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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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:
...AND UNLIKE OTHER ‘FREE’ EVENTS THIS WEEKEND WITH POSSIBLY THOUSANDS OF PLAYERS, WE’RE AWARDING 1 NHC SPOT FOR EVERY 50 PLAYERS! 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.