Thursday, July 26, 2012

Too Much Stake Can Be A Health Hazard

The fans must really like the Haskell hats...

Pardon my cynicism/sarcasm and deviating from my writing focus on qualifying for the National Handicapping Championship, but as a fan who wants the thoroughbred sport to thrive, today's unveiling of the field for Sunday's $1 million Haskell Invitational made my stomach churn and got me thinking -- where can I sign up for a 1-in-6 shot at winning $600k?!

Six horses are in Sunday's Haskell, including two Grade 1 stakes winners (Dullahan and Gemologist), a Grade 3 winner (Nonios) and three others who've yet to win outside of allowance company, including one, Handsome Mike, who has yet to win since breaking his maiden in October 2011.

I consider the latter (the same connections as Triple Crown hopeful I'll Have Anotherakin to billing tickets for a Michael Jackson concert, only to show up and find Tito is performing solo instead.  

Jermaine to our Haskell thoughts
Among many other questions that come to mind are where is the value in supporting a $1 million Grade 1 race if you're not going to have a deep field running for it...and why can't the NJ-grown Kelly Breen and the Halls throw Monmouth a bone by entering, say, My Adonis here instead of the Jim Dandy?

Of course the glut of high-purse, small-fielded stakes races plays right into any connections' interests, and I am uncertain (outside of money) of the motivations of owners.   But how else could you explain:
  • Hansen, arguably the best three-year-old left standing in this year's injury-riddled crop, taking the easy money, winning such prestigious races as the Iowa Derby and pointing to the West Virginia Derby.  
  • Four of the six in Sunday's Haskell (Nonios, Paynter, Gemologist and Handsome Mike) have California connections and scant ties to New Jersey racing, while a fifth (Steelcase) has Canadian connections and maiden and allowance-optional claiming wins on his less-than-stellar Grade 1 resume, and Handsome Mike hasn't won in 5-6 tries since breaking his maiden.   
  • A middling field of eight, count 'em, eight, running for $600k in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy...oh, by the way, a day before what should be considered a significant Grade 1 event but clearly is not.  Yeah, I know the Jim Dandy is a major prep for the Travers Stakes and NYRA is a competitor, but still...Grade 2 isn't Grade 1, IMO. Opting for Jim Dandy (and a 20-to-1 line) is vexing. 
It's becoming clearer that there are just too many races and not big enough fields to merit much interest from the serious (NJ Horseplayer not among them) horseplayer let alone the casual track visitor.  Maybe one of the two big longshots (8-to-1 Steelcase and 15-to-1 Handsome Mike) will shock the world, but really there's not much juice in this year's Haskell on 4 horses with odds of 3-to-1 or less. 

It's sort of a depressing state, but then again, at least I can cover my eyes with my new hat. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Two-Track Mind

Saturday proved another unfavorable outcome for NJ Horseplayer, this time in a live-money handicapping contest at Monmouth Park, but with a handful of positive takeaways.

Generally I do not get riled up about Horse Player World Series (HPWS, not as prestigious as the National Handicapping Championship, far as I know) tournaments, but the calendar was open (a rarity), so I plunked down my C note to participate in a contest with a $60 bankroll and $40 going to a pot to be split by the Top 10 finishers.

Players were required to make at least 5 win, place or show wagers (or a combination thereof) of at least $6 (one-tenth the starting bankroll) each on the cards at Monmouth Park and Saratoga, and my 100 Twitter followers know I'm not averse to place and show wagering, though low-budget contests make this tough.

Right-track...good 'capping of
Monmouth card...left track...BAD
'capping by NJ Horseplayer at
Saratoga in Saturday contest
As has been my strategy the past few live-money contests, I attempted to move the chains in hopes of considering 1-2 large wagers come contest's end.  The strategy worked decently on Saturday, sitting among the Top 25 with a "whopping" $92.90 bankroll through 14 of the 23 carded races (I did not play all of them), but really the first lesson learned is that it's difficult to score any price at Monmouth these days (the highest-priced winner was 4-to-1).  I hit on 4 of 6 wagers, including 2 that I bet around 7-to-2 about 1-2 minutes to post but who got walloped by bettors down to 2-to-1 and 8-to-5.  The fruits were not necessarily worth the risk, though I took them.

The two other wins were on the place and show ends of respective $10 win-place and $10 win-show wagers where, had the horses had just a bit more, I speculate I'd have had a legitimate shot at placing at least in the top five of the contest.  In Race 4, bettors totally dismissed 10-to-1 morning line Chief Operator, who went off at 39-to-1 and finished a game third to at least allow me to recoup the $9.20 show payout.  In Race 7, Violator went off at 23-to-1 off a 20-to-1 morning line that, in my view, neglected the horse's 5-for-10 in-the-money record on turf.  Alas, Felix Ortiz rode the horse well, but could only muster second place in what was a convincing win guessed it...the chalk, Alke John (1.9-to-1).  

