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.