Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Hats off to Red Rock or Bust

Kudos to handicapping contest partner-in-crime Red Rock or Bust for finishing sixth in yesterday's 240-player contest on HorsePlayersQualify.com and scoring a $1k prize package to the Treasure Island Last Chance Contest on January 25 and one last shot at winning one of 500 coveted seats in the 2012 National Handicapping Championship (NHC) on January 27-28.

In finishing tied with two other players for 40th-place, I realize in hindsight my misstep was discounting American Blend in the fifth at Santa Anita, a $56k maiden special weight at 6.5 furlongs.  This was the eighth of ten races on the tournament card.

On to Vegas!
Terrence F. was wise enough to play his trainer recency angle -- Carla Gaines (a 22% trainer in 2011 and one of the best in California) won a race earlier in the card and entered American Blend off a six-month layoff and nondescript debut in late May.  As the race replay portrays, Victor Espinoza rode Blend masterfully for a 10-to-1 score.

The 324-point payout (HorsePlayersQualify.com gives contest players 10 points for each win and place dollar paid at the window; $23 to win plus $9.40 to place equals 324 points) proved the difference, for me, between winning a spot in the Treasure Island Last Chance and nailing the final stake in my 2012 NHC coffin.  I hit for 346 points on 12-to-1 Growl in contest race 8 (the 11th from Gulfstream) to give me a puncher's chance in the finale (6th from Santa Anita), but Rainbow Goose (18-to-1) stumbled out of the gate to end my hopes.

Still, the HorsePlayersQualify.com contest was a ton of fun for $50 on a relaxing December 26 afternoon, and I could not be happier for my friend to have one last shot at NHC glory.  In the weeks ahead I'll dabble in "for fun" contests (i.e. Santa Anita winter meet contest and Derby Wars, plus Public Handicapper's Winter of Discontent Challenge) and look forward to the release of the 2012 NHC Tour schedule.  I am especially eager to see whether Monmouth Park continues with its Simulcast Series Challenge.  We'll see.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Giving new meaning to "Survival at the Shore"

One of Monmouth Park's most popular offerings is the "Survival at the Shore" online handicapping contest, where last year nearly 6,000 contestants entered for a free shot at winning a seat at the National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas in January 2012.

Who'd have thought that Survival at the Shore could be juxtaposed to the new mantra of the beloved Oceanport track heading toward the 2012 season, which fellow blogger Terry Flanagan referred to me (via email) as "Suffolk at the Shore" (a tongue-in-cheek dig at Suffolk Downs) -- and is clearly a far cry from 2010's ballyhooed "Elite Meet".

A literal interpretation of
"Survival" for Monmouth Park
Whereas all parties involved -- horsemen, Governor Chris Christie's office, state legislators -- seemed to be falling over themselves trumpeting Monday night's short-term resolution to Monmouth's tenuous ownership status, Monmouth Park patrons, fans and horseplayers alike no doubt can only question whether Monmouth can compete and survive in a market where, unless one is completely oblivious, New Jersey's thoroughbred racing program is in serious shambles behind the 8 Ball of surrounding states offering far bigger casino-fueled purses.  Look no further than to Aqueduct to our north, where fuller fields and a jockey colony allegedly reconsidering whether to head south (i.e. Gulfstream, Tampa) for the winter threaten to give horseplayers a better-than-normal product in 2012.

Without belaboring the point, I find that all sides have little clue at this point -- the Governor for steadfastly opposing slots at the track (and subsidizing a $250 million Atlantic City casino project that this state needs like a nuclear winter), the legislature for not slashing the racing-date mandate and, from my view, the horsemen for wretchedly failing to market their racing product.  Clearly the reports of $150-$175k daily purse structures are dire, so in my view, the "experts" will need to find a way to squeeze the most out of the on- and off-track handle of Monmouth's races that will comprise the entire kitty.

I have a few broad-stroke ideas (in no particular order), whether any of them read this or are willing to think outside the box (some of these may be inevitable based on the reduced purse structure and union clutches that continue to inflate operating costs):
  • No more than 6 races on weekday cards and 8-9 on weekends. There would be nothing more discouraging than finding a 2012 Saturday card, for example, with 12 races of 4-6 horses, starting at 1230p and ending at 645p.  The cards need to be condensed and harder-hitting.  Less volume and deeper fields (i.e. higher-quality betting opportunities) will draw more eyes regardless of class.
  • Across-the-board reductions in takeout. 
  • Create a "Monmouth Park Racing Series": Apply some of the "play-in" mentality from the handicapping contest circuit and in the harness industry, whereby we find connections entering horses in "racing tournaments" or qualifiers (i.e., held weekly or in assigned races on each card) for some kind of summer meeting championship and a lucrative payday. 
    • I anticipate Monmouth will struggle to keep horses around this summer, so offering the connections a shot at, say, a $250k check for winning their class (i.e. 3-year-old, NJ-bred, sprinters) may increase MP's prospects for filling stables and decent race cards in 2012.
  • Maintain focus on the Haskell: It's hard to consider the logic of canning a Grade 1 stakes and turning down a 30k-40k attendance when that's MP's biggest event. The horsemen can easily end dressing up $5-$10k weekday claimers as $47k allowance events (as if that enhances the allure of race quality to bettors) and focus their budget first on Haskell, then on everything else.
    • Building upon the latter two points (Racing Series and Haskell), maybe using the qualifiers to provide a "free" entry into the Haskell will be a selling point for owners in the 3-year-old division who are considering stabling at another track (i.e. Saratoga) for the summer.  From what little I know about the industry, it is clear that thoroughbred owners and trainers are extremely adept at scheduling their horses to maximize earnings (see Rapid Redux running at the $5k allowance condition in 2011), so maybe Monmouth stables a few more European horses for a summer, with a free shot at the Haskell in mind.  Maybe offer Haskell spots for X number of horses:
      • from outside NJ (i.e., who "out-point" the others in three Monmouth qualifiers leading up to the Haskell)
      • the "champion" or point-leader(s) of the NJ-bred division 
      • foreign-based trainers with x number of horses stabled at Monmouth for the season.
  • Racing May through September, at most: On-track attendance, in my observation, turns grim post-Labor Day, so running beyond late September, let alone October-November, is futile. 
  • Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday and Sunday racing from July 4-Labor Day: In my view, it will be extremely difficult to compete for bettors' dollars with Saratoga on a scaled-down purse structure (and it was even with high purses).
    • One idea is to run on Tuesday's when Saratoga is "dark" and make that the marquee event, with more purse money devoted to that day to draw bigger fields and keep bettors engaged. 
  • Night racing:  No, I'm not suggesting more visits to Knight Sky Racing's blog, I'm recommending Oceanport officials consider letting Monmouth use temporary lighting at the very least for its weekday program.  
    • Think about it.  Outside of senior citizens on bus trips, who rushes to a casino to play at 130 p.m. on a weekday?  There's no one outside of seniors and hard-core players rushing to Monmouth to bet the second on a weekday.  Casino action is more a nighttime mentality, and if racing is going to get a younger audience to embrace and ultimately support its product, Monmouth should consider finding a unique niche (i.e. that rivals Saratoga) and hosting live racing three nights a week in summer.  
    • Unlike Saratoga, where racing is THE draw, Jersey Shore visitors have way too many other options -- namely beaches and boardwalks, Great Adventure -- during the day and uses of their disposable income.  Give people a night-time option that affords them the option of "beating the heat," and maybe tie the racing in with a free concert series and fireworks under the stars, on the order of what is done at Sandy Hook each summer. 
  • Improve family amusements:  The "Family Sunday" idea is a nice idea, but for a bloke like me with kids, it's not worth the effort (for me or them) standing in a 30-minute line for a free bouncy house turn or to get their face painted in 90-degree weather.  
    • MP should consider more amusement-type offerings  (i.e. a ride park, water slides or water park) where people would even be willing to pay.  There is plenty of underutilized parking space in the track-side lots that can be developed to incorporate a "for-profit" water park (maybe by 2013-2014), for one, where parents maybe can even take advantage of paid babysitter services for a few hours of alone time and, at the same time, area teens or others could be put to work as lifeguards, vendors, etc.  I suspect, however, this may be unrealistic in light of the union baggage that accompanies the track and remains an albatross to track profitability, but it's worth a thought.
  • Develop a conference or banquet business during the live meet:  The proposal for weeknight racing may compromise picnic area sales or anger the daytime BYOB crowd, but MP has a vast building that would seem to afford many options to convert space for use for weekday industry conferences, corporate gatherings, etc.  Slot parlors make too much sense, but are a pipe dream at this point.  So it probably wouldn't take much for MP to hire a conference coordinator to try to win away business from other area conference venues whereby it can also promote its racing product.
  • Bring back Simulcast Series Challenge this winter, and offer more handicapping contests: Alright, this one's a bit selfish -- but, hey, it's a handicapping contest blog -- but SSC is an excellent event that, I'd argue, is a low cost to the track and brings in some 200-250 customers who otherwise would not be at MP in the dead of winter and shell out $200 a spot to compete in an NHC-sanctioned event.  MP needs to set its SSC schedule ASAP, and consider hosting other on-track contests that tap into a slowly but steadily-growing handicapping contest circuit, maybe on assigned days (i.e. Friday night), accompanied perhaps by fan education seminars that entice newbies to try a contest. 
  • Legislatively, give bettors an ADW option outside of the state-run 4NJBets.  Anyone who has visited my blog knows my disdain for the state-mandated ADW 4NJBets, which I can only suspect is nowhere near worth the time and taxpayer money spent on the online betting repository.  (I picture a select few legislators' fifth cousins and campaign contributors running the show...I know, maybe that's mean or overly cynical, but too bad.)  By law, any NJ resident looking to bet on racing cannot do so using third-party sites, like TVG, ExpressBet, Twinspires.com or DRFBets to make wagers, which I'd argue constrains the free market and may prove discouraging to prospective horseplayers.  ALL of these sites offer customer benefits (i.e. $100 free for signing up, entry to exclusive handicapping tournaments, free past performances and other perks) that jive with the younger-generation mindset and, far as I know, are not offered by 4NJBets.  As a handicapping contest player, alone, I would sign up for any ADW that offers seats to the NHC.  I can't imagine I'm the only NJ resident that would do the same. 
Perhaps too far reaching, but it's about time that other bloggers and fans of the sport share their opinions and for the horsemen and political leadership to heed the advice of the paying customer.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Breezin': An Homage to my Grandfather, Cas Szymanski, a passionate horseplayer