After two of what were an afternoon of awful calls on Saratoga races, I put about half of my bankroll on another selection I doped out in advance of the contest -- Berni de Mint in Race 9 at Monmouth.  This Charles Harvatt trainee was in the money in 5 of 7 turf tries (including 2 of 3 at Monmouth) and making his second start after breaking his maiden in mid-June.  Figuring the bettors would bite on Joe Bravo's Cacaway, a horse I knew would be over-bet, I considered 16-to-1 on Berni de Mint an egregious overlay and went for it (I kept the other half of my bankroll in reserve for a horse I liked in the Monmouth finale, who never panned out).  Bravo's horse never factored as expected, but Berni simply did not have enough to win and finished third, a length-and-a-quarter behind 3-to-1 winner Exeter Road.

Considering the highest win payout on the entire Monmouth card was $10 (Winiliscious in Race 10), one could argue that playing races from Monmouth is fruitless from a contest perspective, but in hindsight I feel somewhat validated in having mapped out 4-5 playable longshots who seemed to have a decent shot at scoring at a price and ultimately outran their odds.

Saturday's outcome suggests, at least to me, that there's a very fine line between yet another loss in a live-money handicapping contest and taking one down.  I cannot assume that no one else bet on the same horse as me, or bet even more, but a prospective $240-$250 payout on a $10W wager on 23-to-1 Violator, for instance, would have assuredly given me enough ammo to gravitate toward playing shorter-priced horses or, possibly in Race 9, making a large show wager on a horse where I had some confidence.

In the end, Saturday's HPWS was worth the effort and proof yet again of my theory that often it takes only one well-placed long-shot play to be a factor in a live-money handicapping tournament.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Del Mar Online Contest Kicks Off

The elite portion of the 2012 thoroughbred season kicks off with the start of the Del Mar meeting this afternoon, then Saratoga's opening card on Friday.

For the handicapping contest player, with that comes a bevy of contest opportunities with National Handicapping Championship-based prizes on the line, albeit at long odds.  I'll be involved in two this afternoon: the Del Mar Online Handicapping Contest and a pre-qualifier.

Summer Racing in the Air!
The cheapskate in me loves the Del Mar contest, with a free entry and NHC seats awarded the top two finishers through the end of the meet.

In short, players are given up to a $100 daily bankroll on which to place any combination (at any increment) of win, place and show wagers, in the hopes of accruing the biggest bankroll by contest's end.

Del Mar designates a race each day, and players simply go to the online (notional) wagering tool to enter picks.  This afternoon, Race 9 -- the Oceanside Stakes -- is in play (at this point, NJ Horseplayer is leaning toward $50W/$50P on Stoney Fleece at 4-to-1 odds). 

At last check, there were some 3,500 players entered in the contest...and so some long odds of victory.

Meanwhile, I will be playing in the NHC "preliminary feeder" contest on the Ellis Park-affiliated  I opted for the running contest over the so-called "Pick and Pray" format where players are required to submit all 10 contest-race picks before first post (impossible for me to handicap, considering work obligations).  Plus, the oppressive East Coast heat this afternoon is conducive to blasting the AC and some four hours of coach-potato tournament play.  The top 10% of finishers win a $195 credit to use for one of's NHC qualifying tournaments or to spend elsewhere on other HT games, which I am doing this afternoon after having banked a $195 credit a few weeks ago.

Anyway, best of luck with your plays on this afternoon's opening Del Mar card!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Passing on Saturday's Monmouth Contest

A family obligation on what is certain to be an oppressively hot afternoon will keep me out of Saturday's NHC-based handicapping contest at Monmouth Park, but based on the forecast I'm wondering whether the live card will even run under seemingly dangerous conditions.  For anyone making it out to Oceanport tomorrow, please stay hydrated, and best of luck in the contest.

Assuming the racing card and contest go off as planned (surely another track could be substituted for Monmouth Park in the event of cancellation of live racing, though I'm pretty sure attendance would be muted), I recommend checking out the handicapping seminar by Robb Levinsky of the Kenwood Racing partnership, beginning at noon ET.  Last summer I attended an ownership seminar that Robb hosted, and the prospect of being part owner in thoroughbreds is something on my bucket list.  I'm sure he'll offer some fabulous, owner-based insights into handicapping.

