Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Q&A: McKay Smith, Tournament Director

NJ Horseplayer readers by now understand my passion, even as predominantly a weekend player still learning the ropes, for thoroughbred handicapping contests and my futility in reaching the National Handicapping Championship.

Perhaps thrifty, but my real-world obligations (see my profile for an explanation) do not afford me the opportunity to pony up a few grand to cover travel and entries to NHC qualifying contests at tracks across the U.S. like professional players (and my handicapping is not to that level yet anyway), so I focus largely on online competition.  Residing in New Jersey does not help matters either, as horseplayers in the Garden State are limited to a few on-track contests at Monmouth Park, and prohibited from numerous opportunities on outside ADWs like TwinSpires and DRFBets. is a great hub for a player like me, as I have written in the past.  There's little need to rehash my reasons, but gives me a low-cost shot at not only trying to improve my play on the handicapping contest circuit, but to qualify for the NHC in Las Vegas without breaking the bank.

Readers can debate the merits of this proposition, but I simply like the product, and reached out to McKay Smith, Operator and Tournament Director, to recap 2012 and give broader thoughts on the handicapping contest circuit.

NJ Horseplayer: Before discussing's 2013 initiatives, put a bow on the 2012 tournament season. I know you offer seats to the Horseplayer World Series as well, but by my unofficial tally, some 15% of all qualifiers to the 2013 National Handicapping Championship in January 2013 will have qualified through  That's an impressive number!

McKay Smith
Tourney Director,
McKay Smith: It’s been a busy year, for sure.  We’re done with NHC qualifiers for this qualifying year, and we ended up moving a total of 74 seats, which was right at the goal we committed to trying to move for the NTRA.  I’m not sure where the total number of NHC players is tracking, but it’s probably going to be around 450 or so, which would make about 15 percent of the field from HorseTourneys.  On the HPWS side, we’ll probably end up moving between 100-120 entries to that event before we’re through with qualifiers in February.  We also ran qualifying contests to a number of other events this year, including Boyd Gaming’s Orleans March Championship and Gold Coast Summer Classic, the Wynn’s major event and Treasure Island’s contests.  It’s a lot to fit in.

We’re very pleased with how things have gone in our first full year since launching in August of 2011.  During that time, we've been able to introduce a number of what I hope players would consider very player-friendly features and initiatives, such as running virtually takeout-free feeders to our NHC Qualifiers, introducing our Pick & Pray format (which has been very popular) and returning any breakage entries directly back to players. 

But probably what I’m most happy and proud about is the fact that from an operational standpoint, we've had no issues whatsoever since we ran our first contest in August of last year.  Not even a blip with the website (knock on wood).  It’s Murphy’s Law when it comes to running websites of any kind, so I think that our track record over the last 14 months has proven that we are an operation that the players can rely upon, and that we made some correct decisions in how we built our system to begin with in order to ensure the greatest degree of stability.  That’s half the battle right there.  We've made incremental improvements to the website during this time and will continue to do so moving forward, with an eye toward continuing to improve the customer experience.

NJ Horseplayer: Is there additional brand value to you, or Ellis Park, if, say, one of your qualifiers wins NHC XIV?  

McKay Smith: Oh, absolutely.  We’d like nothing more than to see the winner come from our group of qualifiers.  When I was the tournament director for NHCQualify, I believe we had two NHC winners come from the site, and both times it resulted in a shot in the arm for business.  Having a winner come from our site opens up a number of marketing opportunities.

NJ Horseplayer: How has NHC Tour member response been to your site's tournaments, in terms of functionality, cost and player capacity/participation?

McKay Smith: Very good, I think, especially because we are the only site that runs low-cost feeder events to our main NHC Qualifiers.  We had several players this year that actually qualified through $15 or $20 feeder events with no additional investment.  Think about that--$20 to qualify to the NHC.  Yes, it’s absolutely possible.  The fact that our feeder events have basically zero net takeout means that those events represent terrific value for players and are events that anyone seriously pursuing the NHC should be taking advantage of on a regular basis.

NJ Horseplayer: I couldn't help but notice recent adjustments to your tournament entry fee structure for NHC pre-qualifiers heading to 2013.  Is this a harbinger of change for your 2013 venue, and what prompted these changes?

McKay Smith:  Yes, we’re making some changes for 2013 with our feeder structure and main NHC Qualifier entry fees and payout ratios.  We’re moving toward main NHC Qualifier fees of $240 per entry, awarding a NHC package per 40 entries.  This is a fairly major change from the $140/entry and 1 per 60 setup from this year, although we did run a lot of qualifiers at $195/entry and 1 per 50 earlier in the year.

There are two main reasons for this change.  Number one, the reduction in the cost of the main NHC Qualifiers (from $195 to $140) that we introduced in August didn't produce the result that we’d hoped.  From a gross perspective, the amount of entry fees raised actually went down, which resulted in fewer NHC spots being awarded.  It doesn't do the players any good if we lower the price—which results in more players required to move a NHC seat---if that doesn't result in actually moving more NHC seats.  The data was pretty emphatic in showing that this wasn't the right move.

Number two, the other main NHC qualifying site,, runs qualifiers at the 1 per 60 ratio.  I felt it didn't make a lot of sense for us long term to offer the same ratio—the players should have more of a choice.  Moreover, we run so many feeder events that I felt that an entry won from a feeder event should be “worth” more to the player.  

So for instance, under the new setup, we’ll only need 120 entries participating to award three NHC spots, rather than 180 entries required under the $140/1 per 60 setup.  It’s important to note that the “value” proposition doesn't change—this is just an adjustment in ratio.  Essentially, I’m betting that it is going to be easier to move 120 entries per event rather than 180 in order to move three NHC seats per event.  The goal is simply to move more seats to the players. If this new structure doesn't work out, we can always return to a more middle-ground.

The players should be happy that we have decided to include a $500 travel reimbursement in the package next year, which many players have asked us to do.  We’re also required to cover a qualifier’s hotel stay at the NHC venue next year, so that will also be included.

NJ Horseplayer: In 2013, will offer a similar number of NHC "seats" as in 2012, and will there be any alteration of your schedule (i.e. Wednesday-Friday pre-qualifiers, weekend qualifiers)?

McKay Smith:  At this point, yes, that’s the plan.  We’re looking at approximately the same amount of NHC inventory next year.  On the feeders, the plan is to run two formats: a $26 feeder awarding one $240 entry per 10 entries participating, and a $52 feeder awarding one $240 entry per every five entries participating   We’ll run those just about every Wednesday-Friday, with feeders run on weekend dates when we can fit them in with our other commitments.

NJ Horseplayer: Has the NHC Tour enforced changes that will reflect on your customers' experience or rewards, and as a key player in the industry, will you as an operator find more parity (in terms of cost per NHC seat, etc.) with NTRA-member contest hubs? (Editor's note: We asked this question under our understanding that non-NTRA contest venues pay double the fee per NHC "seat" as members.) 