Minding my own business in the solitude of my bus commute home from New York City, George Benson’s standard “Breezin’” popped up on my iPod (right after Tool’s The Grudge – alright, my tastes are widespread), sending me back to a place in time that is somehow perfect as I mourn the passing yesterday of Casimir Szymanski, my beloved grandfather, just days shy of his 88th birthday.

Kaitlyn and her proud Great-Grandpa, a
wonderful man and horseplayer
Simply “Grandpa” to me, but “Cas” to family, friends and others, “Mr. Simmons” to area pizza shops (because Suh-man-ski was, apparently, too difficult for the average person to grasp), a thorn in the side to restaurant workers far and wide (I would estimate that, in my presence as a kid, he returned at least half of all meals as either too cold or “not cooked right” back to the kitchen…and jokingly we suspect ingested a lot of sneezed-upon, albeit hot, food.)  

However classified, Grandpa was the consummate chalk player – a strictly no-nonsense guy, both in my observations of his horse handicapping, but mostly in life.  To be sure, in his final months, when I’d call to check in on the exceedingly-vigorous-for-an-octogenarian, he’d say “not too good, Billy, but what the hell d’ya expect. I’m 87 years old.”  He called it like he saw it – Joe Namath was no good, (Daryl) Strawberry stinks, Frank Sinatra’s a bum.  Heck, he even put black electrical tape over the photo of the disgraced Richard Nixon on a montage of U.S. presidents hanging near his basement bar.  (I guess that’s where I get my strong sense of opinion.)

Grandpa passed silently just two years after my Grandmother, Fran – the polar opposite in terms of patience but equally old-school blunt at times (i.e. “it looks like you gained some weight, Bill”) – mind you, these were children of the Depression, born to Polish immigrants  – but not without leaving lasting impressions upon me as to how I should conduct myself as an everyday person, and also as a handicapping enthusiast.

See, back in the late 70s-early 80s I recall on my frequent visits to their modest but extremely well-kept cape cod on a quiet cul-de-sac in Rahway, NJ (their first and lifelong home, circa 1950s, and my home the first 2+ years of my life) parking myself on their plastic-covered floral print couch (still there, by the way, and the most uncomfortable piece of furniture on a hot summer day in a non-air conditioned house) to watch sports with Grandpa (we all watched what Grandpa wanted, no matter the locale), entrenched on his reclining chair – mostly baseball, but also an intriguing 30-minute program called Racing from Aqueduct

If memory serves, this program (I’m too young to remember exact details for sure, though I do recall the smooth southern tone of Charlsie Cantey’s voice quite vividly) sometime in the 6 p.m. time frame aired on Channel 9 (WOR; yes, in the day of three major networks, plus some low-budget local and UHF channels) replays of that afternoon’s feature races.  Grandma would settle in too, for she also was an occasional horseplayer, but more based on numbers, colors and names of horses if I recall.  I would play also…and to this day still like free handicapping contests. 

Where does George Benson fit in?  Well, and again unless I’m wrong, Breezin’ was Racing from Aqueduct’s theme song.  Forever engrained in the recesses of my mind, much like the occasional Saturday excursions to Monmouth Park during the summer with my grandparents, who would sit in the grandstand and bankroll an occasional wager for me and, in Grandpa’s penchant for being in a rush to get nowhere fast, split after about 3-4 races.  (To this day, I never like to leave a sporting event before its finish, since my first pro "real" event was Giants-Buccaneers, sometime in the early 80s, on a beautiful mid-September afternoon where Grandpa took me but, crushingly, said “let’s go” after halftime…to hightail it home to beat the traffic (?) and get back for dinner. We did get back to Rahway in 15 minutes…and caught the last quarter and a half from the “parlor,” rather than the 40 yard line at the Meadowlands).

In the ensuing years, other pursuits in life drew my interest, though I always stayed extremely close to my grandparents and was still exposed to horse racing, more or less vicariously through Grandpa and my father discussing recent wagers, but also the occasional excursion to the track with friends just for kicks. 

Entering fatherhood, and settling in only minutes from resplendent Monmouth Park, I found myself drawn back into the thoroughbred scene, focusing primarily on the Triple Crown races and Breeders Cup, but also the handicapping contest niche, and taking my kids along from time to time.  And weeks after Grandma passed, still raw over her loss, I spent an afternoon right after Christmas with Grandpa – nattily dressed for the occasion – at McLoone’s in Woodbridge, enjoying a nice lunch and playing the ponies at PARX (nee Philadelphia Park), where Grandpa reminisced about sneaking (hurriedly, I’m sure) on occasion to catch a few races.  Our afternoon was the perfect remedy for a very difficult Christmas without the love of Grandpa’s life for 60-plus years and my earthly guardian angel for 40 years.

Weeks later we made another lunch date, this time with my father in tow, expanding our little circle as Grandpa really had a great, and amazingly relaxing time, diligently studying the past performances – the guy was sharp as a tack mentally until his final day – and enjoying a moment for three enthusiasts of a sport far removed from its halcyon days, but remains exquisite and stands the test of time. 

Grandpa’s legacy and my memories of “Cas,” too will stand the test of time. 

I am forever indebted for his eternal love, the knowledge he shared, his theories on work ethic (“you’ll be pumping gas for a living,” after I got a rare “C” in grade school…in penmanship!) and unabashed opinions on sports, politics and religion, seeing me play in Little League, the countless times even in his abnormally spry 50s when we’d play catch with the baseball, the rounds of golf we played together until arthritic knees became a nuisance well into his 70s (Grandpa proclaimed to be about an 8-10 handicap, if you ignored the half-dozen Mulligans), still driving in his early 80s over for dinner with Grandma to my house and to enjoy his great grandchildren…asking me “you OK with (work, money, etc.?…pick your topic).”

As I mourn the loss of my Grandfather yet celebrate his life, all I can envision is Grandpa Breezin’ past any signs to Purgatory and through the Pearly Gates, reunited with his loving wife Fran and the others who went before him.

Simply Breezin’…

Monday, December 12, 2011

NJ battle over Monmouth Park heating up

In typically laughable dysfunction, New Jersey continues to make a mockery of the state's thoroughbred racing scene, with reports now that Monmouth Park is potentially five days away from extinction.  NJ.com reports that Governor Chris Christie, from his usual bully pulpit, more or less is calling the horsemen liars ("untrustworthy," as he put it) in portraying the reasons for why Resorts casino co-owner and racing enthusiast Morris Bailey has pulled out of a deal to privately run one of the nation's best tracks for the next five years.

