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. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bomber Opportunities

Since it's pretty quiet on the live contest front, I am focusing the next few weeks on races in the Public Handicapper contest and getting more practice on the Del Mar online contest, where I am at minus-$810 (based on 23 notional $100W wagers, where I have hit two, at 2-to-1 and 10-to-1, and had a few long-shot misses that could have put me in positive territory) but intrigued by a bomber in today's Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks.

I have otherwise spotted an even more egregious long-shot in the $100k Louisiana Cup Turf Classic at Louisiana Downs, but more on that thesis later.

NJ Horseplayer taking aim at big
prices on the Public Handicapper
Pending scratches and the possibility of two "also" entries, the 10-horse field in the 9-furlong turf event is stacked, with Summer Soiree (two Grade 3 wins), in my opinion, a vulnerable 5-to-2 favorite and Cambina a worthy second choice at 3-to-1.

There are others that look appealing to me, such as Up In Time at 8-to-1 with Rafael Bejarano aboard and Star Billing, coming off a head loss in the Grade 1 American Oaks.

However, Celestial Kitten, at a whopping 20-to-1 morning line, is my choice on Public Handicapper, for a few reasons.

First, Mizdirection is an excellent horse, in my opinion, and took Friday's Sandy Blue Handicap ($85k stakes) against a few decent horses.  The rider change to the aggressive Patrick Valenzuela suggests to me that Celestial Kitten will sit closer to the early pace than in the San Clemente, when Joel Rosario put the horse nearly eight lengths off the lead.  Otherwise, second- and third-place finishes in two Grade 2 events suggests the price is far too long in a deep field where one can state a case for nine horses to win, and I think that Celestial Kitten still has room to improve and could fare well if the pace is around 22.5-sub 47.  My backup selections (players pick 3 horses on Public Handicapper, in the event of a scratch of top choice) are Up In Time and Cambina.

Turning to the Louisiana Cup Turf Classic, run at a mile-and-a-sixteenth over turf, I am stating a case for 30-to-1 Henry's Teddybear.  The editor's notes on DRF suggest this horse "doesn't seem near good enough to win this race" but I beg to differ.

Having paid some attention to the Louisiana circuit (Evangeline Downs) this season, I am a fan of jockey Diego Saenz and am not really impressed by any of the horses to take a stand elsewhere in this 12-horse field, where Wildrally is the lukewarm favorite at 5-to-1.  If there is ANY race to hit with a long-shot, this is it.  The field is an OK bunch of Louisiana breds, but there's nothing spectacular here.  I anticipate my backup selection, Heavenville, going well below his 8-to-1 morning line and my third choice, Up and Out of Site, doing much the same at 6-to-1, and will use them merely if my bomber scratches.

Henry's Teddybear Beyer progression (70-70-76) in his last three turf races (on a tight Evangeline Downs) tells me he at least likes the surface.  Also, the horse has won against decent state-bred allowance company and, on paper, may appear over-matched against the likes of state-bred stakes winners Tensas Cat (15-to-1), Ide Like a Double (15-to-1), Wildrally and Idefromthebayou (8-to-1).  However, the winner of the $20k open claimer two back (Simple Kind of Man) is a solid turf horse (3-for-6 on turf) and I think the jockey change, ground-saving trip (Teddybear's past performance lines shows a host of 4- and 5-wide trips) and improving speed figures indicate this one is worth a flyer.

In the other two Public Handicapper races, I sided with St. John's River (5-to-1) over It's Tricky in the 6-horse, Grade 1 TVG Alabama at Saratoga, and chalkier 3-to-1 morning line favorite Where's Sterling over Alma D'oro in the Grade 3 Iselin at Monmouth. Best of luck with your handicapping this weekend.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Cooling my Jets

No pun intended with my beloved New York Jets kicking off their NFL preseason in Houston, but just the facts after a totally hands-off contest weekend (0-for-10 in the Sovereign Stables tournament and 0-for-4 on, all while enjoying a day of water slides and BBQ at Tomahawk Lake in Sparta, NJ and not watching a single live race).

The live and online contest docket appears empty for me until the September 18 event at Monmouth Park for two NHC seats, so in the interim I will focus on the four weekend races on the Public Handicapper (considering I am ranked 377th at $17.60 to the plus side out of 3,500 players) until then and likely take a bit of a handicapping breather.

Otherwise, I will be attending the next two Night School seminars on Horse Player Now (830p-10p ET), focusing on what should be two pertinent topics to ALL contest players - Money Management and Handicapping Tournaments.  The chats are typically worthwhile, and the next two will likely provide some fodder for commentary in the days ahead.

