Ultimately, I finished 15th among all 138 players (7th-best among NHC Tour players...more on that later), but for 10 hours of driving I came away without a coveted seat to NHC XIV.
|Red Rock or Bust finds the|
quintessential "steamed cheese"
but still in search of NHC XIV
To cap it off, a steamed cheeseburger from the legendary Ted's in Meriden, CT on the trip home was the perfect antidote.
To their credit, five entrants (two were non-NHC Tour members) to yesterday's $60 contest had the courage to put Caffe D' Oro among their 15 notional $2 win-place bets in a "pick-and-pray" format covering races from host Suffolk, as well as Saratoga, Monmouth and Del Mar.
Since there was no cap on payouts in the Suffolk format, the combined $155.20 of winnings on a notional $2 win-place wager sealed everyone's fate, and will send NHC Tour members Anthony Linares, Pierre Poulin and Joe Long, all of Massachusetts, to the $1.5 million NHC XIV next January!
In Suffolk's format, players entered selections for all 15 mandatory races before the post time of the sixth race from Suffolk (2:50 p.m.). I confidently entered mine about an hour in advance, having doped out all but three races on Friday night.
I picked nothing below 8-to-1 on the five Suffolk races, perceiving the lack of quality favorites in any field, and otherwise co-mingled post-time favorites (i.e. Ron the Greek in the Whitney) with a slew of mid-priced horses at the other three contest tracks.
An 0-for-2 start was not crippling, considering the winners were a chalky 6-to-5 and 3-to-1. In the third contest race (Suffolk 7), Nesfield came through for second at 28-to-1 (up from a 15-to-1 morning line) to run my notional bankroll to $21.60.
Four races later (Suffolk 9), Youbethecan, an egregious overlay at 35-to1 (morning line was 12-to-1) ran a game second to pad my bankroll by $22.60 and, for the time being, tied me for tenth-place about halfway through the card.
The next race, however, spelled contest doom for me and 133 other players, as Caffe D' Oro held on in a 5.5-furlong turf sprint at Monmouth at 53-to-1. The outcome mostly cast a pall over the room.
Although it would have taken a miracle to catapult the Caffe D' Oro benefactors with only seven races remaining, and no chance to alter selections, there was still an outside chance for the Top 10 (kudos to the Suffolk Downs organizers for paying back ALL entry fees in cash prizes) and NHC Tour points (top 10% of finishers), so all was not lost, considering my $44.20 bankroll to that point.
To be sure, back-to-back winners at 4-to-1 (Julie's Love, Saratoga 8) and 6-to-1 (Big Cash, Suffolk 10) vaulted me to 7th-place in the standings with a $78.90 notional bankroll, though that was fleeting, as I failed to channel my inner Mariano Rivera and could not nail a winner in the last five contest races. A runner-up finish for Ron the Greek added $3.90 (place payout) to top off my finishing $82.90 bankroll, but was an afterthought to cracking the Top 10 (tenth place finished with a $100.20 bankroll).
Ironically, I recall discussing with Terry on the 4 1/2-hour drive to Suffolk how, among the four contest tracks, Monmouth concerned me the least, considering its usually chalky outcomes, but Caffe D' Oro set me straight, I suppose (of course, in the two other Monmouth races the winners paid $7.20 and $4.20).
There's no shame, however, in collecting winnings in 33% of Saturday's 15 races, including three at $20 or more -- validating my long-shot thesis and ability (and courage) to identify a few prices that make sense.
At least one player I met on Saturday mentioned that, if not for the low $60 entry fee, he would have passed on a contest with no cap on win-place payouts; most contests (namely online tourneys) put a 15-to-1 or 20-to-1 win payout and 8-to-1 to 10-to-1 cap on place payout, which in essence deters players from taking wild stabs at a bunch of nags and hoping to cash in on one or two, which is what happened at Suffolk.
I still have mixed sentiments about contest caps but lean toward Mike Brady's principle of caveat emptor.
|"Let the buyer beware"|
On the other hand, as was the case Saturday, everyone plunking down 60 bucks to participate knew the rules and had just as much chance as anyone else to call a 53-to-1 winner as the rest of the players. Five had the courage and were rewarded handsomely.
And, at least check, those risking $2 to win at the betting window on a 53-to-1 horse took home a $109.60 payout, not $42.
Considering that the top three finishers added at least another $70 of notional winnings to their bankroll somewhere amid the other 14 contest races tells me that Messrs. Linares, Poulin and Long were clearly the best handicappers at the Suffolk yesterday.
On to Las Vegas in January 2013 for them, and back to the drawing board for NJ Horseplayer.
The one thing I would like to see, however, is for all NHC-based contests to mandate that ALL players pay the $50 annual NHC Tour membership fee in order to participate.
I understand the tracks want to maximize contest participation, but it is a slight to players like me, who topped all but 6-7 other NHC Tour members but will NOT come away with any NHC Tour points for finishing in the top 10%.
The thought is...why bother joining the Tour when anyone can enter NHC-based tournaments?
As NHC Tour players know, Tour points are far more coveted now (almost more than the cash prizes awarded at on-track contests), with the Top 100 gaining a berth to NHC XIV.
In short, unless I am misinterpreting the NHC Tour rules and got incorrect information from a fellow Tour member on Saturday, the 7 players who finished ahead of me in the standings and were not members of the Tour cost me somewhere around 900 points. This is not enough to get me to the top of the standings, but could prove valuable in trying to crack the top 100 by year's end.
Players who fork over the 50 bucks to join the Tour, contrary to those too cheap or indifferent to what the NHC represents, should not be penalized as such. I will seek clarification on the points issue with the Suffolk and NHC Tour folks, as clearly this is an important issue.
The administration at Suffolk Downs deserves much credit for fronting the cost for three National Handicapping Championship seats (a source tells me that NTRA tracks pay $10k for 3 NHC seats, while non-NTRA members pay $20k) and returning all of Saturday's entry fees to the players. To boot, they provided players a spacious and comfortable clubhouse room in which to circulate, and a lunch and dessert buffet, and I would no doubt return to Suffolk for future contests.
Although the travel is a logistical headache and the on-track product is clearly not the draw (i.e. versus a Saratoga), the trip was well worth it, in my opinion.
As I have lamented on several occasions, being a New Jersey resident is an extreme burden in the NHC Tour world. Monmouth Park, which certainly could take a cue from Suffolk Downs in terms of limiting the contest cost AND throwing in a lunch for the trouble, is the online "live" NHC contest venue around, and our inability to qualify for NHC via a TwinSpires.com or DRFBets.com is a severe crimp to Tour members who cannot jet-set from track to track for handicapping contests.
As an NHC Tour player, I plan to approach the Tour administration about lobbying on New Jerseyans' behalf, in terms of gaining access to online tournaments through out-of-state ADW programs. If anyone out there shares in my opinion and is willing to contribute to this effort, let me know.
In my opinion, our annual membership fees should go beyond access to a few free tournaments and ability to qualify for NHC and toward initiatives that advance the accessibility to NHC qualifiers.