As a mere fan of the game, I am not privy to insider knowledge; to be sure, mine are only opinions.  Interestingly, however, at the same time the Governor is saying the deal fell apart because "millionaire" horsemen are demanding $5 million of subsidies from NJ, he also has taken the stance that he will not "take money from waiters and waitresses and police officers and teachers, who are taxpayers in the state, to fund their industry."  This from the man who has already taken from at least 3 of those 4 aforementioned (sans police), without provocation from the racing industry mind you, and who has also thrown a quarter-billion at the moribund casino industry in Atlantic City.

If I had to guess, within the next few days we'll hear in the media from every party to the discussion - the horsemen, tellers and other employees at Monmouth Park, financial experts and others, no doubt.  However, keep in mind that there's not a lot of the usual political controversy in New Jersey this legislative "lame duck" session -- no "Governor's toolkit", no 2% budget caps, no assault on teachers' benefits or school board member background checks (NJ Horseplayer, personally, was subjected to the latter)...really no "sexy" topics that'll score points for Christie.  So, personally, I am taking the media hype with a grain of salt.

In the end, I see Christie's latest verbal assault as nothing more than rhetoric.  To shut down Monmouth Park would be utterly foolish from numerous perspectives, and would run counter to efforts of other state legislators (some of Christie's party-mates, based in and around the Monmouth Park area, to be sure) who have introduced slot gaming, sports wagering and exchange wagering in the legislature.  Remember, too, that voters exceedingly voted in favor of sports wagering, so in my view there's more behind Christie's latest antics than shutting down Monmouth Park, and he would risk alienating "the millionaire" horsemen who, coincidentally, probably voted for him.

NJ Horseplayer speculates -- true to handicapping blogging form -- that Christie trumped up this issue because the state made a bad deal, and that an outside party is going to enter the discussion at the final hour as a potential suitor, and Christie will agree to leave Monmouth open for another year, pending a changeover to a new ownership group. Whether a different Atlantic City-based casino operator (than Morris Bailey) or a publicly traded operator (i.e. Churchill Downs, Penn National) that swoops in as a new white night suitor (and angles for an eventual cut of potential slot gaming at the Meadowlands or Monmouth down the road) remains to be seen, but the Governor himself would never live down shuttering such a noteworthy establishment and more or less nailing the coffin of NJ's thoroughbred racing program.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Opposite Ends of the Spectrum

Two industry pieces caught my eye earlier this week - one addressing fan education (i.e. marketing the sport well) and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, another addressing the pissing match between parties in New Jersey's marathon-like transition from state-run to privately-operated horse racing.

Matt Hagerty's piece on DRF.com about the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming highlights the apparently high interest among industry players in online education of horse players, which in my view is a clear step in the right direction in bringing more players into the game.  Kudos to groups like Horseplayernow.com for recognizing this market and taking the lead, and for industry players for flocking to the U of A seminar to share ideas on how best to promote the game.

Negotiations over the privatization of tracks in
NJ Horseplayer's backyard
On the other hand, the dynamics of the New Jersey Governor's office's dysfunction in completing a deal with Jeff Gural and Morris Bailey on privatization of the Meadowlands and Monmouth Park, respectively, leave an entire state's racing industry in limbo and speak to why local track-based initiatives to market the product and maybe draw a new, younger fan base (a criticism of detractors who say the fan base comprises only World War II-era fans) cannot properly get off the ground.

Take the Simulcast Series Challenge at Monmouth Park, for instance -- four excellent live-money handicapping tournaments where players compete for NHC seats over the course of three buy-in tourneys and a 45-person invitational championship in April (for the Top 15 finishers in January, February and March).

Typically by now, handicapping contest players have the dates for those events in hand and can spread the word to other contest players (since, I have learned in the contest niche that marketing is generally word-of-mouth).  However, NJ Horseplayer can only guess that Monmouth's failure to post a 2012 SSC schedule by now is attributable to the ownership dispute and whether the venerable Jersey Shore track will even operate in 2012.  Good times.

The apparent rift is, from what I can tell, over off-track parlor licenses, plus a moribund "Meadowlands at Monmouth" meeting, which this year featured mostly awful races during two weeks in mid-November.  The state legislature and horsemen apparently would have it that the state's racing product cannot survive without a mid-autumn meeting packed with $5k state-bred claimers; this is one sticking point that threatens to scuttle the changeover to Mr. Bailey's ownership group.  The powers that be in Trenton also have decided that New Jersey is throwing away a tremendous value here, and with the off-track licenses (i.e. to set up off-track gaming parlors, similar to McLoone's Woodbridge Grille) that the state promised back in June during negotiations but has since reneged.  (People outside NJ should know that my state -- probably much like yours -- is adept at political graft and running agencies into the ground, not to mention kowtowing to the Atlantic City lobby, which is more or less responsible for ruining our racing program, in my view.)

I digress...

The correlation between these two stories is that at the same time that people within the industry (i.e. at the U of A convention) are making a noble effort to educate current and prospective customers, state politics - namely in New Jersey - continue to interfere with any momentum gained by industry experts.

The lack of a federal oversight body, and inconsistent state-by-state governance of the thoroughbred racing industry, are considerable flaws, but in the meantime the wrangling of the suits at the state level here in NJ who have little to no understanding of the racing industry continues to be a burden to reinvigorating an industry that provides numerous intrinsic - i.e. jobs, tax revenue, maintenance of open space, etc. - benefits, but also must compete with an increasing array of gaming options and promote to a new audience.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Art of the Jab?

Entering the eleventh hour for National Handicapping Championship qualifying, the contest slate is getting eerily thin with four weeks to go in 2011, and NJ Horseplayer is not banking on booking reservations to the $2 million tournament in January.  (In all likelihood, it's the promise of a 2013 berth, likely to start at Monmouth Park's Simulcast Series Challenge next month.)

Nonetheless, I have already entered two "free" tournaments slated this weekend - Saturday's TVG Online Challenge and Sunday's NHC Tour Free Online Challenge. Mere puncher's chances.

Three NHC seats will be rewarded in each contest, and the chances of grabbing the brass ring are extremely slim, especially in TVG's tournament, which is open to NTRA Inside Track members and usually draws players with surnames such as YoMamasMustache and Richard Hertz.  Sunday's affair, meanwhile, is for any NHC Tour member who forked over the $45 annual membership fee.  History as a guide, there will be about 2,000 participants in these two contests, making a Top 3 finish quite miraculous.  With a prior family commitment on Saturday, I'll be handicapping and entering selections for the TVG contest on Friday night, but hope to participate live on Sunday and make changes on the fly, as if that will matter based on my 2011 tournament track record.

NHCQualify...working that jab
Anyway, something this afternoon caught my eye and that of pal Red Rock or Bust in the run-up to this weekend's freebie contests - a snarky email from NHCQualify.com, pitching its own $150 contests scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.  As much as I credit NHCQualify.com for cutting the entry fees from $400 events to $150 (for up to six NHC seats, instead of the usual 10), at the same time I was taken aback by the tone of the tournament host's message:


Sure, 1 NHC spot for every 50 player as opposed to every 300 or 400 players is far a more attractive mathematical proposition.  However, and perhaps I am being too sensitive or reading too much into a simple marketing message, but I would like to see tournament organizers not take such jabs at other contest venues.  Implying that a "free" tournament as run by TVG or free for NHC Tour members is of a lesser ilk does nothing to promote the thoroughbred handicapping contest circuit, and in my view comes off as somewhat amateurish.  Too, I'm sure there are players who have already qualified for the NHC and may want to accrue NHC Tour points or experiment with new strategies in a "free" tournament...or others who are financially strapped in a lackluster economy but want to participate for the love of the contest action.

There is absolutely nothing wrong, in my view, entering any such contest, no matter the reason.  The contest circuit is niche at best, so the last thing any contest site -- particularly in an industry with such meager brand identity overall -- should do is disparage the other venues and potentially turn off customers to the industry.  The growth of the online contest circuit, to the contrary, can only invite more players into a wonderful sport that is now barely a blip in the sports and wagering industries.

I like NHCQualify.com and, again, have written favorably about the site before, but would argue -- not to get all Kumbaya on readers -- next time for a message that focuses on the value of its own tournaments without disparaging other contest sites.  I am, admittedly, a newcomer to the circuit, but would rather see tournament organizers work in conjunction with one another to plot out tournament schedules that do not conflict with each other (i.e. avoiding a day with one on-track contest and three concurrent online contests).  Unlike the various state racing commissions that the thoroughbred racing media and horseplayers often pan for their protectionist and self-serving ways, I would like to see tournament organizers take the highest road in their efforts to promote the handicapping contest product on a broad industry scale.

