone interested in meeting up or has friends who want to learn more about what goes on at the track, how to read the race program, etc., please contact me on Twitter (@njhorseplayer) or email me and I'll provide my cell number.  

Otherwise, since a few friends asked, I will be more than happy as a huge thoroughbred racing fan for California Chrome to take home the Triple Crown, but as a bettor pored over the past performances last night and landed on Samraat as my upset selection

9 out of 10 Bollywood stars agree!
I have to admit that $20 of my wife's hard-earned dollars are already wagered on Chrome ($10 win, $1 exacta above the other 10 entrants), but likely in the wrong place in a rare gamble for Mrs. NJ Horseplayer.

As an equity research editor I recognize that past performance does not dictate future success, but in reviewing Belmont Stakes dating to 2007, winners by and large were within the top 5 throughout the race and a few lengths of the front-runner.  In addition, Da'Tara won wire-to-wire at 38-to-1 in the year that 1-to-4 Big Brown pulled up, while Paynter (2012) and Dunkirk (2009) almost won start to finish. 

Accordingly, there is precedent for the big shocker and a front-running type prevail at a mile-and-a-half.

Samraat, at 20-to-1, fits the bill and is a reasonable value, and in my opinion will be dismissed for wise-guy horses like Commanding Curve and Ride On Curlin, who turned in credible Triple Crown performances but seem far more comfortable well off the pace, which in my view will not work on Saturday.

Trainer Richard Violette was wise to rest Samraat after a taxing winter campaign that produced two Grade 3 victories and a hard-fought second in the Wood Memorial.  

I sense the connections simply took the shot at Kentucky Derby glory as many would, and subsequently skipping the Preakness was much needed.  The horse responded with a second best-of-15 work on May 18 and was stretched out with two 1-mile breezes in preparation for the Big Sandy.

The appeal, to me, in upsetting California Chrome is that Samraat, as shown in the Gotham, can turn on the jets out of the gate and then settle a bit to track a leader. Or simply take the lead and win at two turns, as in starts prior to the Gotham.  Plus, hot-riding Jose Ortiz (winner of Friday's Grade 2 True North on 9-to-1 Palace) has no horses between his and California Chrome to contend with from the gate, as runners 3-through-6 all appear to be slow breakers. 

I am dismissing potential early runners Tonalist (post 11 and another wise-guy horse) and maybe even General a Rod (post 10) as threats in light of their outside posts and questions I have about their class and fitness, respectively.  

Tonalist's win in the Grade 2 Peter Pan, to me, was against a weak field the week after all of the better three-year-old contenders ran at Churchill, while General a Rod likely needs a rest.

Accordingly, my hopes for Samraat hinge on two factors -- either getting the lead from Chrome and not relenting to him in the stretch, or forcing Chrome toward the rail, where in light of Chrome's picture-perfect stalking wins in the Derby and Preakness I have questions about whether he wants to run inside.  

In other words, better race riding than the outstanding stewardship that Chrome's jockey Victor Espinoza has shown thus far.  

Perhaps a tall order, but one I am willing to gamble. 

Ideally, Samraat will take a straight line out of the gate and force the outer "speed" horses wide, then squeeze Chrome toward the rail into the first turn. 

A stumble at the gate would kill my chances, but at 20-to-1 against 3-to-5, that's a given anyway.

My picks, in order, are Samraat, California Chrome and Wicked Strong.  

I have yet to place my Belmont Stakes wagers, but have already invested a meager $24 in the Pick 3 and Pick 4 culminating in the feature. 

Kaigun (15-to-1), in Race 10 (The Knob Creek Manhattan), is a key for me in the Pick 3 sequence to cash anything meaningful.  A close second to lawn wunderkind Wise Dan in the Makers 46 Mile in April and a game and hard-closing fourth in the Turf Classic on Derby Day signal to me this 4-year-old is vastly improving, and third off the bench can certainly keep moving forward on Saturday.

In Race 9, I expect Palace Malice to win but give Shakin It Up an outside shot at 6-to-1, anticipating the added eighth of a mile will suit this sprinter well, and he can close into any pace, as evidenced by winning the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita last December. 

