The amazing thing I have learned in just two-plus years of playing on the thoroughbred handicapping contest circuit is how small race margins often determine not only the player's outcome, but prompt change of strategy in a heartbeat.
Friday night's It's Del Mar Time contest at HorsePlayersQualify.com was a case in point. The contest centered on the 8-race card, with handicappers making mythical $2 win-place wagers and earning a point for each dollar of "real" win and place money earned by one's horse. Of my three contests this weekend (more below), this is one I handicapped thoroughly, but only tied for 46th-place in a 150-person field, accruing 446 points; the winner tallied 1,128 to take down the $2,500 cash prize (for a $50 tournament entry fee).
Race 3 proved the decisive contest race. After tallying 102 points in selecting second-place finisher Traweek (9-to-1) in the opener, I picked up another 112 points on winner Heleonor Rugby (5-to-2) in Race 2 (paid $7.80 to win, $3.40 to place) to move into sixth-place. In handicapping Race 3, I identified 4 horses at better than 5-to-1 that I considered playable, and eventually settled on #6 Capalatte, who shot up to 22.5-to-1 off a 10-to-1 morning line and, I thought, would benefit from some rest and had run well last summer at Del Mar against tougher claimers; Friday's 3rd was an $8k claimer at 7 furlongs.
The race shape was exactly as anticipated, and the freshening obviously helped Capalatte. Jockey Alonso Quinonez put this 4-year-old filly in a perfect ground-saving, stalking trip along the rail and passed the leaders turning for home but was gunned down by a head at the wire by 14.7-to-1 Akeela, my second choice ($442 exacta that I did not have...ouch!). On track, Capalatte paid a healthy $17.20 to place, but the 172 points within the contest format dropped me to 21st-place, since Akeela ($31.40 to win, $11.80 to place) produced 432 points to anyone who had her (or, the 20 players ahead of me in the standings).
From a small sample of people beneath me in the standings, it looked like few had Capalatte, but I kept a positive perspective ahead with five races to go in the contest. Race 4 provided a similarly grueling outcome for my contest hopes, with 6.6-to-1 (the second-longest shot in a 6-horse field) Lift Our Luck gunned down in the final 50 yards to finish second (60 contest points for the $6 place payout).
So, four contest races...one winner and three seconds, with about a half length the difference between my 17th-place standing halfway through the card and, presumably, a decent lead. From that point on I went 0-for-4, taking some shots on double-digit horses (none of which finished better than fourth), feeling the need to hit some decent prices in order to have a real shot at taking the top spot. Was the decision a bit hasty? Maybe, but by that time, despite some excellent handicapping, I was 440 points off the leader, who went 4-for-4 to that point. From there on, the winners of races 5-8 yielded a total of 678 points, but that was a best-case scenario for even the best of handicappers (NJ Horseplayer not among them).
I have yet to be in a position to "play from ahead," so to speak, but Friday's experience had me wondering how I might have played races 5-8 with the lead. In Races 5 and 6, I switched away from short-price plays that finished only third and fourth, while in Race 7 I had identified eventual winner Cloud Man as the horse to beat, but not much of a play at 3-to-2. Shoulda coulda woulda, I suppose, but it makes for good self-analysis in preparing for future contests, and hopefully provides some value to my blog readers.
PS. For the sake of disclosure, I did participate in Sunday's NHC Tour Summer Online Challenge, but barely prepared in advance, owing to a massive workload this weekend in preparing for a major renovation at the NJ Horseplayer house. I made hasty selections on the 10-race contest card, but would not put this one among the "value-adds" of handicapping contest afterthought.
Next up...Monday night's Horse Player Now Night School web chat on handicapping two-year old races...hopefully valuable ahead of this Sunday's road trip to Saratoga with Red Rock or Bust, Tony the (retired) Mailman (my Dad) and Walter M, who is dusting me thus far with chalky selections in the free Del Mar online contest.