McKay Smith:  While the NHC Tour plans for next year haven’t been completely finalized by the NTRA, I don’t anticipate any major changes that would affect participation in our qualifiers.  As far as parity goes, for the most part all qualifying sites (both on-track and online) are on a level playing field and pay the same $6,500 per spot to the NTRA.  To my knowledge there are only a couple of NTRA member racetracks left that are able to purchase spots at a cheaper rate.

NJ Horseplayer:  From a broader "handicapping contest" industry perspective, I'd like to turn to your thoughts on the progression of the NHC Tour and whether 2012 marked improvement (whether in terms of process, communication between contest venues and avoiding scheduling conflicts) over years past.

McKay Smith:  Certainly the NHC Tour helps our efforts.  Anything that can keep the customers playing in events after already qualifying can only help us.  On scheduling, we work very closely with Ken Kirchner and to try and overlap as little as possible.  Ken and I have a long-term working relationship as he was actually my boss for nearly seven years when I was at the Breeders’ Cup-NTRA.  So that part is easy.

NJ Horseplayer:  Moving forward, what changes, if any, NHC-wide can players expect in 2013, and what kinds of ideas were you able to promote to the Tour leadership to "improve the product," so to speak?

McKay Smith:  I don’t want to speak for the NTRA as we leave NHC Tour matters in their hands.  Our job is to execute against whatever they decide, although I certainly have their ears.  I know they are thinking of a couple of changes that could have some impact on the program in general.  It’s not an easy job planning for the NHC Tour; it’s very tough to please everyone.

NJ Horseplayer:  In your opinion, will on-track contests go more by the wayside in light of the emergence of online handicapping contest hubs such as, where players from all U.S. states (and Canada, if I'm not mistaken) can play?  Or have the tracks found sites like yours a complement to the gaming industry?

McKay Smith:  I certainly hope there won’t be a decrease in the number of on-track events.  On-track contests should be the bedrock of any handicapping championship program both now and in the future.  On-track is where new players are harvested, far more so than from online events.  On-track events are critical for exposure and for getting new people involved.  In fact, the majority of the suggestions I've communicated to the NTRA have centered around ways to increase on-track participation.  If the tracks don’t do well with contests, the program suffers all-around.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that it is difficult for any one on-track event to draw numbers like they could say, 10 years ago.  Part of that is the simply the proliferation of available events and is one of the inevitable consequences of the expansion to 500 players in the NHC finals.  

Moreover, it’s a difficult pricing puzzle for the tracks and for the NTRA.  On the one hand, the NTRA needs to raise a certain amount per spot in order to pay for the $1.5 million-plus purse, but on the other hand, you have to make it a realistic financial proposition for the tracks to hold events and cover all of the costs involved and still be able to award attractive prizes such as cash.  Gone are the days when the racetracks looked at qualifying events primarily as customer-affinity events whereby they were happy to break even or even lose some money.  No doubt that the on-track sites have become far more bottom-line focused, especially with the economic downturn over the last few years.

Some players may be aware that I was the primary administrator of the NHC from 2004-2006.  Not necessarily from a pure policy standpoint, but more the day-to-day handling of the tracks and players.  It was during this time that we introduced to the scene, so I have intimate knowledge of the online vs. on-track debate.  Understandably, there was more than a little trepidation on track management’s part regarding how online contests would impact the NHC program and their live events.  It was a real issue that we had to navigate.

I think the tracks acknowledge the need for online contests in order to maintain and grow a program like the NHC.  Without question, online contests have inherent advantages over live events.  E.g., they are obviously more accessible, involve far fewer costs for the players (no travel, hotel stays, etc.) and are cheaper to administer, just for starters.

However, on the flip side, online contests simply cannot deliver the kinds of tactile experiences that truly develop a contest handicapper.  Ask any of the prominent players what they enjoy most about contest play, and to a T they will reference the social interaction and camaraderie of the on-track experience.  Playing live among their peers, whooping it up and sharing war stories, witnessing the energy in the room when the winners are announced and checks are handed out—those are the things that stick.  It’s those experiences that make one want to pursue the now plethora of options that they have access to throughout the year.

So really, in my opinion, that’s the key question moving forward: how to maintain a balance among available options that will grow participation but at the same time preserve the critical on-track experiences that makes people fall in love with contests in the first place.

NJ Horseplayer: In the same light, do you find Tour members "picking and choosing" more with their contest dollars, especially with the growth of the handicapping contest industry? And how does the economy play a part?

McKay Smith:  For sure.  As I mentioned, the players have far more choices now than they did years ago, and it stands to reason they have less disposable income now than when everyone was making money hand over fist in the market.  That’s one of the reasons why we think it is so important to offer low-cost options in the feeder events on a regular basis.

NJ Horseplayer: Finally, since my handicapping has yet to get me there, can't I just buy an NHC seat from you 

McKay Smith:  No, but you can buy an entry to “The BIG One” at EllisPark next Labor Day weekend!  

If anyone hasn't already seen, we’ll be running a major on-track event at Ellis Park next August 31-Sept. 1.  The estimated purse is $300,000 (based on 50 entries) and we hope to award NHC spots to the top 10 finishers.  

The contest will be limited to only 55 entries, with five of those available at this time on a buy-in basis for $10,000 each.  This is the ultimate in a “high-expectation” event, as nearly 20% of the field will walk away with a nice chunk of cash and an NHC spot.  Qualifying events to “The BIG One” begin at HorseTourneys on January 5.  Players can go to for more information.

NJ Horseplayer:  Thanks, McKay, and best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a prosperous 2013 to your family and organization!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Case Study in "Pick-and-Pray"

(Updated on Wednesday, December 18 with comments in red italics...utter disaster Saturday picks-wise, but follow-up commentary as promised)

Contrary to my last posting, two no-cost contests have come up -- exactly in the NJ Horseplayer wheelhouse -- offering spots in year-end championships in Las Vegas: one for the Horse Player World Series (HPWS) on February 2013, and two for the National Handicapping Championship in January 2013.

Each is a "pick and pray" format, whereby contestants must make selections on all of a series of pre-determined contest races and wish for the best.  In short, handicap the races, make a primary selection and a backup (in the event of a scratch of your top choice)...and wing it.

I am more intrigued by next week's contest, especially as an NHC Tour member. will serve as the host, and the only requisites are to be a Tour member and have a HorseTourneys account.  As I have written in the past, free NHC events are akin to winning the lottery, as evidenced by the prospect for as many as 3,500 players next Saturday, December 22.  However, the Tour will have to wait another week for that final shovel of dirt on my NHC grave.

Meanwhile, this afternoon, (unfortunately, in retrospect) I have entered's 14th Annual Online Handicapping Championship, where in addition to an entry and travel package to the HPWS, Brisnet will award the Top 15 finishers prizes ranging from cash to website credit.  I thought it would be fun to detail the anatomy of my selections and hopefully draw some feedback from readers about whether my philosophy makes sense (OK, so my readership is responses).

