Another close-but-no-cigar for NJ Horseplayer in today's first of three NHCQualify.com (NHCQ) play-ins for February's shot at 9 NHC seats in the 2012 Vegas championship.
The death knell, as I noted to myself the moment the horses crossed the wire, proved to be my pick of 9-to-1 Cano Code over 12-to-1 Rafe in the 10th at Tampa Bay Downs; Rafe ended up scoring $33.40 for a notional $2W/P wager and would have been enough to put me in 10th place. Damn. Otherwise, I have no major regrets and ended up hitting one winner (7-to-1 Giant Oak in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream) and two well-identified runners-up (7-to-1 Twojohnsandajack in the 6th at Gulfstream and 11-to-1 Queen Mariles in the 7th at Santa Anita). In the end, my three hits were worth a notional $40.80, good enough to again get me in the top 100, which is basically worth pocket lint in these contests. Still, I topped many top-notch handicappers and am gaining confidence with the last two weekends' efforts.
My convictions proved flawed in a few cases. One of my top choices, Lieutenant Dan in the 9th at Tampa ran on too late to finish 5th at 18-to-1 in a race that saw 2-to-1 favorite Capt. Candyman Can edge 99-to-1 bomber Legal Move (even though NHCQ caps the place payouts at $22, I'm not sure anyone made the call on this nag anyway, so no damage done). My other Tampa selection never lifted a hoof.
The pace scenario for the first of four Gulfstream races on the card proved worthy and Julien Leparoux gave Twojohnsandajack a nice rail trip to avoid a huge pack of stalkers as I had handicapped, but simply did not have enough versus 6-to-5 favorite and Pletcher-trained Queen'splatekitten, an impressive 3-year-old. The Grade 3 Suwannee River at Gulfstream went pretty much to form as well and my 18-to-1 choice Miss Blakely was game but not enough in the stretch and finished fifth. I was nowhere close in the 8th, a 7-furlong maiden special weight event, before hitting the Donn (coincidentally, I picked the Donn finishers 1-2-3 on Public Handicapper, which paid $148.50 on a $1 trifecta).
The last three races of the contest - 5, 7 and 8 and Santa Anita (aside: I have NO clue why anyone would bet real money on California races...in race 1, a 36-to-1 shot won and the exacta was a mere $114...that's weak) - provided some excitement. Indiara, an 18-to-1 pick in the 5th in a 6.5-furlong downhill turf contest, simply did not show up. Brice Blanc is one of my turf favorites at Santa Anita, but his horse ran like garbage, lugging home last. Still, it was another chalky winner at "The Great Race Place" in that race in Separate Forest, so it did not prove a fatal selection.
My original selection in the 7th at Santa Anita was Samba School (Ire), who was 8-1 on the morning line but went off at 7-2 (there were three scratches that race), so in 103rd place out of 300 in the NHCQ and looking for a bigger score with two picks remaining in the contest, I switched to 10.8-to-1 Queen Mariles, who was coming off a 6-month layoff (typically not an angle that I prefer, though I didn't like any of the other available long shots) but dropping in class. Sure as can be, Queen Mariles ran to the lead in a blistering 43.4 and 1:06.78 but was caught by Samba School (Ire), but the switch only cost me $3.20 - not a decisive tally.
In the NHCQ contest finale, and about $17-$18 out of the requisite Top 30 to reach the 90-contestant play-in on February 26 for 9 NHC seats, I went away from original choice Blue Chagall (Fr), who was hovering around an insufficient 8-1 right before post time, and went instead to Meteore at 15-to-1, who ultimately finished fourth, only 1.5 lengths behind winner Fluke. Much like Queen Mariles in the prior contest race, I had a game long shot that pressed the pace only to slip at the finish, though he held second until a few hundred yards out, nearly giving me a coronary.
I would highly recommend the NHCQ contests to anyone lucky enough to have access to TVG and/or HRTV and can watch and play along at home. The $100 entry fee is nominal, and contestants have a 1-in-10 chance of advancing each round (i.e top 30 of 300, then top 9 of 90). The format also has a bit of a live-money contest feel, in that players have right up to post time to make or change selections, and the $42-$22 W/P caps are a deterrent to players compelled to make 10 bomber selections and hoping to get lucky with one. My only criticism (as if anyone from NHCQ is aware of the NJ Handicapper) is that Santa Anita's cards are vastly overrated - only 2 of the 10 winners on the entire card paid more than $10, making for ho-hum contest play. Personally speaking, the quality of fields may not be comparable to Santa Anita, but I would rather have more lower-echelon but deeper-fielded races from Tampa in play.