Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Chalkdust Torture

I'm not sure how many horseplayers are Phish fans like me, but after Saturday's Tampa Bay Derby, it's clearer to me what singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio and co-writer Tom Marshall meant when they penned "the torture of chalkdust collects on my tongue" in 1991.

Verrazano made winning that Grade II event look like a stroll in the park and is clearly the early Kentucky Derby favorite, but as a handicapper focused on the contest circuit, I stuck with my strategy of backing a horse I considered a plausible contender at a square price.  The 4-to-5 morning line put Verrazano clearly head and shoulders above all other entrants in Saturday's nine-horse field, but I landed on Java's War.

My Thinking

This race has seen its share of upsets, and Verrazano trainer Todd Pletcher has sent other well-intended big chalk (something like 1-for-his-last-10) to Oldsmar, FL and come away empty.

By some odd chance, maybe Verrazano would not like the sandy Tampa track.

Maybe he would not take to a 2-turn race after blowing away only four rivals in a $75k optional claimer at one turn a month prior at Gulfstream Park.

Maybe, as some radio pundits I heard had put it, Verrazano already "ran his best race," earning a 104 Beyer figure for his prior win at a 1-turn mile.

Those, and Verrazano's 2-to-5 final odds, seemed like logical "plays against," and in keeping with my handicapping contest practice, through my new TVG account I plunked down $10 win-place (along with a few daily doubles) on the 32-to-1 Java's War. 

As I mostly commented on my Public Handicapper selections page, there were several angles that I posited gave Java's War a better puncher's chance than the other contenders:

  • two wins as a 2-year-old, including a two-turn stakes win
    • half the Tampa Derby field had never gone two turns before
  • a close third in the Breeders Futurity at Keeneland last October
  • a seasoned local jockey (Willie Martinez; wins 11% at Tampa) who knew the track well 
  • not in love with the second-choice Dynamic Sky
    • I was suspect of the jockey change to Joel Rosario from regular rider Luis Contrares, who rode Dynamic Sky to a win in the Pasco Stakes and a neck loss in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis (both at Tampa); I disagreed with this move by trainer Mark Casse. 

The bettors clearly did not agree, but I was willing to dismiss Java's War's last race -- the Kentucky Juvenile Cup in late November at Churchill, where the replays showed Java's War simply broke poorly from the rail and ran 4-6 horses wide thereafter but still finished a creditable 6th of 13 starters.  The works, too, suggested that trainer Ken McPeek had a fresh, live horse.

As the replay above will show, Java's War broke well beyond the pack but ultimately made a late run to finish a respectable second, paying $14.60 to place.

He was never going to pass Verrazano with that kind of sluggish start, even if they took another spin around the track, but the outcome did not disappoint.

The daily horseplayer might call me an idiot for not wheeling Verrazano and Java's War with a bunch of others to perhaps hit the trifecta or superfecta, but as I approach the Simulcast Series Challenge Invitational on April 20 at Monmouth Park, the last thing I want to do is get bogged down in pursuing ancillary scores when I need to focus strictly on handicapping contest strategy.

I think there's much merit in that concept, and am using my TVG account to create scenarios similar to an actual handicapping contest where I need to identify winners (and/or place and show runners).

Perhaps this is too niche a goal for readers, but to me it makes sense, and in the weeks ahead I'll use the Public Handicapper card to focus my wagers in preparation for the Invitational and SSC#3 at Monmouth on Saturday, March 30.

I met a similar, albeit crueler, fate in the Grade 3 Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park this past Saturday.

The Razorback was headlined by graded stakes winner Alternation, a million-dollar earner who adores the Oaklawn surface (5 wins in 6 starts, $450,000 of earnings) but too short a price at a 2-to-1 morning line and first off a five-month break.  Stuck outside another front-running type San Pablo, I landed on Golden Ron, 20-to-1 morning line and merely an allowance winner at Mountaineer and Hoosier Park but who scored a 101 Beyer last out and was the clear early speed.

I had no qualms betting $10 win-place on Golden Ron at nearly 27-to-1.

The race went exactly as planned...until the last 50 yards, where Golden Ron could not hold off 7-to-1 Cyber Secret in the shadow of the wire.

Again, I get the merits of wheeling such a prohibitive longshot to cash some exotics wagers, but contests are all about picking winners, and I stuck to my guns.  Besides, the $20 wager yielded a still decent $107 payout, so I have some scratch to play with for next weekend's Public Handicapper card.

Sloppily, I failed to wager on my San Felipe Stakes selection, Hear the Ghost, but was having dinner guests and could not watch the race live and so passed on betting it.  Hypothetically speaking, however, had I gone $10 win-place on Hear the Ghost, I was a head away (Golden Ron) from turning $60 of wagers into a potentially massive score in a handicapping contest:

  • $14.60 to place on Java's War x 5 = $73
  • $21.40 to place on Golden Ron x 5 = $107
    • at 26.9-to-1 final odds, a win would have added $55.80 x 5 = $279
  • $18.40 combined win-place x 5 on Hear the Ghost = $92
Combined, that's $551 of potential contest bankroll, which at the least would give me a shot at making some noise and reaching that elusive National Handicapping Championship berth.  

Granted, my handicapping may well prove awful in either SSC#3 or the SSC Invitational, but the exercise here is to use weekday or weekend wagers as exercise in preparing for handicapping contests, much as you would train for, say, a 5-kilometer race or full-blown marathon run.  

It was clearly tough (not torturous) eating the chalk in the case of the Tampa Bay Derby in terms of missing out on a lucrative win payout on Java's War, but a worthwhile $10 investment as a confidence booster (i.e., ID-ing a playable longshot) approaching some key upcoming handicapping tournaments. 


  1. Good capping.
    I see nothing wrong with "ancillary" scores.

    I'd just tally contest scores on a separate spreadsheet.

  2. Thanks, Norm. I generally don't track scores via spreadsheet, but maybe it's something to consider