There are 10 contest races from multiple tracks, so different consideration all around.  Here's my thinking, with the race number followed by my top selection and backup selection.  I'll follow up later with results of this case study. I've gone no higher than 12-to-1 with any of my selections.  Take a look and let me know what you think in the comment section below!
  1. Aqueduct Race 8: Snap Call (12-1), Readthebyline (5-2) -- Typically I am not a big fan of Finger Lakes shippers, but I sense Readthebyline will be an underlay and see no other huge threats. Snap Call's front-running style could play well on the inner dirt at a mile and 70 yards. (Sure as ****, Readthebyline wins by 4 1/2 and goes off at 9-5...not a crushing start, considering a meager combined win-place payout of $6.60; Snap Call got the trip I expected, but weakened to 4th.)
  2. Gulfstream Park Race 7: Which Market (4-1), Forward March (12-1) -- I cannot hit the broadside of a barn with my Gulfstream handicapping, but the horse I liked initially, Burn the Mortgage, did not get in off the "also eligible" list, and so I'm on John Velazquez's horse.  In my view, the switch from Which Market's rider the last two (Mike Luzzi) alone is an upgrade, and this one has won against allowance company in a $75k event, so the $62.5k optional claimer is winnable. (Which Market went off around 7-2 and just missed by a head; $4.20 place payout.  Forward March, by the way, finished a very game third. Of course I didn't bet the race, but my top three selections came in for a $206 trifecta). 
  3. Hawthorne Race 2: Brick House Road (5-2), Got Luck (6-1) -- Good first try in July at Canterbury, finishing second against straight-maiden company, and plenty of rest while dropping down to the $15k claiming ranks against Illinois state breds.  Price may be short, but no one else stood out. (I guess Hawthorne's that much tougher than Canterbury...BHR finishes a not-so-close 4th)
  4. Hollywood Park Race 2: Got Heem (5-2), Zippingaroundtown (5-1) -- Mitchell-Talamo combo dropping down from maiden $50k claiming to a $30k tag and the addition of blinkers suggest this one could win in his third try this season.  I gave serious consideration to 20-1 bomber Hillcrest Avenue based on a rider switch to Aaron Gryder, but was concerned about lack of early speed. (Got creamed, is more like it. Uninspiring 5th, about 10 lengths off the winner.) 
  5. Gulfstream Park Race 8: Little Sheba (12-1), Verso a Verso (5-2) -- Sheba broker her maiden in her debut ($30k claimer) at 6 furlongs at Keeneland in October and seems to fit versus two-year-old rivals that all have at least three races under their belts and have mostly run at Calder. The comment line for Sheba shows she won the debut despite being steadied, and did so pretty easily with the patient Julian Leparoux aboard.  I like this spot with Jose Lezcano aboard.  Going another furlong today on dirt does not spook me at all. (Little Sheba last seen still running to the finish line; Luca Panici blows up the tote with a 53-to-1 winner...ouch! Nearly $5,800 trifecta payout says it all about how this race went.)
  6. Aqueduct Race 9: Riverdance Rock (12-1), Sunshine Valentino (5-1) -- I write this knowing that jockey Irad Ortiz has won 5 of the first 8 races carded for the Big A, and I should probably have used my backup selection instead (Irad's on Valentino), but I leaned toward the lightly raced Bruce Brown trainee.  Brown's 19% with horses his first time, and I expect bettors to dismiss Riverdance Rock off the outside post and a rough trip last out. Luzzi was on for the maiden-breaking score two back, and based on the comment line I think this horse will be either extremely live or finish dead last (6 starts -- 1 "lost rider", 3 "squeezed" or "brushed" starts).  Throw out the last and roll the bones. (What do Mike Luzzi, Edgar Prado and Joe Bravo have in common...? They zig when I zag. 4-wide trip for Riverdance Rock spells doom...mid-pack finish.)  Way out of contention in the contest anyway, so no matter.)
  7. Tampa Bay Downs Race 9: Fifth Street (7-2), Riki McD (8-1) -- Fresh horse who likes dirt (in the money 12 of 21 tries on fast surface) and has won 2 of 7 at Tampa.  I expect Fifth Street to track the inside speed at the rail (Alisa's Engineer) and pass in the stretch.  (Game 2nd-place effort, a whopping $2.60 place payout for the effort). 
  8. Hollywood Park Race 3: Porfido (7-2), Te Rapa (3-1) -- Uncharacteristically chalky types for NJ Horseplayer, but Nakatani is patient and tough on turf, and even though Porfido is 1-18 (with 5 seconds and 6 thirds) on the grass at Hollywood, early pace sets up well for this one at 9 furlongs. (Porfido's owners weren't lucky one paid the $40k claiming tag)
  9. Gulfstream Park Race 9: Itsmyluckyday (5-1), Reporting Star (4-1) -- Best Bet.  Prior race (Grade 3 Delta Jackpot) is a toss; wide trip on a bull-ring.  Itsmyluckyday's turf debut in the Tyro at Monmouth in early August was enough to tell me this is a good value today at 5-1.  The horse won a $100k stakes on dirt at a mile-and-70 at Calder in September and will handle two turns on turf. (Lost all interest by this point, though I'm getting good at picking 4th-place finishers). 
  10. Hawthorne Race 4: Ultimate X (10-1), Helicopter (9-2) -- Maybe others will disagree, but I generally side with longer prices in these pick-and-pray contests.  I'm assuming I will not be on the lead heading into the last race, and will roll the dice with a long-shot.  Ultimate X made sense to me in a salty field with little other early speed.  Here's to X setting moderate fractions up front and hanging on for dear life to the finish line. (Started doing some sheet-rock repair in my home office by this point...not from punching holes in the wall or anything...)
Best of luck to my fellow contest players, and check back later for the happy recap! (Congrats to Alan L. of Baton Rouge, LA, who amassed a $169 bankroll with 5 win payouts and 7 place payouts...he's going to the Horse Player World Series!  Me...I finished ">1,000", according to the standings.)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sayonara NHC XIV Dreams!

It is not officially winter yet here in New Jersey, but the weather is certainly getting nippier and the NHC Tour schedule gets rather chilly through December for the NJ Horseplayer camp.

Roughly 10% of the 500 or so seats to the 2013 National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas in January 2013 remain up for grabs, but most are either out of my reach geographically, legally, or monetarily.

Sun's about to set
on 2013 NHC season
for NJ Horseplayer is offering upwards of 42 seats via $400 contests offering 10 NHC seats apiece on December 1, 15 and 29, and two $160 contests offering up to 6 NHC seats each on November 25 and December 8.  Budget constraints as a part-time player keep me out of the $400 realm, though I may play in one of the two $160 events.

Meanwhile, the NHC Tour calendar features on-track contests at Keeneland and Turfway Park, and in California in late December, which are not affordable in terms of time and travel.

From a legal perspective, NJ-based players are prohibited from events like the Online Handicapping Challenge, which took place this weekend and offers 100 seats to Las Vegas year-end tournaments (presumably a mix of NHC XIV and the Horseplayer World Series) -- a pretty nice proposition.  This, and a bit of dabbling with cash and points contests on, got me thinking...

