Sunday, February 26, 2012

One Nail-Biting Step Toward Qualifying for NHC

Sunday proved relatively productive for NJ Horseplayer, with a 12th-place finish (out of 209) in the NHC Preliminary Feed-In Tournament producing a $195 credit for entry to one of the site's National Handicapping Championship qualifiers.

Today's $20 entry fee to today's tournament ultimately proved worth it, considering a few impressive wins, credible long-shot handicapping, and that likely I was less than a head away from finishing at least in the top 3 with a 21-to-1 shot (Passing Game in the 8th from Santa Anita).

The 10-race tournament got off to a good start, with 9-to-1 winner Travel Advisory in the 7th from Fair Grounds putting my bankroll at $32.20 with about 30 other players.  I hit the board in the 3rd contest race ($3 of place money) and went cold for 4 more, but got rolling in the final three races from Santa Anita.

Uncanny resemblance to NJ
Horseplayer's pet, "Mr. Cat"
Spending Smart was a huge overlay at 14-to-1 off a 6-to-1 morning line and was in-the-money in two attempts from 7 furlongs, and the quick early pace in the $62,500 optional claimer set up perfectly for this 5-year-old gelding son of Smarty Jones, who paid $30 to win and $11 to place, elevating me to 15th-place with two races remaining in the contest.  Passing Game just missed in the next, beat out by another $30 winner, which pushed me down to a tenuous 20th-place with a race to go.

Unimpressed by anyone in particular in the finale, an $8k claimer at 6 furlongs, I landed on 5-to-2 Folk Dancer, who finished 3rd in his last two outings, including a $12.5k claimer and a race prior where he was steadied hard.  I knew I needed at least an in-the-money finish to advance, and recent form seemed to be a credible angle in a field where the hot-riding Eswan Flores appeared the only credible foe on 5-to-1 Sizzling Gold, who ended up finishing second by a neck.  Dancer's victory assured me a spot in the Top 21.

If nothing else, the finish gives me a 1-in-50 shot at qualifying for an NHC seat ( is rewarding up to 12 NHC spots in March), whether it be next Sunday's tournament or one at a later date.  For tonight, however, it lets me rest a little bit easier that I am gaining as a handicapper and at some point will reach Las Vegas.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Save the Date: Monmouth Park sets 2012 NHC Contests

(Correction on Feb. 24, 2012, regarding Monmouth-Woodbine contests in June and September; 2 (not 1) NHC spots will be awarded to on-track Monmouth Park players at each contest. There is no duplicate contest being held at Woodbine at the same time.)

Initially, I planned solely to pan Monmouth a bit for allowing non-NHC Tour contest players to win spots in the 45-player Simulcast Series Challenge invitational on April 28, but am more enthused by the release of on-track NHC-based contest dates at The Shore's Greatest Stretch, and that my solicited input may have had some positive impact on the schedule.  The early lowdown:
  • Saturday, May 19: $200 Preakness Day contest for 2 NHC seats
    • Kudos to Sophia Mangalee and her team for scheduling an event around one of the Triple Crown races.  As noted on February 9, NJ Horseplayer speculates that contests scheduled around the Derby, Preakness or Belmont can perhaps draw new players who are otherwise on track to wager on major races; in other words, a captive audience.  Including races from presumably deep fields from Pimlico should also prove very enticing to people seeking big payouts and considering handicapping contests (i.e. low-risk, high-reward proposition). 
  • Sunday, June 3: $200 Monmouth/Woodbine Handicapping Challenge for 2 NHC seats
  • Sunday, September 16: $200 Monmouth/Woodbine Handicapping Challenge for 2 NHC seats. 
    • Positives include full fields expected at Woodbine for $500k Woodbine Oaks and $150k Plate Trial on June 3, and the contest tracks (Woodbine, in particular) will offer plenty of opportunities to score big prices 
Separately, a $100 contest for one 2013 Horse Player World Series tournament will be held on Saturday, July 21.  I'm not an HPWS guy, but it's a live contest. (Editor's note: Sophia informed NJ Horseplayer on Friday that the reason Monmouth Park did not make this event an NHC contest is because the NHC Tour counts July as the first half of the season, which we speculate has to do with the new Tour standings format rolled out by the Tour last month.)