Let's see what happens when the 2012 tournament schedule is announced.  Maybe we'll have fewer scheduling conflicts and increasing opportunities to participate in handicapping tournaments for spots in NHC for years to come.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Good call by NHCQualify.com has me weighing options

First off, I want to wish everyone a safe and Happy Thanksgiving!  This is, by far, my favorite holiday, considering my view that this is what Christmas is meant to be - a gathering of family over dinner, rather than a mind-numbing 90-day run-up filled with shopping, stress and Yukon Cornelius.  Anyway, best to you and yours on Thursday!

Let horseplayers not forget, however, there are 20 of 500 NHC seats up for grabs this weekend, including the live Super Qualifier at Hawthorne Race Course, plus two interesting online contests, one where I am sure to participate (waiting to gauge the number of entrants - and my wife's and kids' demands - before picking).  This is no weekend to rest those past performances with a late-season shot at January's $2 million Vegas championship.

NJ Horseplayer contemplates
Thanksgiving weekend
tournament options
The first is on Black Friday at Ellis Park's HorseTourneys.com, where I will likely land.  This $175 event features a 12-race card (from Aqueduct, Churchill and the Fair Grounds) for up to 200 players, with 4 NHC packages guaranteed (i.e., regardless of number of entrants).  A fifth seat will be added if 190 players enter.  This is evidently HorseTourney's final NHC-focused tournament this season.

Meanwhile, NHCQualify.com has yet to designate race tracks, but will be running a $150 tournament on Saturday, with "up to" 6 NHC seats up for grabs and a maximum of 300 entrants.  The organizers' decision to drop the fee from $400 (for up to 10 NHC seats) to $150 (up to 6 seats) was, in my opinion, extremely wise in light of recent trends.

A review of the contest outcomes for NHCQualify.com's last three $400 tournaments showed the events drawing a meager 80 (Oct. 15), 85 (Oct. 29) and 68 (Nov. 12) participants, even with up to 10 NHC seats per event up for grabs.  Ultimately, across the three contests, NHCQualify.com gave away just 10 spots, presumably leaving the organization with 20 "unclaimed" Championship spots.  I'm a relatively new (and very part-time) contest circuit player, but I had been under the impression that serious players historically jumped at a 1-in-22 chance of making the NHC Championship.

This prompted me to email NHCQualify.com on Sunday, asking what the organization would do with this "unclaimed freight."  I did not get a direct response, but on Monday got an email much like the other NHC Tour players about this Saturday's $150 tournament, which in my view marks a rational response to what likely addressed three scenarios:

  • A number of better players have already qualified for Vegas and have no need for a $400 tournament with no cash prizes
  • The increase in NHC contest seats to 500 in January 2012 (from 300 last year) has "watered down" the contest circuit, whereby players will now only pay a premium to enter in-person tournaments with smaller fields and a chance to win real rather than just notional prizes.
  • Players' bankrolls are shrinking, either on account of an explosion in the number of contest venues now offered (i.e. a ton of new online tournaments at places like HorseTourneys.com, HorsePlayersQualify.com and DerbyWars.com) or simply because of a lackluster economy where everyone has to tighten his or her purse strings.
In my view, the last three tournaments' decline in NHCQualify.com participants is likely a combination of the three, and prospective participants have more options to weigh in their contest play.  People with limitless bankrolls surely will benefit from being able to enter just about any tournament, but for the weekend horseplayers on a budget (NJ Horseplayer among them) must pick and choose.

With that in mind, and with 175 spots (out of 200) remaining on HorseTourneys.com and nearly 240 spots (out of 300) remaining on NHCQualify.com, I'll likely sit tight until Friday morning to decide.  I'll let the market dictate which venue presents the best opportunity for a spot in January's NHC Championship.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Anxious for 2012 Breeders Cup

Racing now through the end of 2011, in my opinion, is the equivalent of turning the TV on a snowy night in January or February to Dominican winter league baseball, where maybe the enthusiast stops to watch an inning or two just to whet the appetite for what is to come in spring training and the "real" MLB season.  It is more or less a curiosity or to fantasize in the dead of winter about a scorching summer afternoon of baseball.

TVG is rife with Penn National and bottom-of-the-barrel harness action on this Tuesday night, and really little of significance or quality in thoroughbred racing seems to happen the next few months, save for a few late-season stakes ahead of January's Eclipse Awards and, for the handicapping contest player, the National Handicapping Championship's (NHC) 13th edition - the $2 million brass ring.

Already pining for 2012
Watching a claimer from Penn while folding laundry a few hours ago got me yearning for more recap on the 2011 edition of the Breeders Cup and reminded me of the scribbled and earmarked past performances on my desk, begging for one final look and some note taking in advance of the 2012 Breeders Cup (at Santa Anita, much to the chagrin of Belmont Park officials and East Coasters like me) before hitting the recycle bin.

As blogged in advance of this year's Breeders Cup, I have been more disciplined about keeping notes specifically about the event, hopefully to help me play or avoid certain angles leading up to Breeders Cup, and the exercise paid off this year with a 200%+ ROI over the course of the two-day event.  Granted, the notes proved helpful with the Breeders run at the same track (Churchill Downs) for a second year in a row, but without further adieu, here are a few useful notes to myself for 2012.
  • Show more respect to European shippers, specifically to the Breeders Cup Turf:  This came to a head for a second-straight year, where I stuck to my guns and summarily dismissed Euro shippers who lacked a prep race in the States, but lost on my multi-race wagers with St. Nicholas Abbey's (Ire) impressive win.  I still do not know, even after watching the race a half-dozen times, how Brilliant Speed weakened in the stretch turning for home with the lead and seemingly separating, but clearly Abbey's win, combined with Dangerous Midge's in 2010 and two straight by Conduit in 2008-2009, suggest my logic is flawed, at least on the turf.
  • Pay close attention to Woodbine shippers on turf:  Perhaps this is pure coincidence, or the Churchill turf plays a lot like Woodbine's, but take a look at the evidence from 2011's Breeders races on grass:
    • Perfect Shirl -- 1st in the Emirates Filly & Mare Turf at nearly 28-to-1; finished second in the Grade 2 Canadian in her prior effort
    • Excaper -- 2nd at 33-to-1 in the Juvenile Turf two races removed from a close second in a first-time turf effort two races prior in the Grade 3 Summer Stakes at Woodbine
    • Regally Ready -- DOMINANT 1st in the Turf Sprint, though at a less savory 5-to-2, off a victory in the Grade 1 Nearctic over a yielding course
    • Court Vision -- 1st in the Breeders Cup Mile at a whopping 64-to-1, this time getting the best of my top selection, Woodbine Mile champ Turralure at 11-to-1, in a head-bob. 
  • Continue to watch Calder shippers on dirt: This angle might not be applicable to Santa Anita in 2012 based on the surface, but heeding my own notes from the 2010 Breeders gave me the confidence to include Musical Romance (20-to-1) in my winning daily double ($253.60) and Pick 3 ($270.40 for $1 base wager) combinations in 2011. Perhaps we'll have to save this one in the event that Belmont is granted the 2013 Breeders Cup.
  • Stay bullish on Dullahan in 2012.  I watched the Breeders Cup Juvenile a number of times, convinced that Union Rags was the best horse in the race, but knowing that promising two-year-olds rarely translate to top-flight three-year-olds, sought others in the field that offer promise with a winter of maturing and seasoning.  Dullahan is a horse I will be watching closely at the outset of 2012.  At first I thought Dullahan blew the first turn, but the full chart shows the horse was bumped and had to be steadied - the second straight race this horse has had trouble into the first turn (the horse fell way behind in the Grade 1 Breeders Futurity at Keeneland in October before winning at nearly 18-to-1). From out of another zip code, and evidently unable to navigate the final turn, Dullahan came on with gusto to finish fourth by a neck.  I just think this one will do well with seasoning and working on his turns, and am anxious to see where he'll run in his first start at a 3YO in 2012. 