Couldn't the NTRA, on behalf of dues-playing NHC Tour members, approach ADWs such as and, which offer seats to its headline national championship, about setting up a system whereby Tour members can participate in online contests such as the TwinSpires challenge?

I hope over the next month to explore the legalities a bit more in depth, but the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act seems to exempt outfits like DerbyWars who want to run handicapping contests and all sorts of fantasy sports (i.e., football, baseball) sites from UIGEA.  Logically, it would stand to reason that online ADWs could easily alter their technology to allow NHC Tour players like me, in states prohibiting the use of out-of-state wagering firms, to participate in contests like the TwinSpires challenge or events on Daily Racing Form's ADW, while prohibiting us from "wagering" through the ADW itself.

Perhaps I'm a simpleton, and there are valid reasons why such an effort would be futile for the NTRA; but as a dues-paying member, I did not join solely for 3-4 "free" handicapping contests that offer 10 seats to the National Handicapping Championship, but rather for advocacy for players as well.

There is no excuse for NTRA to sit idly by and ignore NJ players like me who are excluded from a host of qualifying opportunities.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Much as Commissioner Ford Frick attached an asterisk to Roger Maris' single-season home run record, history will reflect that NJ Horseplayer, bib No. 61,000 in the 2012 NYC Marathon, never quite met muster for a great lifetime achievement.

Organizers should have cancelled the marathon immediately after Superstorm Sandy hit (and, in my opinion sounded rather disingenuous on Friday about their needs to postpone), so I did not feel the kind of dejection that Roger Maris presumably felt when denied of the all-time single-season home run record in 1961.  Plus, hosts of generous individuals contributed to what was nearly a $4,000 fundraising campaign for the LAM Foundation, Alstrom Syndrome International and Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund!

A heartfelt "Thank You" to everyone for your support during my marathon training and fundraiser!

On the other hand, I feel rather dejected about Friday's Breeders Cup Marathon, where my top long-shot selection of the day, Grassy, ran so gamely and got a great ride from Garrett Gomez but finished second to a late-running Calidoscopio to scuttle my hopes for a sizable daily double and Pick 3.

Granted, I managed to turn my $50 bankroll for Friday into a $350 profit -- hitting back-to-back exacta wagers on the BC Marathon ($1 box paid $252.50) and BC Juvenile Fillies Turf ($2 box returned $85.50), but because of my frugality left Calidoscopio off my Pick 3 ticket.  Including the Argentinian horse would have given me a monumental $3,495 Pick 3 score, considering I went all in the first leg and got the best scenario with 15-to-1 Hightail an upset winner in the BC Juvenile Sprint 

By the same token, had Grassy been able to somehow hang on, I would have similarly profited, as I went ALL-Grassy in the Race 4 double (will-pays were enormous).  Lamenting my frugality is a bit of armchair quarterback, but on the other hand I take solace as a horseplayer in making a bullish call on a long-shot single who simply got chased down a by great horse and rider (Aaron Gryder) that day.

Saturday's $100 bankroll netted a mere $23.20 profit, as Little Mike cost me a shot at a decent Pick 3 payout in the final leg.  However, my best bet of the day, Mizdirection, topped an $80.20 exacta payout in the BC Turf Sprint over Unbridled's Note and I lucked out with Shanghai Bobby holding off He's Had Enough in the BC Juvenile to fill out my $43 daily double.  In all, good to come out ahead and put some toward Red Cross disaster relief efforts.

Brimming with confidence, I played in Sunday's NHC Qualifier at but came up empty.

I figure I've got maybe one more tournament in me, and any freebies that the NHC Tour may run before year-end, but have resigned myself to missing out on the National Handicapping Championship for a third-straight year.  Time's running out, and in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, I simply feel blessed that my family and our homes were unscathed and only subjected to power outages.   I hope you're well. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

All About the Marathon

I've been away from posting for about two weeks -- this week for lack of electricity (still) in the wake of Hurricane Sandy's devastation -- but am in full marathon mode this weekend.

Thursday, I picked up my NYC Marathon bib and race packet and am ready to tackle 26.2 miles through the Five Boroughs on Sunday.  It's not too late to make a contribution to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund or my two other designated charities at

Do'rag ready!
Colleague Red Rock or Bust (be sure to enter his Breeders Cup contest) can attest to my contention that the BC Marathon is perhaps the most useless $500,000 Grade 2 event ever.  The 1.75 mile-race is generally filled with a bunch of also-ran horses ill-equipped to slide into any other event on the two-day card.  Hell, past champ Eldaafer followed his BC win with a race at, yes, Atlantic City Race Course.

Nonetheless, since I've been without power and have not had much of a chance to look at Friday's card, I am making the marathon the centerpiece of today's wagers.

Grassy looks very intriguing to me at 30-1.

Clearly, Grassy is a turf horse, but I think third off a layoff has as good a shot as any with one of California's top jocks -- clearly worth the risk to me, and as I continue to scratch my head over Attigun as the favorite at 9-2 and with no wins outside of optional claiming, I'm all in on bomber Grassy, who has two good races with Gomez under his belt.

For those playing along at home, here's how I'm burning $50 this afternoon:

  • Race 4, $2 WP 4 ($4)
  • Race 4, $1 Pick 3: ALL with 4 with 4,6,12 ($21)
  • Race 4, $2 Double: ALL with 4 ($14)
  • Race 5, $1 Pick 3: 4 with 4,6,12 with 2 ($3)
  • Race 5, $2 Double: 4 with 12 ($2)
  • Race 6, $4 WP 12 ($4) -- The Gold Cheongsam looks sneaky good to me at 20-to-1
  • Race 6, $2 Double: 12 with 2 ($2)
I'm not too optimistic about getting power back tomorrow (or cashing winning tickets with a 30-to-1 single), so I'll mention that I like Ron the Greek in the Breeders Cup Classic and will play with Flat Out in exotics, though I am not all that intrigued by that race in particular, and will likely play $50 of Pick 3's on Saturday. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Salty Thoughts

Salt is a recurring theme for the NJ Horseplayer lifestyle these mid-October days.
  • Anyone with the visual or olfactory misfortune of crossing my path after, say, one of my long (i.e. 15- 20-mile) NYC Marathon training runs will find my face literally covered in salty sweat
  • From a thoroughbred handicapping and contest perspective, I have finally taken a break from rubbing salt into my own wounds after, two weeks ago, throwing away a perfectly winnable seat to the 2013 National Handicapping Championship (NHC).  
  • Tuesday night's Night School on addressing "Other People's Advice" got me thinking: are "expert" handicappers' opinions worth their salt?
Take my observations with a grain of salt, but on the latter two bullet points especially, recent contest outcomes got me thinking a lot about whether I'm worth my salt as a Tour member and contest player, and whether outside (often free) advisers are worth their salt.