Again, these are early findings, but the combination of 8 National Handicapping Championship seats up for grabs through contests at Monmouth Park (two from the SSC, and two each from the above-noted contests) is a great start, though the absence of NHC-oriented in July and August, during the prestigious Saratoga meet, is an early drawback.  Perhaps financial (i.e. uncertain ownership at Monmouth ties the marketing staff's hands in terms of announcing other dates or buying more NHC seats) or scheduling conflicts (i.e. with other NHC Tour dates at other NTRA venues) are at play, but hopefully NHC Tour players based around Monmouth will get at least another on-track opportunity for a contest later in the summer. 


Keep Non-NHC Tour Players OUT of the SSC Invitational

NJ Horseplayer's opinion may upset or alienate some readers, but Monmouth's press release Monday about Chris Russo's (no, not "The Mad Dog") impressive last-race win in SSC#2 on Saturday and listing of the Top 15 finishers got me thinking -- why should SSC entrants who are not NHC Tour members get spots in an exclusive invite-only tournament for two spots in the National Handicapping Championship?

Two of the top 15 finishers among the 265 contestants in SSC#2 were not Tour players, which is fine; let them compete for prize money only as the rules specify.  I am fine with  them winning prize money, whether these are one-off players kicking the tires of the contest world, or people who compete regularly but have no interest in NHC or are merely too cheap to part with $50 for the annual Tour membership.  

In my opinion, Monmouth needs to make the 45-player SSC Invitational -- a key local on-track tournament for any NHC Tour player -- exclusive to paying NHC Tour members.  In the case of this past Saturday, for example, I would propose that the two highest finishers outside the Top 15 (NJ Horseplayer, as usual, not among them) who are NHC Tour members should get those spots on April 28, much as Tour players down the food chain win spots in other NHC-based tournaments where a player who has already qualified for the NHC but wins yet another qualifying tournament relinquishes his/her seat to the next-highest qualifying tournament finisher(s).  Another idea is to give the total number of spots to the SSC Invitational won by, hypothetically, 5 non-Tour players to the top-5 bankrolls of NHC Tour players in either SSC#1, 2 or 3.

Otherwise, to give entries into an NHC-drive tournament to non-Tour players devalues the $50 membership fee.  I hope consideration is given to this thought next season, as it is probably too late to change now. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Considering Contest Capital Preservation

The February Simulcast Series Challenge at Monmouth Park yesterday proved frustrating for NJ Horseplayer, in that pretty credible handicapping proved fruitless as I squandered my $100 bankroll to finish out of contention for a spot in April's invitational for 2 National Handicapping Championship spots.

NJ Horseplayer asks:
Can slow and steady win the race?
The first two wagers ($10 to win on 7-to-2 shots) were a microcosm of my contest outcome, with Hardrocker in Gulfstream 2 and Sovereign Default in Aqueduct 3 finishing second.  Down to $80, and intrigued by Roger Attfield first-timer Perfect Tay in a $75k turf claimer in Gulfstream 4, I played a conservative $5 win-place on this 13-to-1 shot who finished second, putting my bankroll at $106.

Exhibiting uncharacteristic patience, thereafter I picked my spots and made a combination of seven win and win-place wagers only to get two seconds and four thirds, including 22-to-1 Bell by the Ridge in the Animal Kingdom race at Gulfstream (Race 5) and 31-to-1 Key Victory in the 12-horse eighth from Aqueduct.  With $26 remaining and needing to make up quick late ground with only 6-7 races remaining on the contest card, I took two wild stabs in hopes of nailing a big price but came up empty.

The postmortem conversation with fellow SSC#2 contest players Terry "almost-lucked-my-way-to-victory-in-Saturday's-free-NHC Online Challenge" Flanagan and 2012 NHC qualifier Paul Zerbst, then over pitchers of PBR at Zachary's in Oceanport with my dad, made me consider...can a place, show or place-show wagering strategy work in live-money handicapping contests?