I'm looking at a relatively quiet handicapping weekend, hoping to end a wicked skid in the weekly contest on Public Handicapper, and likely playing in the NHC preliminary feeder contest tonight at

Best of luck in your handicapping contest endeavors this weekend, and stay cool in this heatwave.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Small-Scale Fireworks

Monday's commentary about controlling what you can and sticking to handicapping contest races proved valuable Wednesday night with a solid sixth-place finish out of 300 players for NJ Horseplayer in the $500 Canterbury Park Free Roll tournament on

The tournament only cost me and the other entrants 300 "points" (more or less credits rewarded to players for funding their accounts), and admittedly the $25 "Step 3 token" is not the door to wealthy retirement, but kudos to again for running some fun, low- or no-cost tournaments...and to friends Donna and JC for having us for the great fireworks on the beach in Manasquan (and so preventing me from watching the races live and potentially changing any contest picks).

Photo courtesy of Saveena
(LH Dugger) at Flickriver
I had no idea of my contest outcome when sitting down to watch Races 6-11 from Canterbury Park on the DVR. Candidly, I was hoping to be close with a few, having handicapped only 45 minutes after wrapping up my real job, and having failed miserably about two years back in a Monmouth Park-Canterbury-Emerald contest that was just awful.

So, with my picks locked in by around 4 p.m., there was no turning back and looking for value elsewhere.  Good thing...
  • Race 6: Stratos draws little interest off the 4-to-1 morning line and finishes a game second at 7-to-1, losing to the even-money chalk in a game effort: 
    • Payoff to NJ Horseplayer: $6.40 to place
  • Race 7: Dakota Digger gets bet down to about 5-to-2 off a 5-to-1 morning line and controls the tempo, winning gate to wire with the red-hot Tanner Riggs in the saddle
    • Payoff to NJ Horseplayer: $7.40 to win, $4 to place = $17.40 total winnings
  • Race 8: Bravo Prado had ran versus "tougher" (this is Minnesota racing, after all) and made easy work of an 11-horse field to score at 5-to-2
    • Payoff to NJ Horseplayer: $6.60 to win, $3.80 to place = $27.80 total winnings
  • Race 9: Tubby Time stalks a hot early pace and runs past the field in the home stretch to win at 3-to-2, beaten down from a 7-to-2 morning line
    • Payoff to NJ Horseplayer: $5 to win, $3 to place = $35.80 total winnings
    • Pick 3 pays $57.90
  • Race 10: By this point (approaching midnight) I'm chuckling to myself, wondering if it's remotely possible to hit 4 in a row. Answer: a resounding "yes"!  Rare Sunset (9-to-2 morning line) cruises to victory in the $50k Minnesota HBPA Mile
    • Payoff to NJ Horseplayer: $7.60 to win, $4.20 to place = $47.60 total winnings
    • Pick 3 pays $34.70
    • Pick 4 pays $144.60
  • Race 11: Now I'm understanding what my man Red Rock or Bust meant when I scanned an email about 2 hours earlier from my Blackberry, with a subject line that read "sh*t."  Later on, I learned that Terry notes I am in second heading into the last race.  I was not (or how can anyone be) enamored with a single runner in this $7,500 claimer but landed on All Bets Are Off, who was third off a layoff, had won in 3 of 12 tries at Canterbury, and seemed to be the only one willing to flash early speed, which is exactly what happened.  All Bets, who went off at 10-to-1, led turning for home but succumbed to pressure from winner Valari, finishing third (missed second by a nose).  
    • Final bankroll: $47.60, tied for sixth-place
    • Big props to contest winner Donald Morgan, who picked 6 of 6 winners and the others ahead of me in the standings who also came very close to such perfection.
By no means can I begrudge All Bets Are Off, who ran a gutsy race but simply got beaten by better.  Had the horse won, I'd have taken down the contest, but cannot grovel about picking 4 winners, a second and a third in six consecutive races -- a rare feat for NJ Horseplayer.  

Regretfully, I did not have real-money bets on these picks, as I'd have produced a pretty lofty ROI, but so goes the life of the weekend (and holiday) contest handicapper and consummate family man.  

In any event, I really enjoyed two rounds of fireworks.  

A safe and satisfying Independence Day to you!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Riding the (Heat) Wave

Just as TV and radio play-by-play announcers have a way of jinxing a quarterback who has thrown 15 straight completions or a basketball player who has hit 35 straight free throws, no doubt tonight's entry is going to set NJ Horseplayer on a string of bad luck until 2016, but here's to spitting into the wind.

NJ Horseplayer does not
endorse redneck surfing
I learned some valuable horseplayer lessons in what proved an unexpectedly active weekend of online contest play over a sweltering weekend here in Monmouth County -- exactly three-quarters of a mile from where water mains collapsed and had residents scrambling for water.  (Next to "neglect" in the dictionary you'll now find NJ American Water Co.'s infrastructure and executives.)