Now I can finally put my PPs from the Breeders Cup to rest.  Off to the recycle bin for them, but in a little less than a year I'm hoping to recycle some of these ideas for hefty profits.  Time will tell. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pass the Toothpicks

I have no one to blame but myself for entering tonight's Friday Night Lights contest on Horse Players Qualify.com, but I never imagined the 8-race card featuring the entire Hollywood Park slate (first post: 10:07 p.m. ET) would be so grim.  A 4-horse race, a bunch of lackluster maiden events (things must be rough on the California circuit when a Los Alamitos shipper provides a halfway decent play), and a 5-horse stakes race.

Wake me when it's over!
Ah, it must be November...

With that in mind, I'll crack open a fresh Long Trail IPA, share my picks, hope I can stay awake for the first half of the card, and wish for the best.  At least the prize is attractive for the $30 buy-in (capped at 200 players): Top 4 win $1k entries to next Sunday's Twin Spires Championship, where some 50 seats to the NHC Championship and Horse Player World Series given out to the Top 50 finishers.  I'm more or less in tonight for the fun, but still a potentially sweet prize.

Best of luck to all who are participating!

Tentative picks: Race 1: Victory Cup (6-to-5); Race 2: Solar Wind (3-to-1); Race 3: Every Ego (10-to-1); Race 4: Raingear (12-to-1); Race 5: Game Charmer (12-to-1); Race 6: Brooklyn Rose (4-to-1); Race 7: El Gato Malo (3-to-1); Race 8: What A Rush (5-to-2).

Sunday, November 6, 2011


A 230%-or-so ROI is nothing to scoff at, but a head and a nose were all that separated me from an even more lucrative Breeders Cup weekend.

I have yet to review each race extensively, and I'll blog further thoughts about this weekend as time allows in the days ahead, but I did quickly watch the replays of the Race 9-11 Pick 3 sequence this morning, only to find that I was this close to a decent score. Had Union Rags not drifted many lengths out in the stretch, I suspect he would have outdone Hansen by at least a length in the Juvenile in Race 9.  Turallure (11-to-1) lost in a head-bob to 64-to-1 Court Vision in the Breeders Cup Mile, and I had Drosselmeyer (along with Havre de Grace) at nearly 15-to-1 in the Breeders Cup Classic.

There are likely multitudinous other handicappers or casual players who could make the same claim, but despite the disappointment of missing out on another potentially good Pick 3 payout, I am pretty content with my handicapping of the Super Bowl of thoroughbred racing.  I stuck with my convictions and made some excellent calls that proved profitable.  Now, entering the winter season and far less attractive cards the rest of this season, I am hopeful some of that savvy will carry over into the last few late-season handicapping contests I hope to enter.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Bombs Away on Breeders Cup Classic Day!

Three horses - two at 20-to-1 and another at 30-to-1 morning lines - set the basis for my Breeders Cup exotics selections this gorgeous, albeit chilly, autumn Saturday.

Holiday for Kitten, in my opinion, is a very credible option in the 5-furlong Turf Sprint (Race 6).  This extremely deep 14-horse field is ripe for the picking, in my view, and I think this 3-year-old Kitten's Joy filly has enough early speed to gun to the lead and save ground from post No. 2. If jockey Joel Rosario can get her out of the gate without trouble, this 30-to-1 horse has a legitimate shot. I recognize that Regally Ready gets attention as 3-to-1 morning line favorite, but generally avoid horses drawn outside post 6-7 in sprint distances this short and think Regally will need to get around California Flag to his inside to win. Oh, and Holiday for Kitten beat Musical Romance (winner of yesterday's Filly and Mare Sprint) last out.

Brilliant Speed is my choice at 20-to-1 in the Emirates Turf at a mile-and-a-half (Race 8). Come hell or high water I am avoiding all Euro shippers. I am sticking to my notes from last year to avoid the hype about foreign horses unless they have a U.S. prep race under the belt.  I just cannot justify the sub 9-to-2 morning lines on the five Euro shippers in this 9-horse field; perhaps ignorant, but that's not enough of a lure for horses I have yet to see race in North America.  Brilliant Speed's victory in the Grade 1 Bluegrass on April 16 is enough to convince me that this 3-year-old can close into slow fractions, and the Grade 3 win in the Saranac on the Saratoga turf on September 4 suggests versatility in terms of footing.  I will be using Brilliant Speed as the second of my three keys in Saturday investments.

Fort Loudon is my third key this afternoon, in Race 9, the Breeders Cup Juvenile.  Perhaps totally askew, but my view on 2-year-olds is that oftentimes the winner is a horse that can avoid trouble, especially considering the inexperience of these youthful fields.  A winner of four straight, albeit against mostly state-bred (Florida) company, Fort Loudon is especially intriguing at 20-to-1 from post No. 12 and I anticipate will track the early speed to his inside (Daddy Long Legs) and then stalk the leaders.  Fort Loudon's Beyer speed figures are not as eye-catching as some others here, but as the Daily Racing Form notes point out, Awesome Feather followed the same kind of route in shipping from Calder Race Course for the BC Juvenile Fillies in 2010.  Jockey Luis Jurado has been aboard for the last three, and this horse has proven victorious from both stalking positions in sprint races (three races back) and toward the lead in a slowly run $300k stakes last out.  In my view, this suggests the kind of patience needed this afternoon.

Consistent with my efforts to maximize a $100 bankroll, here are my selections for Saturday. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for similar success to Friday's decent score.
  • Race 4: 50-cent Pick 4 -- 3, 9, 10, 12 with 1, 2, 8 with 2, 4 with 6 = $12
  • Race 5: $1 Pick 3 -- 1, 2, 8 with 2, 4 with 6 (a hedge on losing race 1 in the Pick 4) = $6
  • Race 6: $4 Daily Double -- 2 with 6
  • Race 6: $1 Pick 3 -- 2, 4 with 6, 8 with 5,8 = $8
  • Race 6: $10 Exacta Box -- 2, 4 = $20
  • Race 7: $1 Pick 3 -- 6, 8 with 8 with 10, 12, 13 = $6
  • Race 7: $4 Daily Double -- 6 with 8
  • Race 8: 50-cent Pick 4 -- 8 with 10, 12, 13 with 1, 13 with 3, 10 = $6
  • Race 8: $4 Daily Double -- 8 with 12
  • Race 8: $5 Exacta Box -- 5 with 8 = $10
  • Race 9: $1 Pick 3 -- 1, 12, 13 with 13 with 3, 10 = $4
  • Race 9: $1 Trifecta Box -- 10 with 12 with 13 = $6
  • Race 11: $10 Exacta (Straight) -- 10 over 3
Giving the obligatory Breeders Cup Classic pick, I think Havre de Grace will have a relatively easy time beating what I deem a sketchy field. I am throwing Drosselmeyer underneath and point toward this horse's effort in the 2010 Belmont (a victory with jockey Mike Smith...the last time Smith rode this horse) and last race in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (a decent second in the mud against Flat Out) as signs that maybe he can pick up the pieces late with enough early speed in the field.

Good luck to everyone today with their Breeders Cup selections!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Solid ROI on Friday Breeders Cup

Cambina flopped in the Breeders Cup Filly & Mare Turf, but fortunately my other key play on Friday's card, Stephanie's Kitten, proved a valuable find that netted a 620% return on my $85 initial investment (see Thursday's post for a full rundown of my wagers).

The sequence of six Breeders races started chalky, with Secret Circle winning at 2-to-5 in the Juvenile Sprint.  Fortunately I threw her in "just in case" on the first of my two Pick 3 tickets ($9, 3-by-1-by-3), as my other two choices, Sum of the Parts and Vexor flopped. Hey, I'm a long-shot player, but on to leg number two...

As noted Thursday night, I was extremely high on Stephanie's Kitten in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, but so were many of the other bettors, who pushed her down to 6-to-1 off a 12-to-1 morning line, though this 2-year-old ran a great race to win and pay $14.20.  I was hoping for at least 9-to-1, but I'll take it.

Turning to the third leg of my Pick 3 sequence, I was alive to three horses: Turbulent Descent (7-to-5), Switch (3-to-1) and Musical Romance (20-to-1); respectively, the projected payouts were $30, $60 and $274.  CLEARLY I was hoping for Musical Romance, and thought this 4-year-old had a legitimate shot at hanging with the front-runners (just not enough to make her a key wager for the day) and maybe having enough left in the tank for the stretch drive.  Sure as can be, jockey J.C. Leyva put Musical Romance toward the front and in a nice stalking, ground-saving trip before setting her loose in the stretch for a length-and-a-quarter victory over Switch.  Needless to say, there was rejoicing in the NJ Horseplayer circles, not only for the payout, but also for the notes taken last year about how effective Calder Race Course shippers had been during the 2010 Breeders Cup.  They proved extremely valuable in picking this one out at 20-to-1.