I have no strong convictions about Race 8, the Just A Game Stakes, and went 5 deep.
  • $0.50 Race 8-11 Pick 4 Ticket: 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 over 1 over 1, 9 over 2, 7, 9 ($15 total)
  • $1.00 Race 9-11 Pick 3 Ticket: 1, 4, 13 over 9 over 2, 7, 9 ($9 total).
Good luck to all horseplayers on Belmont Stakes day, and be sure to reach out if you're at Monmouth on Sunday!

Monday, May 26, 2014

"There's Live Racing, Here, Today?"

I kid you not.

That was one of the first questions I fielded on Saturday in my first endeavor as a volunteer race "ambassador" at Monmouth Park.

Brick By Brick

Recognizing that festival days at Monmouth draw outsize crowds but fail to translate to bigger wagering pools or consumption of the real product -- thoroughbred racing and parimutuel wagering -- the marketing team put out a call on Facebook this winter, looking for passionate folks (I bit) to help increase the racing customer base. 

Building new racing fans, I hope
So, I went to Monmouth about a month ago to be briefed by marketing manager Brian Skirka and two representatives from America's Best Racing, Dan Tordjman (of Danonymous Racing fame) and Victoria Garafalo, who were on hand to reinforce the notion that even if we as ambassadors come away enticing even a single person to come back to the track, then "job well done." 

I kept this in mind throughout my day, which amounted to around four-and-a-half hours of mingling with customers hanging around the food trucks and spending lots of times with three groups in particular.

Raul & Co.

The crowds were a little slow to build after gates opened at 11:30 a.m., so after a quick briefing from Mr. Skirka, I talked strategy with my four colleagues about manning our booth and roaming the grounds in search of our marks.  

I hit the pavement, getting a feel for the expanded food truck layout (a wise move by track management) and introducing myself to random groups, explaining that I and the other ambassadors were on hand to assist with any questions about racing, Monmouth Park itself of anything to improve their visiting experience.  

Shortly after the first race ended, I approached a party of 5-6 noshing and sipping around one of the lounge tables and otherwise looking bored, and without so much as a track program in reach.  

After introducing myself to the group, a man from Staten Island named Raul asked me whether Monmouth Park had live racing.

"The first race just ended about 5 minutes ago," I responded, probably looking somewhat vexed. 

"No, seriously, they have live horses here?," questioned Raul. 

"You're pulling my leg, aren't you?!," I said.

So, without hesitation and to prove my case, I told Raul that I would take his group inside the winner's circle to watch the next race and was taken up on the offer.  

Equipped by track management with a few $2 betting vouchers, I asked Raul's son and wife as we cut from the food-truck area and through the grandstand toward the track what numbers they liked and wagered a $1 exacta box for them (2-4 did not hit, unfortunately), then ushered them trackside to watch Race 2 and subsequent winner's photo from inside the winner's circle.  

From there, we ambled over to the paddock to watch horses for the next race get saddled and mounted.

Within the course of discussion, I learned that New York-bred Raul's parents had taken him as a kid numerous times to Aqueduct and Belmont back in the day, but Saturday was his first trip to Monmouth, largely to check out the food trucks.  

Raul also said he and his wife went to Aqueduct often, but for the casino.

James and the Birthday Girls

Still getting over the shock of Raul's question about live racing, I shared the story (and a few hearty laughs) with my colleagues, and moments later was approached by "James," also on hand for the food trucks and a first-timer to Monmouth.

James asked where he could buy a program.

Hmm, here I am expecting beforehand to be asked by visitors to pick winners or the finer aspects of handicapping and, instead, get some real softball questions.

James took up my offer to walk him over to the program booth, and along the way I explained that I am a passionate horse racing fan on hand to help, hopefully, future racing customers embrace the game.  

Upon learning that James also was on hand to celebrate the birthday of one of his three lovely lady friends with a day at the trucks, I offered the same tour provided Raul.

This time, we started at the paddock, getting a bird's-eye view inside the walking ring of horses being saddled and trainers giving their jockeys some last-minute instructions before heading to the track.  

To my amazement, I was then bombarded with questions about reading the program, condition of the race and horses, jockey-trainer significance and so forth.

Hey, these folks were getting into it, and I did my best to educate them in the time we had on our walk from the paddock, and a quick stop at the automatic teller, to the winner's circle.

Perhaps I am gullible, but as with Raul's group, I got the sense that James & Co. (replete with a handful of free passes) had an unforgettable experience and will be coming back to Monmouth Park soon.

