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.
- Monmouth Park, Race 9 -- I knew 5-to-2 morning-line favorite Just Chillin Boss was credible, but not THAT good. The Ramon Moya-trained Just Chillin Boss annihilated eight others in setting a five-furlong turf record :54.66 in a $22k optional claimer. (See race video). I did pick up $5.80 of notional place winnings on runner-up Tanzana to move up to fourth in the standings at $64.80. (Oh, by the way, Caffe D' Oro, who blew up the tote board during last month's NHC handicapping contest at Suffolk Downs, finished out of the money.)
- 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.
- 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 moral...it 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.