On the heels of a tiring 16-mile Friday training run and enjoyable Saturday at Rutgers Stadium tailgating and cheering on my beloved Scarlet Knights (yes, 6-0 and No. 15 in the first BCS standings), I took a physical breather on Sunday, October 7, and at the last minute entered's NHC qualifier.  I spent little time in advance handicapping, and so set my expectations low.

I stuck to my mantra of picking playable long-shots, and the outcomes of the first 6 (of 12) contest races yielded few winnings to anyone, with 5 of the 6 race winners paying less than $6.80 to win.  Granted, I ID'd eventual winner Balance the Books as the best horse in the Grade 3 Bourbon Stakes from Keeneland, but saw no value in picking a horse that, ultimately, paid a combined $6.60 to win and place.  

So, with zero bankroll through the first half of the contest, I hunkered down in search of some prices, and in Race 9 from Keeneland landed on Charming She Is, listed at 20-to-1 on the morning line but off a second-place finish in a $75,000 stakes event at Kentucky Downs and a grass closer-type in a race filled with early speed.  Here's where the salt in the wound angle comes into play -- at the last second, I switched off Charming She Is, missing out on a 23-to-1 winner and a combined $57.80 of win-place winnings.  (Too bad I did not get get shut out of the system in that instance). 

This decision proved especially costly when considering that, two races later, I found another long-shot that made sense -- d'Princess was sent off in Race 6 from Santa Anita at 26-to-1 (totally dismissed off a 12-to-1 morning line) and wired the field, as hoped, to produce $62.20 of combined win-place money (FYI: win payouts are capped at 20-to-1) and put me at least within striking distance of the leaders with 3 contest races to go; but there were no big prices to be had thereafter, leaving me with a 45th-place finish.

Had I stuck to my guns with Charming She Is, I would have finished 3rd in the contest and won a berth to NHC.  Instead, I was relegated to licking my wounds and am back to the salt mines in search of a late-season bid to the $1.5 million championship next January.

Meanwhile, my participation in the September 29 qualifier on yielded an interesting observation that ties into Tuesday's Night School -- that of "expert handicappers' picks" and how much weight a horseplayer should put into another's prognostications. 

Opinions vary.  

Much as I respect what a Brad Thomas and Andy Serling have to say about respective Monmouth (or Gulfstream) and NYRA races, rarely do I make a selection based on their picks, unlike my colleague Red Rock or Bust, who I have seen win contest races on a Brad Thomas call, in particular.  I am generally skeptical of free advice. 

One such purveyor of "free" advice is one-time NHC Champion Ron Rippey, whose picks are regularly published in the Newark Star-Ledger.  Rip took down the September 29 contest and is headed to Vegas, but I was curious the next day whether his picks aligned with his Ledger picks, namely for Belmont Park.  To his credit, Rip gave out chalky Point of Entry in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic for the Star-Ledger and stuck with that in the online tournament, but no others for the Ledger in Races 6-11.  

To the contrary, in the contest, Rip hit on 8-to-1 Jersey Town in the Kelso, collected $4.20 of place winnings on Zagora in the Flower Bowl, and tallied $17.10 of combined win-place payouts on Bernard's Galaxy in the Belmont finale (a maiden special-weight).  

This is not to disparage Rippey for not backing his published Ledger picks with real money (i.e. an NHC seat) on the line, but to validate my view that experts' published picks are generally worth bupkis, and that all handicappers alike absorb a ton of information that can sway one's confidence at any point. 

Some of the Night School commentary would validate this perspective.  

Churchill Downs' Jill Byrne, for instance, noted that she needs to enter her picks for publication of the track program some 48 hours in advance.  I'm guessing the same holds true for Mr. Rippey with the Star-Ledger.  

A lot can change, especially in the seconds leading up to post time, much as it did in my switch off Charming She Is in the contest October 7, and much as it can for expert handicappers who see something in the post parade or hidden in the past performances that gets them to adjust on the fly with real money on the line.  

In such cases, that is why I will continue to take other peoples' opinions with a grain of salt and rely more heavily on my own handicapping and convictions. 

Unfortunately, I'm just not salty enough a contest player yet to recognize this in certain situations.  One such situation occurred on October 7, but I am confident that soon enough I'll salt away a trip to the NHC, so long as I continue to move forward -- kind of like with my NYC Marathon training.


Speaking of the NYC Marathon, it is less than 3 weeks away, and I truly appreciate the outpouring of publicity that industry colleagues such as Scott Carson ( and the NHC's Michele Ravencraft have provided the last two weeks.  

My campaign to raise $2,000 for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund (PDJF) received a slight boost on account of Scott's and Michele's efforts, but I am a mere 25% of the way to my goal and generally disappointed that more horseplayers have not embraced this campaign.  I am nearing $3k in my bid to raise a total of $6k for 3 charities, but only a select few have responded to PDJF, which all horseplayers should keep in mind in terms of the risk that all jockeys take for the sake of our entertainment.

I am hopeful and confident that more folks will step up before I run the NYC Marathon on November 4, and thank you in advance for any donations you can make toward the cause. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Running the New York City Marathon for 3 Great Charities

Deviating from my typical, unsolicited (and boring to many of you) observations about thoroughbred handicapping contest strategy, I am using the NJ Horseplayer blog as a shill for raiding your wallets for a great cause.

NJ Horseplayer: 26.2 miles for worthy causes!
On Sunday, November 4, I will be running the 2012 New York City Marathon -- my fourth time "running" (used very lightly in light of my tortoise pace) the 26.2 miles through the 5 boroughs.

Through my profile page on the NYC Marathon fundraising hub's, my goal is to raise at least $5,000 for three charities: 

  • The LAM Foundation 
  • Alstrom Syndrome International
  • Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund

I raised money for the LAM Foundation my first few marathons (2000, 2001 and 2003), as that is a charity intertwined with my family, but was a little more reluctant to solicit donations for causes this year, primarily in the wake of a light, 4-mile jog in mid-August, where I re-aggravated an old hamstring injury that sent me to the sidelines.  I was afraid of hitting people up for charity and then being unable to run.

However, after a month's worth of rest (albeit during the most intense part of a typical marathon training schedule), I got back on the trail 3 weeks ago and am on a training roll -- akin to hitting a Pick 3, you could say.  I've upped my weekly tallies from 20 to 25 to 30, and coasted through a 14-mile "long-run" on Saturday, as some of you unfortunately saw on my Twitter this past Saturday.

This week I've got designs on 35 miles total, with a 16-miler scheduled for Sunday morning, and I will be deviating from the typical marathon schedule and upping my mileage approaching the Marathon, rather than tapering down as recommended in most runners' schedules.  The hammy forced my hand.  C'est la vie!

Anyway, I figured the horseplayer community was a great place to kick-off my fundraiser.  Surely as someone who appreciates all that the horse racing industry provides and recognizes the grave dangers that those physically involved face for our entertainment and betting interests, you will understand why I come to you for support in my NYC Marathon Fundraising effort.