The Blue Hen

Anyone who knows me can attest that I am notoriously bad with names on first encounter (apologies in advance to anyone cited here who stumbles upon this post...share your info in comments below).  

On the golf course, I write down the names of my counterparts on the scorecard, along with a notable article of clothing; i.e. Tiger, red Nike shirt. 

I forgot to do this on Saturday, however, caught up in the moment. 

So, for my third and final lengthy encounter on the afternoon, I can honestly say I turned two seemingly apprehensive "sorry, I bought at the office" types into prospective Monmouth Park customers.

Mrs. NJ Horseplayer...
another famous Delaware grad
A twenty-something University of Delaware grad and her boyfriend were, like many others, on hand for the food trucks, but came toward the tent to grab a brochure, upon which I lassoed them into a tour.

My modus operandi was no different, as I reassured the clearly skeptical boyfriend that I had no motive or pitch about buying a timeshare or something absurd, and that I am merely a racing fan interested in cultivating a fresh, young fan base so that my sport passion does not go extinct in 20 years as feared.

Reassured, the couple joined me on the tour and equally asked as many questions as James & Co.

"So which one do you think is going to win?," asked Blue Hen.

"I would probably lean toward the 2," I said, noting that in a maiden special weight field of very inexperienced males, the Kelly Breen-trained Encryption made the most sense, since he had probably the top local trainer and one decent run in his debut, whereby horses often do much better on their second try.  

Blue Hen listened, turning her $2 win voucher into a whopping $6.60 of pay dirt (the equivalent of 2 pieces of chocolate-covered bacon back at the food trucks), while the boyfriend plunked his $2 on a Todd Pletcher B-teamer who ran a distant fourth.  Oops.

But, for her, watching the winner cross the wire first and then cashing a free voucher elicited the kind of reaction typically reserved for hitting Powerball.

The elation was priceless. 

Several Conclusions

I enjoyed Saturday's experience and cannot wait to get back in the saddle again (scheduled for Sunday, June 8 -- Irish Festival), but come away with mixed feelings.

First and foremost, I have a far greater appreciation for what Monmouth's marketing department is up against, because they do a great job with limited resources creating events, namely this weekend's Food Truck Festival, where Sunday's attendance of 23,278 more than doubled Saturday's 10,248.  

In all seriousness, I felt wiped after spending what amounted to the duration of 6 races on my feet with a mere 3 groups of people, opting for quality time over quantity in the spirit of Danonymous' advice.

The task of hoofing around the track for an afternoon marketing the product is rewarding, but tiring; and, as I sense marketing professionals would attest, offers no guarantee that Raul, James or Blue Hen ever return.

Running into Mr. Skirka on my way out around 6 p.m., he lamented that he had been at it since 6:30 in the morning, so I could only imagine his exhaustion...and probably with a few more hours to put in at the office yet. 

Big Attendance Not Equal To Bigger Betting

Perhaps the threat of rain kept more people away on Saturday, but the reality is that 20,000-plus in attendance on Sunday is a substantial figure these days at Monmouth Park and more than four times the last Sunday's attendance. 

Problem is, looking at Daily Racing Form's stats, the average visitor wagered a meager $35.23 on an enticing, deep betting card and back on the turf this Sunday after Saturday's scratch-laden program, down nearly 40% week over week.  

Meanwhile, Saturday's on-track pool averaged $50.89 per person, while the previous Saturday (Preakness Day), $60.62 was bet per person (8,476 on-track attendance) on Monmouth's racing (13% of the total pool into Monmouth), indicating a 16% week-over-week decline. 

(On-track betting on Monmouth on Sunday comprised 22% of all wagers, up from 17% on Saturday and less than 10% last Sunday; I cannot glean anything from those data points, but wanted to share in the event they prove valuable to anyone.)

Let's assume that half of the 15,000-person rise in attendance are paying adults and the other 50% are children or got free passes for Food Truck Festival.  At a $4 admission, that's $30,000 in attendance fees, plus parking and whatever they spend on track unrelated to food trucks, i.e., racing programs. 

Nothing to scoff at, but not really the core of Monmouth Park's business, which is racing product.

Ideas Once Visitors Get In The Door

The ambassador program is a nascent great step in the right direction, but could be expanded in any of a number of ways to foster a more-valuable racing experience. 

Assuming the five of us this Saturday spent quality time with 3-5 groups apiece, and generously 100's a start, but a lot of missed opportunity as well.  