Based on yesterday's first 10 contest wagers and race outcomes, and assuming the required $100 starting bankroll and meeting the contest minimum of a $10 wager, here were the potential bankroll outcomes:
  • $10 all show: $217 
  • $5 place-show: $197.50
  • $10 all place: $169
Considering my official bankroll was down to $26 after 6 fruitless win wagers, 3 win-place wagers and 1 straight place wager, either of the above scenarios would have been far better and, most importantly as I'm learning from playing in more of these on-track contests, given me enough ammo to make it into the top 15 and qualify for the April SSC invitational, or take a stab at taking down a contest where 265 players competed for a $13,250 first prize.  

In any event, hindsight is always 20-20, and there's no guarantee I'll be able to again handicap adequately enough to call 9-of-10 races with horses that finish in the money, but the data argue in favor of a conservative capital-preservation strategy based on either a combination of place-show or straight show bets. Perhaps NJ Horseplayer will have even more discipline next month and follow through with one of these strategies at the SSC#3 on Saturday, March 24.  

It's clear to me that $10 show wagers will not be enough to win a contest, and lacks the excitement or opportunity for braggadocio of "picking winners," but preserving capital for one major push late in a contest is a far-more attractive consideration than finishing tied for last again in an on-track live-money contest. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Monmouth Park handicapping contest slate in the works

Our assessment last week of changes for the NHC Tour this season prompted a Monmouth Park official to notify NJ Horseplayer readers that the 2012 handicapping contest schedule in in the works and will reward at least 8 spots in the 2012 NHC in Las Vegas (January 2013) -- two each in April (Simulcast Series Challenge), June (a Monmouth-Woodbine combo), July and August.

NJ Horseplayer's crack
researcher uncovers new info
Sophia Mangalee, Marketing Manager at Monmouth, and her team are considering other avenues as well to maximize handicapping contest participation and give NHC Tour players in the area more opportunities to win seats in the National Handicapping Championship, including a live-season series similar to SSC, and expects to finalize the schedule by the beginning of March.  (Monmouth's hugely popular "Survival at the Shore" contest for the summer meeting was left out of our back-and-forth, though we assume (whether correctly or not) perhaps a ninth NHC seat and Tour points will be rewarded again in 2012.)

Stay tuned to NJ for more updates in weeks ahead.

Those of you with ideas for improving Monmouth Park's contest offering for 2012 might best be served calling the track directly or approaching Sophia at SSC2, scheduled for Saturday, February 18, but feel free to continue the discussion in the comments field below.  There are people in the industry eager for customers' opinions on how to improve the contest product.

Some self-serving thoughts I shared with Sophia:

  • Keep the entry fees within the $100-$200 range
  • Avoid scheduling NHC-based  contests on holidays (i.e. one on a past Father's Day comes to mind, where contest participation - if I recall - did not come close to matching the 250-300 for 2010's SSC events); perhaps holiday-based contests could reward seats to the less-seductive Horseplayer World Series
  • Be more discriminating/selective about handicapping contest partnerships with other tracks.  

On the latter, I recall a summer 2010 contest featuring races from Monmouth, Canterbury and Emerald Downs where only 207 contestants entered between the three tracks.  In my view, during that sweet spot of the thoroughbred season, contest players are more selective about which contests to enter and which races will comprise a particular contest format; the aforementioned tracks featured extremely lackluster 5- to 7-horse fields of indistinguishable claimer-type races.  Running some handicapping contests around, say, the Triple Crown races or Breeders Cup may boost on-track handicapping contest participation.

We'll see whether any of these suggestions prove valuable to Sophia and company and/or fit within Monmouth Park's presumably constrained budget and business model for the 2012 meeting, or whether they even jive with the broader populace of NHC Tour players.  Again, feel free to weigh in with your opinions.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Assessing Changes to 2012 NHC Tour

NJ Horseplayer is predicated on uncovering deep value in both handicapping contests and, far less frequently (on account of my real world obligations), at the betting window.  With that in mind, Wednesday's press release from the NTRA touting registration for the 2012 National Handicapping Championship (NHC) Tour requires a bit of reading between the lines to decipher how the 2012 season will shape for qualifying opportunities. Here's my early read, again based on incomplete information and some back-of-the-envelope math.