So, my $1 base-wager Pick 3 ticket of $9 paid $270.40.  Meanwhile, the $2 Stephanie's Kitten-Musical Romance daily double paid $253.60, and the $1 Musical Romance-Switch exacta paid $88.50, for a $612.50 total score!  I share this not to toot my own horn, but merely to follow up - much as I have been excessively candid about my futile handicapping contest efforts throughout 2011 - to the readers throughout this season.  In the meantime, these two plays put me in a position to win the Derby Wars.com two-day BC Point contest ($250 top prize), where I am tied for 6th out of 255 going into Saturday.

Speaking of Saturday's card, I am about halfway through my handicapping of tomorrow's eight Breeders races, and intend to share some thoughts by at least tomorrow morning.  I hope anyone who ventured here before Friday's card found this exercise useful, but by no means am I about to guarantee the kinds of returns produced this afternoon.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bullish on Cambina, Stephanie's Kitten in Friday's BC

The excitement is certainly building in the NJ Horseplayer circles with Friday's six Breeders Cup races less than 24 hours away. As a lower-budgeted investor, I am hoping to maximize my bankroll by picking out a key horse around which I allocate my dollars. I ended up with $85 in wagers.

In keeping with what worked for me during a 2009 effort that yielded $2,300 of (Saturday) winnings on a $100 bankroll, I have identified a relatively deep-fielded race with a prohibitive favorite and lots of long shots and will focus half of my bankroll on one big price. In 2009 it was the Dirt Mile (Furthest Land at 21-1) for me, and on Friday's card it is Cambina (30-1 morning line) in Race 9, the Grade 1 Filly & Mare Turf.

Stacelita (2-to-1), a two-time Grade 1 winner and a close third against the boys in the Grade 1 United Nations at Monmouth Park in July, is the clear-cut favorite in a field of 12 and drew post No. 2, just outside 8-to-1 Dubawi Heights, whom I consider a credible contender and early runner who will benefit from a rail draw leading into the quick first turn of this mile-and-three-eighths event. The two outside horses, Dynaslew (30-to-1) and Misty For Me (IRE - 10-to-1), I project will gun from the gate and challenge for the early lead, perhaps setting quick fractions for what is a 3-turn event. I expect Stacelita to sit comfortably behind the leaders.

Banking on 30-to-1 Cambina in the Breeders Cup
Filly & Mare Turf (Grade 1); walking the track on
(source: Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Considering such a pace scenario may prove dicey, but a big part of the allure of Cambina, for me, is the three-year-old's proven ability to close quickly into either fast or dawdling fractions. The horse's efforts in the Providencia Stakes at Santa Anita on April 9 (what I deem fast fractions of 46.00, 1:10.23 and 1:35.20 for a mile-and-an-eighth) and Honeymoon at Hollywood on June 11 (50.19, 1:15.04 and 1:38.57) tell me that with a strong grass-based closing rider in Garrett Gomez, this horse has a legitimate shot at picking up the pieces very late, particularly when considering sub-24 second efforts in the stretch of recent races (albeit 5th- and 4th-place finishes) stack up very well versus this field. I'd argue the extra 1/8-mile will help my chances.

With this in mind, here is what I'm playing surrounding Race 9:
  • Race 8, $1 Pick 3: 2, 11, 12 with 1, 2, 3, 4, 7 with 1, 7 = $30
    • I consider Aruna, Dubawi Heights and Harmonious players as well, and threw in Stacelita as a safety valve in the middle leg, considering this horse's recent record
    • In leg 1, the Grade 1 Juvenile Fillies, I am leaning toward Weemissfrankie (4-to-1) over Candrea (6-to-1), but very intrigued at 30-to-1 by the No. 12, Frolic's Revenge, with John Velazquez aboard and considering my Calder angle (see Wednesday's notes). 
    • In the third leg, Race 10 - The Ladies Classic, I made Ultra Blend (8-to-1) my top choice over the chalky (and, in my view, vulnerable) Plum Pretty and Royal Delta and consider Miss Match a player as well at 10-to-1, with the rail draw.
  • Race 9, $4 exacta box 1-2-4 ($24), $1 trifecta box 1-2-4 ($6): total of $30
In the earlier Breeders Cup races on Friday, I also made smaller base wagers keying Stephanie's Kitten at 12-to-1 in the Juvenile Fillies Turf at a mile. The morning line is way too high on a horse that looked very impressive in winning the Grade 1 Alcibiad at Keeneland on October 7 at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the synthetic surface, and who got strung out wide in the one-turn mile Natalma at Woodbine on turf in September, finishing a creditable third taking the overland route. As a horseplayer I feel obligated to making a stand against, and mine is to generally avoid European shippers who have not had a race yet in North America. The 2-to-1 favorite, Elusive Kate, looks imposing on paper, but I want to see what she'll do from post 10 in a field of at least 14 horses.
Here's where I'm going earlier in the card:
  • Race 5: $1 Pick 3: 2, 6, 9 with 5 (singling Stephanie's Kitten) with 3, 5, 6 = $9
  • Race 6: $2 Daily Double: 5 with 5 = $2
  • Race 6: $1 Exacta Box 5-14 = $2
  • Race 7: $1 Exacta Box 5-6 = $2 
    • I am playing the Calder angle again with No. 5, Musical Romance, at 20-to-1 perhaps stealing Race 7, the Filly and Mare Sprint, from Turbulent Descent (6-to-5) and Switch (3-to-1)
To close out the card, I am going with a $5 exacta box, 1-7, in Race 10 ($10 total), pretty confident about Ultra Blend's and Miss Match's chances to finish first and second at a price.
    As always, nothing too fancy, and maybe Cambina and Stephanie's Kitten prove to be no-shows on Friday, but I'd argue there is a credible case to be made for each pulling off a Breeders Cup upset.  I'll take inventory of Friday's outcome tomorrow night and share some thoughts on Saturday's Breeders Cup card and some contests where I'm participating, including a few fantasy tournaments on Derby Wars.com

    Wednesday, November 2, 2011

    Long Time, No Comment! Some BC Angles

    Life's chaos has left me with scant time to write about my mediocre handicapping skills of late, but I'm hoping to "ramp up" (a term all-to-often used in financial research circles, where I work as an editor) my output over the next few weeks of the racing season and, in particular, heading toward Breeders Cup.

    From a contest perspective I have participated in the Friday late-afternoon events on Derby Wars.com (with each winner earning a seat to the 2012 NHC), but generally finished mid- to late-pack, so there's not much to write home about there and chances are fewer now for yours truly to qualify.  I'm hoping to use this weekend's robust cards to restock my bankroll for a '13 NHC qualifying effort.

    Nonetheless, I'm turning my attention to the Super Bowl of racing this weekend, and anticipate digging into the past performances tonight, but wanted to share notes that I made right after last year's BC.  Maybe you'll find them useful...or maybe not...but after several near misses in my '11 wagers (Saturday bankroll capped at $100 and mostly $1 Pick 3s and 4s), I wanted to remind myself some angles that, with the event at Churchill again this year, could prove valuable.

    Verbatim, and admitting the first angle is entirely irrelevant (but shared for the sake of honesty), here is what I noted to myself, precisely for this weekend on the handicapping calender:
    Horses to Watch for 2011 and random notes: 2YO Turf Mile: Pluck (winner; 3rd in Continental Mile), Soldat, Willcox Inn (3rd in BC at 20+ to 1 odds)

    Japanese runners not faring well in Breeders Cup races; avoid

    Too much made of the Euro horses as race favorites; and do not get caught up in the hype of Arc d’ Triumph winners, who generally tire out. Look, instead, for rested Euro horses with decent pedigrees, along the lines of Dangerous Midge, who wired the field in the 10f BC Turf and came in off a middling $89k win in the G3 Arc Trial.

    Play nothing but longer odds in the BC Dirt Mile; Dakota Phone won on the rail as a 37-1 choice in 2010, and a 21-1 winner in Furthest Land in 2009.