The biggest detriment to events like Food Truck Day is that all of the events take place behind the grandstand, where no one is ever really in direct view of the live racing product. 

People entering the main gate take a sharp left toward the trucks, various other tables (including NJ Lottery, which seemed to do livelier business than the track's tellers) and the live music venue.  Based on the so-so headcount track-side, I'm guessing at least half of the big crowd never watched a single race.  

Trackside Food Trucks

First order of business is to snake the 30 or so food trucks from the current location through (at the very least) the back of the picnic area and perhaps onto the track's apron.  

The emphasis has to be on converting Food Truck Festival consumers into horse racing consumers, whether this requires temporary reconfiguration of utilities or of the ubiquitous picnic tables; or if the on-track concessions take a hit for a weekend, so be it.  

I'm sure a lot of hard work goes into preparing for any festival at Monmouth Park, and that not translating into wagers perhaps builds the Monmouth Park brand, but as a festival ground, not a racetrack. 

Expanding the physical footprint of the trucks this year was a huge improvement over last year, but steps should be taken next season to put the racing product squarely in visitors' faces.  Maybe give anyone who buys X dollars worth of food a $2 betting voucher in a cross promotion with the track.

Personal Ambassadors

I would never profess to be anything near a Brad Thomas as a handicapper, but I know enough to get by, and my four colleagues on Saturday, including @StormKittyKat, @RutgersKev and @MonmouthParkKid, could serve as personal liaisons to special interest groups, including parties that rent picnic space, companies hosting outings or others looking for more of a value-added experience.

Monmouth Park's group sales could offer our services for an hour or two, giving these customers (who, mind you, are already trackside) personal liaisons, complete with tours of the paddock, a view from the winner's circle, advice on reading the track program, or what have you. 

In all likelihood, someone on hand in a big picnic group setting for burgers, beers and a few friendly parimutuel wagers is more likely to return for another afternoon of racing and betting than some foodie or wine blogger who will never return and has never physically viewed the main product -- racing.  

An Early Success

Several other ideas come to mind, but I have droned on long enough.

The bottom line, as a racing fan, is that volunteering time to press some flesh and share my interest in thoroughbred racing with prospective new fans is extremely fun and rewarding.

At the same time, I find myself learning a lot by talking concepts through with complete strangers, much as I would seated at a table with fellow handicappers in a tournament and talking through race scenarios.

Certainly, I aim to represent Monmouth Park well, even as a volunteer, which I would argue enhances my credibility among the unsuspecting recipients of my tours and diatribes; my time has no strings attached.

I am pretty confident that Raul, James and Blue Hen can attest to this, and look forward to spending more time hopefully cultivating a racing fan base as the Monmouth Park 2014 meeting progresses.

Friday, May 23, 2014

That's "Mr. Ambassador"...To You

As my poor wife, family and community, can attest, I am a sucker for voluntarism.

Need someone to devote years to a generally belabored and sometimes difficult (though always rewarding) role as an unpaid Board of Education member?

"Sign me up."

Overextend myself to coach kids' recreation sports so other parents can not raise their hands, then sit in the stands and either socialize or rudely have loud conversations on their cell phones while ignoring their kids games, or worse yet deride the referees when they themselves do not understand the rules?

"Sure thing."

Raise my hand at work to take on more responsibility and not receive additional compensation for it (less, in fact)?

"Well, welcome to the 21st-century workforce."

So, when Monmouth Park this winter put out a call to do some volunteer work at the track this season to promote thoroughbred racing, I jumped at the opportunity!

New Monmouth Park Ambassador Program

Tomorrow, from around 11 a.m.~3 p.m., I will mill (hopefully dryly) about the Oceanport track, among other things, to help people in attendance for the hotly attended 3-day Food Truck Festival become fans of the game as part of a new "Ambassador" initiative run by marketing manager Brian Skirka.  I have committed to other days as well, but will not bore you with the details.

It's this guys fault if the patrons
at Monmouth Park don't like me
The premise is simple, as I see it -- engage patrons who are there to eat from more than 20 "food-trucks" (fancier parlance for the grease-trucks of my Rutgers heyday) and educate them on the Sport of Kings (at least a little) in hopes they'll come back at some point for the racing product, not the food.