As I am targeting three separate charities, and expecting to raise at least $2,000 for each, I figured the legions of NJ Horseplayer followers would prefer a donation to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, but by all means feel free to chose one of the other two (for background, my sister-in-law succumbed to LAM in 1997, and my cousin Phyllis is the Chairperson for the nascent Alstrom 501 (c)(3) charity).

I will be targeting my family and co-workers for those charities, however, so please consider a donation to PDJF and remember the sacrifices those jockeys who face infinitely more challenges each day than I will leading up to my 26.2-mile marathon.

Wish me luck, and thanks in advance for your generosity...and please spread the word!

Again, follow this link to my profile on CrowdRise and click on the link below "Bill's Fundraisers" to designate the charity to which you would prefer to make a donation.

Stay tuned to the NJ Horseplayer Twitter feed for updates on my training and more unsavory pictures from the marathon training trail, and please feel free to contact me with any questions or publicizing my fundraiser!

Bill Holobowski - NJ Horseplayer

Friday, September 21, 2012

Amen, Winston Churchill!

"Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." -- Winston Churchill, racehorse owner
Persistence and enthusiasm are essential attributes in any facet of life, but especially for anyone involved in horse racing, where the difference between winning and losing is often razor thin. 

Churchill: PM and, oh by the way, 
 prodigious racehorse owner
A jockey, trainer or stable that wins 20%-25% of the time is considered extraordinary (or juicing their horses).  Participants who score at a mid-teens clip are nearly just as successful.

Even the apprentice or 2% jock who regularly rides the bottom-level claimers in a track's closing race wins once in a blue moon or helps horseplayers underneath in exotic wagers.  

Meanwhile, bettors can still profit after taking a beating all day with one well-placed wager.  NHC Tour players can take down a contest with a modest bankroll and a late-contest long-shot.  

More often than not, however, most get the short end of the stick. 

Exiting the track mentally fatigued after a bitter defeat in Sunday's NHC handicapping contest finale at Monmouth Park, as always a thousand different thoughts had crossed my mind in how I squandered a good chance at finally winning a seat to the National Handicapping Championship (NHC).  To wit...
  • Could I have managed my bankroll any better?
  • Am I a good enough handicapper to even consider winning a contest?
  • What was I thinking investing $10 in a horse ridden by Francisco Maysonett?
  • Was my blood pressure much higher from the stress of the handicapping contest, or after eating the egregiously salty (though tasty) clam chowder at Monmouth Park?
Surely there were others, but after a relatively restless sleep and few days off from anything dealing with racing, I stopped beating myself up, tightened my boot straps, and got back in the saddle in an online contest on Friday after work.  I came out on the short end, but hit some decent calls and finished in the top third, reaffirming my confidence that I can compete and will remain persistent in pursuit of an NHC berth.

Echoing the sentiments of my pal at Red Rock or Bust, in hindsight there was more good than bad on Sunday for NJ Horseplayer.  After moving sideways through 3 contest wagers (including a near-miss on 9-to-1 Young Dude in the Woodbine 3; I did hit the place end of the $5WP wager), I dropped five straight, beset by several bad trips and disinterested horses.  I finally showed more patience in passing on some races, but my handicapping simply proved poor during that stretch.

With my $100 starting bankroll diminished to $41.75, I felt pretty good about 17-to-1 Sea Bank in Woodbine 6, a $50k maiden special weight where the favorites looked extremely vulnerable.  Sea Bank had just one race under his belt, but seemed logical off an unimpressive debut in which he at least ran even after a bad start -- a bullish and recent successful angle for me at the MSW level.  I banked on Sea Bank getting the lead at 9 furlongs and discouraging the other maidens, which is precisely what happened.

Sea Bank turned my $10W wager into a $171 profit and ran my bankroll to $212.75 -- a bankroll through nine of 10 compulsory contest races good enough to either sit tight and reserve for one big wager in hopes of winning the contest, or take some chances to move up the leaderboard.  

In past posts, I espoused the benefits of place and show wagering in handicapping contests.  It is always easy to second guess, but heeding my own advance would certainly have helped last Sunday.

Indulge me, if you will...
  • $10P instead of $10W on my next bet (7-to-1 Holy Smoke in Monmouth 7) would have run my bankroll to $228.75 instead of down to $202.75
  • $10P instead of $10W on 7-to-2 Any Given Royal would have pushed my bankroll to $240.25, rather than down to $192.75
  • Three races later, and $20 lighter, I would have been better served putting $15S on 26-to-1 Speaking Lib in Monmouth 9 rather than the $5W-$10P wagered; Lib ran a very game third, paying $9.40 to show, meaning that my bankroll could have been ~$218 instead of $147.75. 
  • Next race, $10P instead of $10W on 27-to-1 Clementis in Woodbine 9 would have netted me $67.50 and a ~$280 bankroll with two races remaining, instead of $137.75. 
Granted, if Speaking Lib and Clementis win their respective races, I'm probably near the top of the leaderboard regardless and looking REALLY smart, but in hindsight a smarter strategy would have been much bigger place wagers on 1-2 of the aforementioned long-shots, i.e. $50P-$75P.  These were legit picks in a real-money contest, not some online contest stabs at getting lucky. Clementis, especially, was extremely attractive, in my view, to at least run for a share in a race with a lukewarm favorite.  To be sure, 25 times $15.50 (Clementis' place payout) would have produced a nearly $400 profit, instead of the meager $67.50 booked.  

I'd have been licking my chops (and probably sweating profusely with nerves) over a $600-$700 bankroll entering the mandatory Woodbine Mile and the Woodbine finale, and probably have put a sizable bet on the obvious favorite Wise Dan. Instead, trailing in the standings and in need of a price to get near the top of the standings, I had what was still a credible $137.75 bankroll and made a less-than-confident $20W-$30P wager on Big Band Sound, who trailed throughout.  

I squandered my final $87 on Soap Opera Star to win in Woodbine 11 -- somewhat of a reach at nearly 25-to-1, but a horse 3-for-3 in the money at 7 furlongs and who had shown some early lick and I estimated could get the lead and maybe upset, but that was not in the cards, as she got within a neck of the lead in the stretch before fading.  

Clearly I landed on the wrong long-shot in the finale, but I would have been kicking myself repeatedly had Soap Opera Star finished second, considering the actual runner-up in that race (27-to-1 Summer Ending) paid $22.10 to place!  Betting (in my case) $87P on Soap Opera Star could have been equally productive, considering a ~$900 payout would have put me within reach of second-place contest finisher Mark Acerra, whose bankroll totaled $908.90.  If not an NHC berth, I could have come away with about $3k between bankroll and third-place winnings (bankroll for the third-place finisher was $755.20). 

Sunday's performance was less severe a stumble than my past live-money contest performances during 2012 in that I competed to the end, but the end result was the same -- tied for last place.

Assuming Churchill was correct, this latest failure did nothing to deter my enthusiasm for getting to NHC XIV in Las Vegas in January 2013.  I'm relegated to online tournaments as time and budget will allow for the duration of the 2012 qualifying season, but I welcome more stumbles and potential failures, recognizing that contest success and an NHC berth soon will come. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Final NHC Contest at Monmouth

There's still a lot of time and opportunity to qualify for the National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas in January 2013, but today is likely my final "on-track" effort.