And a quick update on an article I penned a few weeks back...I spoke with a representative of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority last week, which is processing my request for information on NJ's mandated ADW.  I hope to follow up with some concrete information shortly.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Sovereign Stables NHC Tour Contest picks

The drawback to being a weekend handicapper is that weekends often become filed with other activities and responsibilities, so I will not be able to make last-minute changes during Saturday's Sovereign Stables Online Handicapping Challenge.  Top finisher gets a seat in the Vegas Championship in January, and winning the Power Ball lottery might be easier, anticipating 3,000 contestants (NHC Tour membership not needed).

Rolling the Dice on Saturday contest
A quick glance at the past performances on Thursday night put me on the following horses on the 10-race card (I will check in Saturday morning remotely to adjust for scratches).  Again, contestants make $2 mythical win-place wagers on a single horse and look to accrue the biggest bankroll, with win-place payouts capped at 20-1 ($42) and 15-1 ($22):

  • Saratoga 5 (3:08 p.m.): #9 Dream Man (6-1) - Second-time starter who handled the a mile on the turf in first try but who has not raced since then (October 2010), but the field features others w/baggage
  • Monmouth 6 (3:20 p.m.): #2 Bear Tracks (8-1) - Will kick myself picking a first-time starter versus a 10-horse field where half have at least won once before, but note that trainer Kevin Sleeter and jockey Angel Serpa are 2-for-11 on the meeting; $100k J-bred also suggests wide open affair
  • Saratoga 7 (4:12 p.m.): #3 But You Promised (12-1) - McGaughey 3-for-8 with debut turf runners and the dam, Western Humor, has a turf winner
  • Monmouth 8 (4:52 p.m.): #9 Dangerous Trick (6-1) - Could prove a dangerous selection in a 5-and-a-half furlong dirt sprint, but the dam has three winners from three starters, so embrace the danger
  • Arlington 8 (4:52 p.m.): #6 Suntracer (15-1) - The first of four Saturday races in the Public Handicapper contest is the Grade 1 Secretariat at 9 furlongs on turf.  I cannot justify a 2-to-1 favorite (Treasure Beach) first try in the U.S. and am playing a hunch that Suntracer can sit behind a dawdling pace and perhaps outgun Willcox Inn to the finish.  The horse also has three tries (two seconds) on the Arlington Park turf course and is second-best to Willcox in this field, in my opinion. 
  • Del Mar 1 (5 p.m.): #7 Fog Alert (5-2) - Kind of a lackluster race to include in a contest back-loaded with great stakes events, but needed to make a pick; think this makes sense in this $20k claimer
  • Monmouth 10 (5:24 p.m.): #1 Strike the Moon (4-1) - The second of the events, the Grade 3 Monmouth Oaks looks wide open, but to me the Delaware Oaks effort by Moon was impressive vs. a nice horse in St. John's River, and the rail draw will prove a plus. I am expecting Moon to sit back a bit at the start (maybe 2-3 lengths) in a field with some serious early speed and make a run after the half-mile pole before taking this one home.  #10 Dance Quietly (12-1) scares me a bit, but the outside draw was a turnoff for me.
  • Arlington 9 (5:33 p.m.): #11 Never Retreat (10-1) - VERY bullish on the Bridgmohan-Block jockey-trainer combo and expect a nice stalking trip at a decent price in the Grade 1 Beverly D Stakes.  I set #4 Upperline (20-1) and #5 Dubawi Heights (10-1) as backup selections on 
  • Arlington 10 (6:15 p.m.): #2 Tajaaweed (12-1) - Hard to ignore Gio Ponti (2-1) and Cape Blanco (9-5) in the Grade 1 Arlington Million, but not going to win a contest picking $4 horses. Leaning toward James Graham and his course experience here and might have gone elsewhere had Mission Approved and Dean's Kitten not been part of the field. Banking on a pace meltdown  and that Tajaaweed might catch lightning in a bottle and close this impressively deep field. 
  • Del Mar 5 (7 p.m.): #7 Dr. Green (20-1) - In my view, low-percentage jockey Kayla Stra is the only reason the morning line is so big here. Perhaps I'll be proved wrong, as I am at least 96% of the time in handicapping, but trainer James Cassidy is 23% first time off the claim, and this combo is winning at a respectable 10% on the turf in 52 starts. Dr. Green did not run a lick in the last three tries but, in my view, faced much tougher than many others in this field of 9 at a mile on turf.  #1 Moment of Weakness and #9 Fifth Dimension will deservedly take a lot of money, but neither has yet to win on turf in a collective 12 tries. Maybe this is the 4% of the time where NJ Horseplayer is right.
I'm hoping to return home from tonight's and tomorrow's family festivities to a DVR replete with a half-dozen winners and some place horses; wish me luck!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011 'em