Based on anecdotal observations, it seems to me that festival days at Monmouth Park, although nice, bring horse racing's brand of NJ shore "bennies" who crowd the place for a short time and have a great time, but really do not produce a recurring customer.

Bigger crowds, sure, but are these visitors so much as putting $2 on a horse or ever making it track-side to enjoy the real on-track product?

Are they increasing the track's handle, which could lead to better racing product down the line?

Are they encouraging their friends to visit Monmouth Park for all that it has to offer?

I'm not so sure.

Now, extremely fortunate for those patrons, my role will not revolve solely around handicapping (see Brad Thomas instead), which has produced little this season in my quest to qualify for the National Handicapping Championship.

I will impart whatever wisdom I can (when asked) on particular races or betting strategies to interested parties on Saturday, but otherwise am tasked with introducing people with an inkling of interest in touring the grounds and paddock, explaining how to use a remote betting terminal, understanding what the "L" inside the black circle of the program means, and so on.

As a big fan of horse racing, the need for more grassroots-level marketing is a brilliant idea, as I see it, as evidenced by me becoming a part of it.

Reflecting back on how I have become to embrace the contest circuit in particular, I owe a debt of gratitude to one particular numskull for reintroducing me to a game where I merely dabbled to that point.

In the course of Red Rock sharing his enthusiasm over the intellectual aspects of the handicapping contest circuit, the industry picked up a recurring customer who also happens to provide free marketing and unsolicited commentary (albeit admittedly not always favorable) via this blog.

The game can be very rewarding, and I hope to share my passion without turning away customers.

I'll keep you posted on how things go on Saturday, but not until finishing some other non-paying business (i.e., yard work) over the Memorial Day weekend.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Voices Carry

Monmouth Park earlier today re-issued registration forms for the upcoming $300 National Handicapping Championship (NHC) qualifier with one subtle change.

Pimlico, not Churchill Downs, will serve as the third track in play for the Saturday, May 31 contest card, signaling the New Jersey Racing Commission (NJRC) was receptive to the voice of a horseplayer with valid objections about Churchill's recent shenanigans.

Mission Accomplished

Kudos to the NJRC for letting me submit a letter for consideration at Wednesday afternoon's meeting at Monmouth Park.  

On account of my professional obligations, I could not attend, and so contacted NJRC last Friday and spoke with Michael Vukcevich, expressing my objection to Churchill's inclusion in May 31 NHC qualifier at Monmouth, where 4 seats to the Vegas championship are up for grabs. 

Mr. Vukcevich graciously entertained my request to submit a brief letter for public consideration.

Apparently my comments carried some weight, as my cell buzzed this afternoon with a tweet from "Jersey Capper" friend Ray Wallin about the altered contest card.  

"Looks like (Monmouth/NJRC) replaced it with @PimlicoRC"

Evidently, the state's racing commission saw my side!

Pimlico in, Churchill out.

Simple Thesis, Easy Substitution

Signed on for a late-afternoon bankroll-builder contest last week, I soon discovered that Churchill Downs' video feed (and betting) was unavailable on 

ADW operator TVG quickly confirmed that this was because of a dispute over simulcast signals.

More bean counters at the revered Twin Spires, I imagined, trying to squeeze more money out of horseplayers in the end.

Thoughts of Horseplayers Association of North America's (HANA) boycott of Churchill over higher takeout, in addition to Churchill's well-documented unconscionable treatment of Ron Turcotte, only raised my ire and emboldened my case for approaching the NJRC about removing Churchill from Monmouth's upcoming NHC qualifier.

Kudos to NJRC

Even though I cannot play on May 31 on account of a family wedding, the concept of concerned NHC Tour member horseplayers in a live-money contest betting into the pools at Churchill did not sit well philosophically.  

In short, why should Churchill profit from New Jersey players in any way in the wake of recent unfavorable treatment?

On account of solid decision-making, now Churchill will not profit, at least off the backs of players in the May 31 contest.

Horses, matter
Monmouth could have substituted the Iditarod as the third contest track for all I cared.

Pimlico, which mind you could stand to lower its own takeouts as well, will do.

I will reach out to Mr. Vukcevich and the rest of the NJRC on Friday to applaud their open-mindedness and for siding with not just one, but all New Jersey horseplayers on this one, particular since the Commission had already approved the tournament slate and could have simply ignored my plea.  

As an anonymous poster to this website commented minutes ago, "chalk one up for the little guy."