Monmouth Park is hosting its final live-money contest of 2012, featuring races from Monmouth Park and Woodbine and with first post schedule for 12:45 p.m.

Two NHC seats, cash up for grabs
There is no change to the format: $200 entry fee, and only win, place and show betting (combinations of these allowed; i.e. $5WP). The wagering minimum is $10 per race. Players must bet at least five races from each track, which is sort of interesting in that Monmouth only carded nine races today, so less picking and choosing which races to include.  Note that in MP's last contest, one of the top finishers was disqualified from NHC contention for betting only four races from Monmouth, so be careful to follow the rules.

I have yet to really handicap the card, but 6 of the 20 contest races are for maidens.  Monmouth's leans heavily toward bottom-level claimers, in contrast to Woodbine, where Sunday marks the return of two big Grade 1 events - the Northern Dancer (featuring 60-year-old Al Khali, who comes out for anything at 12 furlongs or more on turf) and the Woodbine Mile -- a 9-horse field headlined by Wise Dan, perhaps the greatest horse in the world at present but probably unplayable at a 6-to-5 morning line.

Monmouth ran a contest on the same day last year under similar conditions -- low 70s (probably cooler at the track, so pack a sweatshirt) and clear.  The Woodbine fields for today's Woodbine Mile day are shorter than last year's, though Riding the River returns in the Woodbine Mile after almost providing NJ Horseplayer a major thrill in last year's contest.

Perhaps I'll see you around the grounds at Monmouth (I usually play around the 3rd-level bank of TVs)!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Bold Move by

Validating observations in my Irrational Exuberance posting of April 10, National Handicapping Championship (NHC) feeder site is upping the ante for sites competing for NHC Tour players' cash-constrained budgets. 

I received separate email from (Saturday) and the NHC Tour (Monday), publicizing a lower entry-fee online handicapping contest structure rolled out by the affiliate of Ellis Park Race Course that, in my opinion, will prompt a few others to eventually follow suit.  

One NHC contest hub lower fees
Anyone who has read my blog with any regularity knows that, as a predominantly weekend player on a budget, I am a fan (and NOT a spokesperson of any sort for any contest site) of, even though the detractor will argue there is "better value" (i.e., higher odds, prize packages) out there for my handicapping contest dollar.  

Flatly, for me, the prospect (albeit slim) of winning a spot to the $1.5 million NHC XIV in Las Vegas in January 2013 for only $15-$20 is appealing, considering I lack the bankroll of a full-time or hardcore Tour player, live in a state restricting play through Advanced Deposit Wagering (ADW) sites offering boatloads of NHC "seats," and have work and family obligations that preclude travel for on-track tourneys.  

That as part of its prize packages does not include a travel voucher to offset airfare is not a drawback for me (I can fly to Vegas from Newark or Philly for $300-$400), and I am not hellbent on takeouts, recognizing any contest organizer, whether online or on-track, has expenses (IT, personnel) and  that being an NHC hub is probably not a get-rich-quick business model.   

Effective immediately, and presumably for its remaining 2012 contest slate, has cut the cost to enter its NHC qualifier tournaments by 28%, to $140 (from $195), and its "pre-qualifiers" by 25% to $15 (from $20).  The trade-off on the qualifiers is that grand prizes (entry to NHC XIV and paid hotel) now goes to 1 out of every 60 entries, rather than 50.  The award for finishing in the top 10% of a pre-qualifier, meanwhile, is intact, in that winners still earn a credit to enter a future HorseTourneys qualifier (or can allocate winnings to more pre-qualifiers -- a method I am employing). 

Consistent with my April commentary that the online handicapping contest circuit is "in the throes of an irrational growth cycle," Operator/Tournament Director McKay Smith addressed the catalyst for his site's reduced fee structure.  "It is clear that the players are becoming more and more price-sensitive," said Smith via email Monday, "mostly due to the fact that there is far less scarcity with NHC inventory (spots) than there has been in the past." 

Entries from two contests this past weekend were reflective.  The NHC qualifier on Saturday drew 163 entries (some players played multiple entries) for three NHC seats, while Sunday's $160 NHC qualifier at drew 162 entries for just two NHC seats., much like, gives away 1 NHC "seat" per 60 entries and so-called "breakage" refunds as well to the top non-qualifiers, but contests have been known to easily draw 200-300 entries in the past. 

Perhaps last weekend's lackluster turnouts were anomalous or an improper anecdote, but I would argue that either Tour players needed a respite after the Saratoga and Del Mar seasons, or more likely that players can only allocate so much bankroll to contest play and are spread thin by the rise in tournaments, and therefore more selective about which contests to play in general.  When I joined the NHC Tour in 2010, there were only 300 seats available to the NHC, and was the primary online contest site, charging $100 for its lower-cost events.  Today, however, there are 500 seats available and more competition.

These support my observation of "irrational exuberance," whereby supply is outstripping demand.  Not that the demand is not there, but in what I would still consider a recessionary economic environment and with contests costing upwards of $1,000, players can pick and choose when they play in NHC qualifiers.  

"(Co-Director) Ron Geary and I have always committed to lowering prices per additional inventory," said Smith, who noted that also had its allotment of NHC "seats" upped to around 80 (from 65-70 seats earlier).  "All in all, I felt getting into the sub-$150 range per entry was where we needed to be.  I also like the idea of having the lowest feeder tier under $20; that is accessible to absolutely everyone."

Whether the lower-fee approach as a trade-off to a slightly lower-percentage chance of Tour players qualifying for NHC XIV pays dividends remains to be seen, but I will continue my bid to accrue entries to qualifiers through their scheduled November 24 finale as, for me, there is only one more on-track event for the remainder of 2012 (the Monmouth-Woodbine Challenge: Sunday, September 16).  

With the NHC Tour season approaching the three-quarter pole, it will be interesting to watch whether's gambit prompts more entries and/or other venues to reduce their contest entry rates, or whether lower online tournament turnouts (and more unclaimed NHC seats) will continue, perhaps prompting some "last-chance" tourneys to pop up in the December-January time frame when the contest schedule really thins. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

When To Play (Contest) Defense

I started a nearly two-week vacation last Friday on a decent hoof, winning a $195 NHC qualifying tournament credit by virtue of a fourth-place finish (out of 60) in a $20 NHC "pre-qualifier" at

The decisive call proved to be 16-to-1 winner Sam Hillic in Race 7 from Monmouth Park ($46.60 combined win and place earnings on a notional $2 WP bet), but a runaway win in the fourth race of the eight-race contest on 5-to-2 Storm Da Chaser in Race 8 from Calder padded my bankroll by another $12.40 to vault me into third place at the halfway point.
Cliche: Defense wins championships

With four races to go, however, including three from a typically deep-fielded Saratoga, I was not entirely secure about my position despite a sizable bankroll edge over many competitors in Friday's contest.