    Calder horses (i.e. deeper, sandy track) fared much better at Churchill than other dirt players. Could be an angle worth watching if Belmont scores the 2012 BC

    Look @ horses that have fared well in the past at the BC host track (i.e. horses that liked Churchill dirt in previous tries excelled in BC races). 
    I share these merely to lay the foundation for the handicapping selections I'll be sharing in the run-up to Friday's and Saturday's Breeders Cup races.  I'd be curious to know whether anyone else keeps rolling notes from year to year as reminders of angles worth noting in big events such as Breeders Cup.  Feel free to chime in.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011

    Derby Wars.com Gets It Right As Contest Organizer

    Initial impressions are extremely important, and if yesterday's experience in the $25 NHC Qualifier on Derby Wars.com is any indication, I'm declaring this nascent operator the big winner among online contest sites. 

    The technology behind the site appears top notch and I found to be user friendly.  Aside from its far-sleeker appearance than otherwise functional venues such as NHC Qualify.com and Horse Tourneys.com, Derby Wars.com does some little things that I found helpful.  Instead of having to shuffle back and forth between pages, most of the contest features I need to access are on one page. The ability to change on the fly with my selections, view my ultimate picks and outcomes, and see the leaderboard all on one screen was extremely helpful. In addition, the player chat feature can be interesting to follow and makes for a more-personal experience than other sites.

    Where it all happens the next three Friday nights!
    In terms of the contest flow, I loved that the 12 races moved rather quickly -- especially appealing for a time-constrained guy like me who appreciates that the contest wrapped up in 2 hours, 15 minutes.  Quick decision-making was a fresh break, too, from some contests that take 4+ hours to get through, or where the organizers pick two tracks with races going off almost concurrently.  The flow of Friday's contest was a huge plus, in my consideration. 

    Regarding my outcome (111th out of 267), I made it to around 35th-place after hitting in contest race six with 11-to-1 Hoofit in the Grade 3 Ogden Phoenix from Keeneland, who paid $35.60 net ($25.60 to win, $10 to place) and nosed Aikenite in a 6-furlong sprint that featured the overrated Flashpoint.  My prospects for a contest win and seat in the NHC Championship in January dimmed, however, in the next few races.

    In contest race seven, a $25k claimer at a mile on the turf at Belmont (the finale), all I can say is that my past performances sheet after the race had "HOLD ON, DAMMIT!" scribbled at the margins.  Knockinelder, at almost 13-to-1, looked to me a credible front-runner against 3-to-2 favorite Ms. Stilleto and ran true to form, leading throughout and looking strong into the stretch even after dangerous early fractions of 23 and 46.3 but was nipped at the wire by the favorite and my alternate horse (Derby Wars wisely lets players make an "alternate" selection in the event of late scratches - more intuitive than NHC Qualify.com), 17-to-1 Sheza Heartbreaker. 

    In contest race 11, a $52k allowance at 1 mile-and-a-sixteenth on the Keeneland Polytrack, I thought Notoriety made a lot of sense at 19-to-1 (up from 10-to-1 morning line and with the credible Martin Pedroza aboard).  This 4-year-old gelding did not disappoint...except for relinquishing what was looking like a victory in the shadow of the wire to finish second by a neck to the third choice.  Sitting in 65th place in the contest at that point, I was pretty certain the roughly $55-$60 payout would have vaulted me into at least the Top 10, but that is likely moot, considering in the contest finale I threw out the 26-to-1 Java Man who ultimately helped Derby Wars.com contest player "Argie" take down top prize and a spot in Vegas in January. 

    Outcomes aside, NJ Horseplayer is very much looking forward to competing in upcoming Derby Wars.com tournaments, especially the Friday night NHC Qualifiers; yeah, it's a 1-in-300 shot, but $25 is the right entry price to take a shot.  Backed by 2011 NHC Winner John Doyle, it is clear to me that this site was designed with the contest horseplayer in mind, and the organizers deserve a ton of credit for putting forth an excellent product!  

    The only thing more perfect for me would be to somehow get live odds during the contest, and to figure out more about what the "points" and "tokens" on Derby Wars.com mean. See you all next Friday at Derby Wars.com!

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011

    Online Contest Schedule Heating Up

    A few times a week I'll visit the NTRA's schedule of handicapping tournaments on the NHC Tour website, hoping to catch something new that offers me a shot at the 2012 Championship as the qualifying season moves into the homestretch.

    October's schedule is pretty robust and definitely heavy on online events.  Ellis Park affiliate HorseTourneys.com highlights the card with seven events, offering 24 seats to the Vegas tourney in January 2012, while an apparent upstart called DerbyWars.com will offer four $25 tournaments, each with a shot at one coveted NHC seat. HorsePlayersQualify.com, which recently hosted its big $50,000 Players Challenge, is also back in the mix. Save for a 10-seat super-qualifier at Thistledown in Ohio, the slate is heavily weighted toward online tournaments, which favors players like me who cannot travel the states to enter live tourneys.

    Outside of the lack of an infinite bankroll, the only drawback, perhaps, to the online tournament format is the distraction of home.  For instance, this past weekend I was entered in Ellis Park's freebie make-up from August's cancelled contest, but could barely pay attention owing to various family commitments and chores. I finished in the top 25%, having handicapped the 10-race card for barely an hour on Saturday morning, but really watched from afar, and until a few minutes ago did not go back and look at race replays. (My highlight on a day where many long-shots finished first was with 15-to-1 two-year-old maiden Awalkinthemoonlite in the 7th from Arlington; otherwise, I finished with $68.60 in winnings on a mythical $40 bankroll - not bad, but just as good as finishing one spot short of winning an NHC seat).

    Anyway, it is simply interesting to find so much more online action this season compared to last - my first semi-serious effort at qualifying for the NHC Championship.  I hope some of these organizers will consider a robust slate in the dreary winter months of January, February and March, when the slate of events seems so much quieter but the weather (at least here in the Northeast) is conducive to kicking back and playing the ponies from what I have heard TVG often dub as "the 3,000-mile couch."

    Tuesday, September 20, 2011

    Not Yet Ready for Primetime

    Sunday's futile outcome in the Woodbine-Monmouth Park Handicapping Challenge at Monmouth proved, yet again, that I have a long way to go before becoming a credible contest challenger.  At least I have a day job.

    Reflecting upon Sunday's contest, and halfheartedly sticking to recent consideration of a handicapping contest strategy predicated on place wagers, not all was bad, hitting back-to-back $10 win wagers on 5-to-2 winners in Leonessa and Pound Foolish in the sixth and seventh from Monmouth.  However, the bottom line was that my conviction for (and larger wagers on) three longer-priced horses sealed my fate in squandering my $100 contest bankroll, though not officially until the second-to-last contest race.

    I stuck to my guns early in the context, hitting on a $10 place wager on Bluedacious in the opener from Woodbine to push the bankroll to $114.50.  (The contest mandated at least five wagers of at least $10 each on the Woodbine and Monmouth cards, and Bluedacious was a clear "move-the-chains" type bet).

    Five consecutive losses (two straight win wagers, two win-place plays and a pure place bet), including my first of three "best bets" on the day - Miss Keller in The Canadian Stakes - dropped me to $54.50 before the two straight Monmouth victories, where I could not justify making place wagers on 5-to-2 horses and ended up climbing back to a $105.50 bankroll.  (Too bad Garrett Gomez miscalculated the 9-furlong Canadian distance by about a mile, as he waited too long to rally Miss Keller, who CLEARLY had enough but met BQE-type traffic and rallied too late to have threatened at nearly 11-to-1.)

    From there, bupkis.

    I loved Widgmore Hall in The Northern Dancer, but could not justify a wager at less than 3-to-2 and landed instead on 11-to-1 Hailstone, who finished fifth, about three lengths back.  Then, I burned up most of my remaining bankroll on two long-shots late in the contest who nearly gave me a thrill - Golden Galleon (a two-length loss in The Politely Stakes at Monmouth at 7-to-1) and 34-to-1 Riding the River, who almost pulled off a shocker before relenting in the shadow of the wire in the Woodbine Mile.  I have yet to see official contest standings, but my $20 win wager would have yielded about a $700-plus payout and perhaps a shot at the top of the standings (where the leader had less than $500 on what was a mostly chalky day).

    If nothing else, the contest provided me with some thrills, and consolation in seeing my man Red Rock Or Bust briefly get into the Top 5 when hitting on a $50 wager on Turallure in the Woodbine Mile, but as both of us eventually met our ultimate contest demise, the NHC Tour Championship seems far less attainable this season.

    The live-money contest slate is likely complete for me in 2011, though I will certainly compete in the Ellis Park make-up event this Sunday and some other online freebies, but I'm still looking for some answers as to how to go about playing the live contests, from both bankroll management and wagering perspectives.