Race 7 at Del Mar on Wednesday evening (see race replay), the daily race in Del Mar's online handicapping contest, was a microcosm of why I continue to struggle of late in nailing winners consistently, and a perfect lesson in why the really good handicapper knows when to trust his or her instinct instead of finding flaws with a horse that makes complete sense.  At this rate, I am well short of the upper echelon.

NJ Horseplayer unable to follow
the clearest signals
Two scratches shortened the field to six for the 7-furlong Real Good Deal Stakes ($100k) for California bred three-year-old horses, headlined by 9-to-5 morning line favorite Bench Points.  I was initially on this horse until the odds dropped to 1-to-5 early in the wagering, and some $4k (in mythical dollars) behind the contest leader, I looked elsewhere.

Few horses stood out, in what was a middling field comprised mostly of closer types, which made Chiloquin, with Martin Pedroza aboard, an interesting foil at 7-to-2 (M/L) to the favorite, considering the horse's "early" running style.  (Chiloquin was only first at the first call once in his 11 career starts, but  none of the others showed any success in winning on the lead, and this one showed a penchant for at least being forwardly placed.)  I was supremely confident that Chiloquin would at least be near the front, and a creditable 4th-place finish in a $150k stakes in April gave this horse an added measure of viability.

Instead, falling into the usual trap of trying to nail a winner at a bigger price, I landed on Warren's Knockout, who was facing stakes company his first time but who was 2-for-3 on the all-weather track and twice won on the second race off a layoff.  The 10-to-1 closing price added appeal to what I recognized as a vulnerable short-priced favorite (Bench Points) at 1-to-2.

The race went masterfully for Chiloquin, who without much of a challenge set what I considered a snail-like first quarter of 23.4 seconds and half mile of 46.3.  Only 8-to-1 Luckarack was within sniffing distance of the front-runner and ultimately lost by a half-length to Chiloquin, with Bench Points running on for third.  Warren's Knockout finished fifth, 5-and-a-quarter lengths behind, tailing off in the deep stretch.

The "reminder to self" here is to stick with my initial instinct - short field with a lone front-runner, in my view, will often equal a merry-go-round finish where there's not enough pace for the later runners to close.  This loss  is not the end of the world, by any means, but another good lesson on the road to becoming a more-credible thoroughbred handicapping contest player.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Ellis Park contest declared a non-starter

Best laid plans...

Evidently, after one race, the organizers of the Ellis Park contest written about earlier today had some IT troubles that prompted the cancellation of the event and a reschedule for next Saturday, which makes for a bit of a conflict with the Sovereign Stables freebie as well.  It'll be interesting to see whether there is differentiation in the two contest cards, though I suspect they'll both again focus on Monmouth, Saratoga and Del Mar.

Clearly the outcomes of Sunday's race did not matter with the contest cancellation, but based on the picks I put up earlier I would have netted a $44.60 of winnings, hitting Chief Operator at nearly 9-to-1 in the 12th at Monmouth ($19.40 to win, $6.40 to place) and the EXTREMELY impressive Dreamcaster at 6-to-5 in the 6th at Del Mar ($4.40 to win, $3.80 to place), and calling runner-up Allen's Star at nearly 6-to-1 ($8.20 to place) and defaulting to second-choice Tempted to Tapit ($2.40 to place) in the 9th at Monmouth with the scratch of my original selection.  

I suppose I can otherwise take satisfaction in picking the top two finishers in the 11th at Saratoga and 12th at Monmouth, with respective $2 exacta payouts of $107 and $69.80.  I hope those proved valuable to readers.

Horse Tourneys - Ellis Park contest

The operators of Ellis Park in Kentucky are diving headlong into the NHC Tour Championship circuit, starting this afternoon with a free online tournament for one spot in the $2 million year-end event in Las Vegas.  More details are available on the Horse Tourneys website.

New tournament kicks off Sunday
Earlier this week, Ellis Park Race Course, Inc. announced that, for the remainder of the season, the track will be offering a whopping 50 seats to the 2012 National Handicapping Championship. As this equates to 10% of the 500-seat NHC (at what a source earlier this year told me was at a cost of about $5k-$10k per seat), Ellis Park deserves much credit in putting its footprints all over the 2012 NHC. 