The $5 hike in membership to $50 is negligible, as I see it.  At the same time, the Tour is cutting the number of "members-only, free online tournament" spots in next January's NHC to 10 (from 15 in 2012).  Public Handicapper, a cost-free venue, is picking up an additional seat and will now offer two NHC spots to Tour members.  Still, 4 fewer pieces of swag against a membership fee hike is a loss, whether or not these spots are akin to winning the lottery.

Early read on 2012 NHC
The Tour is clearly emphasizing increased participation from Tour players both online and at the track, considering the top 100 players in the year-end Tour standings will be guaranteed entry to the 2013 NHC Finals; no longer just the top finisher.  The Tour also more than tripled the regular season standings-based purse to $250k, with the winners of the first- and second-half season standings winning $50k each, and the year-end standings leader winning $150k  -- double what 2011 Tour Champion Paul Shurman won -- based on a member's top 6 scores (1 must come from a live, in-person event; i.e. on-track, live-money contests).  The NTRA's press release suggests that scoring points during live-money events will be a must, though there are only a handful of tracks that seem to have solidified their tournament schedules this early in the year.

Assuming the Tour will again publicize a $2m purse and keep the NHC at a target of 500 players, and citing figures on the early 2012 calendar posted to the NHC Tour's website, will play a major role in 2012, granting 120 NHC seats.  This is not publicized on Qualify's website, but an unofficial quick tally of the Tour calendar puts the figure at around 25% of Championship spots.

What is known, however, is that the February round of qualifying tournaments on, at the least, will cost $50 more than 2011's comparable early qualifiers to enter (now $150 per), though 15 NHC seats will be up for grabs (up from 10 per qualifier last year).  I have mixed feelings about this, as $100 is usually my online contest cap, and I still think the Tour is askew in coaxing more money out of its steady customer base, rather than holding the line on contest entry fees to encourage greater participation in the throes of a methodical rebound in the U.S. economy.  As it is, had trouble getting players for its qualifying tournaments at the end of 2011, so I fail to see the logic in a fee increase in 2012.

Combined with the 64 seats to be awarded through Ellis Park's, the preponderance of NHC seats awarded through online tourneys somewhat contradicts the Tour's press release emphasizing participation in live, in-person tournaments.  NHC Qualify and Horse Tourneys account for 66% of the 280 seats up for grabs that are now listed on the Tour calendar.  Add in another 6 (1 through DRF Bets, 2 through XpressBet and 3 through and you get nearly 70%.

The biggest shortcomings, as I see it, especially as a New Jersey-based Tour player, are the decline in tournaments at Monmouth Park (there were fewer seats awarded last year to the NHC on account of the track's uncertain ownership, which continues into 2012) and lack of nearby in-person tournaments.  I have to automatically throw out the midweek tournament at Saratoga in August (citing the $1k entry fee and that I'd need to take vacation time from work to participate), so based on the early calendar, there are only 8 NHC seats, right now, being rewarded within a reasonable drive of Central NJ -- 2 in the Monmouth SSC in April (assuming I qualify in this or next month's play-in), 3 in a $400 weekend-long tournament at Belmont on June 23-24 and 3 in a $400 weekend-long tournament at Aqueduct on November 17-18.  If you count Suffolk Downs (about 5 hours away) as "reasonable", then there's another 3 seats, but that's a reach.

Again, this is an early read of how the 2012 NHC Tour is shaping up.  The availability of online tournament venues is an obvious plus (especially for those select few with a limitless bankroll), save for the implicit $50-per-tournament increase in qualifying events at NHC Qualify.  The award of 100 NHC seats via the yearly standings is an interesting wrinkle that is sure to increase participation in handicapping tournaments, and no doubt players should appreciate the half-year payouts to the Tour players leading the 1H:12 and 2H:12 standings.

The downside as I see it, however, is that the emphasis on on-track tournaments is a nice, but somewhat misplaced concept in that, for some of us, there may only be 2-3 such events per half year in which to participate -- an obvious detriment to the weekend contest player (i.e. NJ Horseplayer).  New Jersey players, constrained by a state law that mandates use of the arcane state-run ADW, have very limited access to NHC seats, something the NTRA should be using our membership fees to battle more vigorously, if at all.

I'll do my best to reassess the situation in the weeks and months ahead, and am hopeful that the NTRA will offer a more-candid view of its thinking in organizing the 2012 schedule and prepping for NHC 14.