    Monday, September 12, 2011

    Considering a "Place" Contest Strategy

    A recent hiatus in live-money handicapping contest play, a few very near misses in this weekend's Public Handicapper online contest, and some dabbling with Equibase's free handicapping tournament has heightened my consideration of a strategy based on place wagers in this Sunday's (September 18) $200 Monmouth-Woodbine Handicapping Challenge at Monmouth Park.

    NJ Horseplayer considers bucking
    the "no guts, no glory" lure of
    handicapping contests
    (The $100 bankroll and $100 buy-in tournament mandates that players make at least 5 wagers on each track in order to qualify for the 2 NHC berths up for grabs). 

    In my small sample of live-money contest participation (maybe 8-10, all at Monmouth, in the last 2-3 years), impatience and greed have at times gotten the best of me - i.e., playing too many races on a multi-track card, solely making win wagers on long-shots rather than building a bankroll throughout the day merely to survive and make one well-place wager toward the end.  To be sure, I observed two top finishers from Monmouth's simulcast contests last winter about double their $100 starting bankroll and hit nicely with a $200 bet in the final contest race.

    Now, granted, any contest success comes down to excellent handicapping, but bankroll management and timing of making a "big" bet are equally important.

    Results from my Equibase contest picks (under tfbill, if the link does not work) two days ago got me to analyzing a "what if" scenario.  Assuming a $100 contest bankroll and $20 place wagers down the line on each of the eight contest races (four each from Kentucky Downs and Belmont Park), I would have netted $177, with four second-place finishers paying $8.40, $6.70, $3.80 and $2.80.  As only two of those four horses won their races, a combination of $10 win-place wagers would have netted less.

    Granted, hypothetically speaking, five straight losses would make for a short contest day, but a 77% return without a win bet is a tempting proposition, considering the minimization of risk and my endorsement of long-shots.

    I tinkered in one contest with win-show strategies to no avail; typically, the show payouts, even on some longer-priced horses, were not enough to justify embracing such a strategy, in my view.  The show bet would serve well in terms of capital preservation (i.e. holding onto a top-3 spot toward the end of a contest card) but not accrual.  Place wagering, based on my simple Equibase analysis, might prove more beneficial to contest players like me, who can always find value but are inexperienced in bankroll management and do not necessarily like to stick to the sidelines in races with deep fields.

    Please share your thoughts on this notion, and whether anyone has had success or failure with place-focused wagering or contest strategy.

    Friday, September 9, 2011

    Only 10 More Months Until Saratoga and Del Mar!

    The NFL season is as much a highlight for me as any football fan (especially as a long-time Jets sufferer), and being entirely unprepared for my annual fantasy football draft is an annual rite of passage. However, I am already missing the extremely high caliber of the Saratoga and Del Mar meets - a wretched performance in the latter's free online handicapping contest notwithstanding - surely, like other U.S. horseplayers.

    Somehow, however, I will press on, focusing again this week on the gamut of online opportunities on Public Handicapper (rather than belaboring analysis here, visit my selection page on PH.com, though I am extremely high on Vickies in Town in The River Cities at Louisiana Downs), but will also be making a stop at Monmouth Park for some of Saturday afternoon's card, which I've yet to study.

    As time allows, I hope to get back into blogging full bore ahead of next Sunday's Woodbine-Monmouth handicapping challenge at Monmouth Park and hope to catch up on some other topics lost amid some late-summer vacationing and trying to live through an extensive home renovation.  Among them, I hope to revisit the Night School seminar on handicapping contest strategy (something I proposed on the chat and, of course, could not attend live that evening), and explore the growth of the online contest circuit, where I seem to be locating even more tournament venues for opportunities to reach the 2012 NHC.  Stay tuned.

    Saturday, September 3, 2011

    Forego-Woodward Double

    Hopefully everyone survived Hurricane Irene without much damage. Our home in Monmouth County, NJ was unscathed, but many people near us are still without power while others sustained major water damage. From a horseplayer perspective, Monmouth Park cancelled its card last weekend, which had to be a major financial hit during the peak of the summer racing meeting, but the Labor Day weekend's shaping up nicely.

    Melancholy is setting in, with both the Saratoga and Del Mar meetings winding down, but Monmouth will still be kicking it for another two months, including the Monmouth-Woodbine Challenge handicapping contest on Sunday, September 18, which is next on the docket for NJ Horseplayer.

    In the meantime, here are two ideas for this afternoon's 9th and 10th races from Saratoga, which are two of the four races this weekend on Public Handicapper.

    Giant Oak in the Woodward
    Jersey Town (6-to-1) has a legitimate shot in the Forego Stakes over the 7-furlong Saratoga dirt after a decent second in the Teddy Drone at Monmouth off an 8-month layoff.  Sidney's Candy (4-to-1) looks extremely tough from the No. 2 post and should dart to the lead, but I have questions about the turf-to-dirt switch and am banking on Escrow Kid (15-1), Regal Ransom (6-to-1) and Rule By Night (15-to-1) setting swift early fractions, setting up for a stalking type who can save ground into the long Saratoga stretch.  I'm envisioning a scenario similar to last week's call on Caleb's Posse, who nipped Uncle Mo in the closing strides of the 7-furlong King's Bishop, and hope to see a sub-47 second half-mile time.

    Giant Oak (8-to-1) seems like a decent value in an 8-horse field highlighted by Havre De Grace (8-to-5) and Flat Out (5-to-2), but I find these two very vulnerable.  I have not been a big fan of closers at the Spa, but it appears there are at least four, maybe five, players that will vie for the lead in the 9-furlong, $750k Woodward Stakes.  If Shaun Bridgmohan can keep Giant Oak in the same zip code as the rest of the field, I think this 5-year-old Grade 1 winner has a decent shot at a price. Mission Impazible looked intriguing at 10-to-1, but I have concerns about the horse's effort in the Whitney.

    If time allows, I might take a look at the Ricks Memorial from Remington Park for the Public Handicapper contest, but in the meantime, everyone enjoy their final summer weekend of horseplay!

    Saturday, August 27, 2011

    Battening Down the Hatches

    First and foremost I hope everyone is safe and prepared for Hurricane Irene, which is expected to hit my area (Monmouth County, New Jersey) heaviest overnight, with winds of 75-80 mph.  The preparation cut into prep time for today's handicapping, which focuses on the four races in this weekend's contest on the Public Handicapper, including three this afternoon from Saratoga and Sunday's Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

    Nonetheless, I've hunkered down and taken some shots in the hopes of moving up the food chain from my current position at No. 360 ($17.80 on 6-of-47 for the season) out of 3,500-plus contestants.

    • Ballston Spa, Grade 2 at a mile-and-a-sixteenth: Strike The Bell (15-to-1) - Perhaps a reach, but I like the change to Ramon Dominguez and get the sense that this horse needed a sprint to shake off the doldrums of her prior two races, where this 5-year-old mare finished a 18 lengths back.  The field, in my view, is not all that special and unless Romacaca can maintain her form and win her 5th in a row, perhaps I can catch a price here on a horse who has won over the Saratoga strip. 
    • King's Bishop, Grade 1 at 7 furlongs: Caleb's Posse (9-to-2) - Prices should be pretty square with Uncle Mo returning off the bench and likely to dip below the 9-to-5 morning line, in my opinion. I am really high on Flashpoint on the rail and think this horse is meant for 7f, but love the way Rajiv Maragh handled Caleb's Posse in a hand-ride victory in the Amsterdam. Sticking with the hot hand and going with Caleb over Flashpoint and Dominus
    • Travers Stakes, Grade 1 at 10 furlongs: Raison d'Etat (10-to-1) - I'd expect to get closer to the PH odds of 7-to-1 and recognize this horse was picked by 4 of the 5 Daily Racing Form editors, but sense  that this is an extremely talented horse with a great pedigree.  I am not enthralled with either five of the inside horses here in the field and think more of the talent is outside, which is no problem at the mile-and-a quarter distance.  I anticipate a sensible pace but to be able to gun down Shackleford.
    • Pacific Classic (Sunday), Grade 1 at 9 furlongs: Stately Victor (15-to-1) - Played with fire before with this horse, but the cold Mike Smith is a big rider upgrade, in my opinion, and I have no issues with this horse's ability to handle the distance and note the $584k of winnings in 6 races (2 wins, a second and two thirds) on synthetic surfaces.  Jeranimo and Acclamation are my backup picks. 
    Best of luck to everyone weathering the storm this weekend. It's now raining pretty hard here, which means it's likely time to batten down the hatches for good through Sunday evening.