Yet, as unlike many days where I have little advance prep time, I had Friday afternoon all to myself (kids on a sleepover, the wife out after work) to engage in serious handicapping and noticed that scratches pared several of the late-card races, and the contest finale (The Ballerina Stakes) was a mere six-horse field featuring Turbulent Descent (9-to-5 morning line) -- a virtual shoe-in to win versus a so-so field.

Time to buckle my chinstraps and play defense.  

The premise of my handicapping is, typically, to identify playable long-shots, but on Friday I angled especially high on the odds board in hopes of preventing other contest players from jumping the leaderboard with horses 10-to-1 or above.  Two of the last four races (7, 8 and 9 from Saratoga, and 9 from Monmouth Park) were especially conducive to this strategy.
  • Saratoga, Race 7 -- Sally's Dream scored at nearly 9-to-1 on a nice ground-saving ride by Rajiv Maragh, while Rosie Napravnik (consistent with other times I have landed on a Rosie-run horse during the Saratoga meeting) ran my selection, 23-to-1 Grisaille, 3-4 horses wide and finished in seventh.  The $26.10 combined win-place payout would have been nice, but I remained in the top six.
  • Saratoga, Race 8 -- Really a dumb, contradictory decision on my part, but I felt like Silver Timber (1.9-to-1) was simply the best horse in the field and went with my gut, rather than making my alternate choice, Chernobyl's Hero (20-to-1), my top selection and recognizing the value of the big long-shot.  Silver Timber petered out in the stretch, while Chernobyl's Hero lost by a mere neck to 6-to-5 favorite Isn'tlovejustgrand.  The outcome was not damaging, as none of the top eight in the standings had Chernobyl's Hero, but I was kicking myself nonetheless for picking a chalky horse. 
Entering the finale, I sat in fourth-place behind Maurice Colpron ($84.20), Tony Calabrese ($71.40) and Paul Shurman ($65.60), but my $64.80 bankroll was $15.50 ahead of the next player (Harvey Sides) and $18.20 ahead of sixth-place Thomas Blosser.
  • Saratoga, Race 9 -- After 8-to-5 morning-line favorite It's Tricky scratched, Turbulent Descent appeared the standout of the six-horse Ballerina.  Considering I only needed to finish in the top six to win a $195 Horse Tourneys credit, I threw out three horses -- Turbulent Descent, Nicole H (4-to-1 morning line) and Derwin's Star (5-to-1 morning line) -- since players trailing in the standings could not conceivably win enough with any of those horses to pass me.  I focused my handicapping, instead, on Island Bound, Belle of the Hall and All Due Respect -- 10-to-1, 15-to-1 and 20-to-1, respectively, on the morning line.  I settled on All Due Respect, who got little respect from the bettors and went off as the second-longest shot but seemed logical, as I saw it, considering the horse's front-running style in a race lacking a pacesetter.  I thought the other horses were stalkers and closer-types, which absolutely played out as All Due Respect easily held the lead most of the way before fading to third.  No harm done, considering the 1-to-2 favorite won and Derwin's Star paid just $5 to place.  

The last race outcome did not shake up the standings among the top five, though Sam Rivera moved up three places in the standings to sixth, courtesy of Derwin's Star.  I suspect that Friday's contest winner Maurice Colpron considered the same strategy as me heading into the last race, as he also played All Due Respect, but you had to go further down the standings to find others making the same play.  

Now, had Friday's contest been an actual NHC qualifying tournament, and I were 80 cents out of third-place (typically the top 3 finishers in HorseTourneys' NHC qualifiers reach the annual National Handicapping Championship), I almost certainly would have played Turbulent Descent, but the circumstances validated an approach of hunkering down and playing some defense.  

The is often fruitless to play favorites in the latter stages of handicapping tournaments featuring compulsory races.  Friday was but one such case, though I encourage you to chime in with your own late-contest thoughts or strategies in the comments below.

Monday, August 13, 2012

When A Flared Nostril Flares MY Nostrils

Perhaps there's nothing more frustrating in the handicapping lexicon than when your pick loses by a nose.

NJ Horseplayer pulls a
"McKayla Maroney"
Fresh off the Summer Olympics, ask anyone that finished fourth in the medal round and just missed out on the podium.  They'd rather have finished last.

As a relative newbie to the contest circuit, but one extremely interested in handicapping strategies, logic and wagering methodologies, I probably have little room to criticize a rider for an poor outcome since I have zero experience riding or training, but I will blame my slide down the standings Sunday in the Del Mar 2012 Online Handicapping Challenge on the jockey.  

Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

Let the video of race 7, a $40k optional claimer at a mile, show that Planet Sunshine, not winner (by a flared nostril) Shaun Washington, was the best horse in the race and with a ton left coming into the stretch until Victor Espinoza tried his hand at parting the proverbial Red Sea.  Alas, he's no Moses, and ended up losing in a driving photo finish. 

Alright, maybe I should calm down, especially since this is a no-cost-to-enter contest and my chances of winning 1 of 2 NHC XIV spots awarded this year are slim, but as a contest player, this is the kind of loss that alters outcomes and future handicapping (especially around the halfway point of this particular contest) and churns up memories of nose-bobs lost.  

Entering the race, I was $88 in the black (not a huge sum by any stretch, but on the plus side and in the top 25% among 4,000-plus players), having built momentum with a $16.20 winner (a $710 profit on a notional $100 win bet) in Friday's Daisy Cutter Handicap with 7-to-1 Nechez Dawn.  On Saturday, although my pick ended up some 6-7 lengths behind a runaway 1-to-5 shot, Hot Affair ran a very game second at 23-to-1 as sixth choice in a 9-horse field in Race 7, so with some luck I could have scored big at $100W.  

Sunday, in the ill-fated seventh, confident in Planet Sunshine (went off at 5-to-1) I put down another notional $100W, only to see a potential $600+ payout turn into a nose defeat to a horse that ran extremely wide in the stretch but had a trouble-free trip where, as expected, a handful of horses burned each other out into the stretch.  So, rather than an approximate $700 bankroll to the good and being in the Top 300 (i.e., striking distance of having a better shot), you'll find my alter ego (billhobo) at No. 1,168 in the contest standings. 

Of course my recap is very tongue-in-cheek.  In all seriousness, I use this contest for practice and casual play, realizing that out-handicapping 4,000+ players is an egregious long-shot, but Sunday's setback got me thinking this afternoon how one outcome can alter a handicapper's contest strategy.  

For the next two weeks I intend to handicap as I have throughout this particular contest, where I try to identify a logical horse at 4-to-1 to 10-to-1, recognizing there's enough time for, say, two winning picks to get me back into the upper realm of the leaderboard.  Once we turn into the homestretch, however, my logic may change, and I may look back upon this weekend's defeat as an inflection point in my contest outcome. 

I am interested to know how other players react after a "tough beat" in a handicapping contest, particularly during the middle to late stages, so fire away with those comments.