When there is more time later this week I anticipate talking more in-depth on this topic, but for the time being the Ellis Park contest offers an attractive option, whereby contest players make an "alternate" pick for each of the 10-race card; this way, long-shot players are not necessarily defaulted to the post-time favorite - a nice feature and one that other online tournament organizers should embrace.

Here is a look at my early selections on the card (subject to change; i.e. whether my wife will let me stay home and watch...or make me go out and shop for more items for our home renovation), which I might add deviates from my typical penchant for long shots, though I've sprinkled a few in the mix:

EventPrimary PickAlternate Pick
1 Saratoga Race 86 Por Que' Te Quiero9 Crespano
2 Monmouth Race 97 Gaither Draw3 Tempted to Tapit
3 Monmouth Race 107 Dream9 Coco Ecolo - MTO
4 Saratoga Race 102 Bank Merger8 Trappe Shot
5 Monmouth Race 114 Born Bullish3 Fan Out
6 Del Mar Race 32 Full Deputy4 My Boy Luke
7 Saratoga Race 116 Allen's Star13 Hurling - AE
8 Monmouth Race 129 Chief Operator4 Sadler Power
9 Del Mar Race 55 Free Range6 Abovetheinfluence
10 Del Mar Race 65 Dreamcaster (GB)3 Cha Cha Latte

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Maidens: Mayday! Mayday!

The annual pilgrimage to Saratoga was its usual great social experience (outside of having a betting ticket more or less stolen from me at the window), but frustrating from a handicapping perspective, particularly in light of the abundance of maiden races on Sunday's 10-race card.

Emboldened a bit by the July 25 Night School web chat on handicapping two-year-old horses at Horse Player Now, I wanted to give the early Pick 4 a try.  The sequence featured four consecutive maiden races (though not all with two-year-old runners), and on my $12 ticket (50-cent base wager) I hit the second (3-to-2 favorite Queens or Better) and third (6-to-1 Professor Fate) legs but missed on enormous prices in legs one and four; the Pick 4 ultimately paid nearly $27k, implying a difficult sequence.

Trying to make sense
of #1 Margo Verge
The final leg, Race 5, came into focus.  Spending the day with Grandpa NJ Horseplayer, Red Rock or Bust and three other friends, I posed a question to my amigos about the rail horse, Margo Verge, a three-year-old filly trained by Bruce Levine who posted a decent third-place in her first start in late March and a lackluster fifth in her second start in late May; both maiden claimer dirt sprints.

I was intrigued by the 8-to-1 morning line on Margo Verge on the first-time claim trainer angle (22% in 123 starts) along with the drop from $50k to $25k company and first-time turf, but unsure what to make of the second-consecutive two-month break between races, plus the lack of published workout in four weeks; the last being July 3 at 3f in a breezy 37 seconds (second best of six).  Was this horse sound heading into the race?  These are the questions that most of us on the outside surely cannot answer, and along with the jockey angle (I never seem to score with Alan Garcia, who was 0-for-25 on the meet to that point), and some supportive insights from Red Rock's handicapping consultant and Bloomberg writer Dave P., I left Margo Verge off my ticket.

The decision never cost me since I was out after the first leg, but we watched Margo Verge run a gutty second, a half-length behind 32-to-1 Unknown Wonder, ridden by J.L. Espinoza (who almost won later in the card on a 40-to-1 shot).  It got me wondering...what in the past performances suggested this horse (or the winner) would run so well?  Why two lines between two starts?  Can handicappers really glean any valuable insight in the work tab leading up to a maiden event?  I clearly am lost for answers, so feel free to comment.

In the end, there a few takeaways to consider from Sunday's Saratoga experience:
  • Handicapping maidens is extremely difficult, not only for weekend handicappers like me but presumably for even the most experienced horseplayers; the Pick 4 payoff in relation to the pool indicates that 9-10 people cashed (lucrative) tickets - clearly a low percentage
  • Avoid spending too much time on past performances for maidens, particular full of first-time starters; focus on building Pick 3 and 4 tickets around races with more experienced horses where you at least will have a richer body of work to analyze
  • It makes for a great day at the track (stolen ticket and a lower bankroll aside) to spend with friends who enjoy talking through various race angles and past performance analysis - you can learn a lot from talking with experienced handicappers
  • Start planning next year's trip to the Spa ASAP.