A fifth-place finish (out of 82 contestants) in Friday's late-night $20 NHC preliminary feeder yielded the best financial outcome -- $195 credit for an upcoming NHC event.  I only had two (of a possible 10) winners of seven races from Hollywood Park and three from Lone Star, but both were prize-clinching scores on Cal-bred maidens where I thought two longshots made lots of sense.

My thesis was simple -- maidens with one troubled race who continued to run hard despite finishing out of the money in their first try. 
  • Full Dancer was 6-to-1 on the morning line in an 8-horse field of $50k maiden claimers in Race 2 from Hollywood Park, two of which were first-time starters and the rest who had run at least two races.  Perhaps my logic was misguided, but two angles were appealing here: 
    • Dancer's connections gave this three-year-old colt two months off from racing after being (over)aggressively placed in a stakes event run in 21.3-44.4 through the first half mile, but still trained the horse six times since the debut (i.e. signalling a healthy horse); the works were nothing to write home about, but neither was Friday night's field. 
    • More-rational placement in a far-less distinguished field gave Full Dancer a legit shot to stalk a more-sensible pace and close late in the stretch, which is exactly what happened as Full  Dancer officially won by 2.5 lengths but was probably 6-8 lengths the good, with Brice Blanc riding this one 4-5 wide into the stretch (replay)
  • Sibella was 20-to-1 on the M/L and drew even less interest in a 9-horse field of maiden special weights at a mile on turf -- surprising, in light of middling foes, including three with a combined 49 starts, including 4-to-1 third choice Vonn Nez (which begs the question: how long does it take to realize certain horses are just claimers?)  I had three angles in mind:
    • Post relief: Sibella's only start was a six-furlong turf sprint from the tough 12 hole, so placement in the fourth spot of a nine-horse field was much more beneficial
    • Possible tactical speed: Maybe I read too much into one start, but Sibella's past performance reflected an ability to break well from the gate (she broke second from the gate first time out under upstart return jockey Vinnie Bednar), and even as she pulled back to eleventh-place at the first call, Sibella made up ground to finish seventh that race
    • Lack of early speed in the race: The combination of factors 1 and 2 played out to perfection as Bednar guided Sibella to a relatively uncontested gate-to-wire score at 24-to-1 (replay). 
      • Payoff to NJ Horseplayer: contest max $42 to win (bettors at the track took home $51.40) + $13.60 to place = $55.60 winnings
The other observation, from this as well as my two efforts in small-potatoes $12 "double your money" contests on on Sunday, is that early leads in online contests usually help, but do not always guarantee favorable outcomes. 

Perhaps equal parts losing focus (last three races in Friday's contest run between 12:30a-145a ET) and emboldened by hitting two lucrative long-shots, I went 0-for-3 after Sibella's big score vaulted me to second on the leaderboard, but fortunately held on to one of eight NHC prizes.  However, in my first of two $12 contests on Sunday, I jumped out to a lead after the first race in a 7-player event, only to finish 90 cents out of the money when I figured picking the chalk in the last race would be insufficient to finish in the money; that wasn't the case.

In my more-successful first-place finish in a similar nighttime event featuring seven races from Churchill Downs, I cold-decked the Race 2-4 Pick 3 to jump to a big early lead and held on for victory despite going 0-for-4 the next four races.  The last race proved interesting and a valuable learning experience -- control what you can (i.e. handicapping races), rather than anticipating selections of others on the leaderboard.  

Granted, I am not often ahead in these things, but the final contest race scratched down to 5 horses.  I immediately threw out a 50-to-1 morning liner with zero chance, and avoided two others hovering 2-to-1, recognizing that my foes needed far bigger prices to have a chance to usurp my lead.  That left two horses -- Political Agenda, who was 7-to-1 but in a big field would have been something like 20-to-1, and Biker Boy, whom I liked but I figured would not give enough lead-protection to me at 3-to-1.  

In a preemptive strike against my competition, I went with Political Agenda, who (as I worried) faded quickly after leading about half of the race, only to watch Biker Boy score an easy victory, paying $10.40 to win and $4 to place.  Oddly, NONE of the other contest players chased a price, and most went for a 2-to-1 shot who finished off the board and would NOT have produced enough cash to take first place in the contest.  And no one took Biker Boy...

I still would have earned a top-3 prize payout had others picked Biker Boy, but the finale (at least last night) suggests that not all players handicap with the same motive, and that unless I need a late-contest long-shot to have a shot at making up ground on the leaders, I need to focus more on my own handicapping and establishing greater conviction in a contest scenario.

As always, feel free to share your thoughts, and let me know if anyone is planning on playing this Saturday's contest at Monmouth Park!