Pending Monmouth Park's audit, Joseph Perry and Mary Wilmes earned berths to NHC XV in Las Vegas next January, turning their $200 live bankrolls into $1,419 and $1,099.90 respective finishes by the close of Saturday's Keeneland finale.
(Contest parameters were at least 10 win, place or show wagers of at least $20 each on Keeneland, Aqueduct and Tampa -- Top 2 finishers to Vegas).
In the end, I'm estimating I picked up 900-950 NHC Tour points for at least having some bankroll in the end (a meager $6.25, to be exact...more on this later), which is mere consolation in a tournament where I had a hard time managing one of my two entries I earned but at one point was in the Top 10 with my second.
There were three turning points that help explain my outcome.
Juggling a 30-race handicapping contest card is difficult enough, but I knew it would be even tougher with two contest entries, so I studied Aqueduct and Tampa on Thursday and Friday nights but found just seven races I considered playable, and only 3-4 horses where I had real conviction.
One of those was in Race 6 from Aqueduct, a $25,000 New York-bred optional claimer at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on turf. East of Danzig, coming off a 4-month layoff and shipping in from Gulfstream Park, looked vulnerable to me as 5-to-2 morning line choice, and I thought 12-to-1 Thor's Mjolnor was logical, and yet another indication of where Beyer speed figures are somewhat useless.
Thor's Mjolnor, a Gary Contessa trainee, was hard used, having run eight times since November 3 -- coincidentally the date of his first and only turf race, a closing 6th-place finish against tougher state-bred allowance company. Considering jockey David Cohen's aggressive riding style, I thought Thor had a shot, as did others; the horse opened around 5-to-1 and went off just under 8-to-1.
In hindsight, however, my $20 win-$5 show wager was too soft for a horse I absolutely loved, as Thor got the perfect trip and held off a hard-charging East of Danzig, netting me $184.25 and running my bankroll to $314.25 through five bets.
Two races earlier, I missed out on another sizable payout when 11-to-1 Comes the Dream got run down late by even-money favorite Mills in Race 4 from Keeneland, but I should have attacked Thor Mjolnor more aggressively.
Regardless, I found myself in a pretty good stalking position (between 6th-10th to that point) and, at the least, knew I was certainly in the mix for a Top 2 finish.
Tough Tampa Beats
On my 8th and 10th contest bets, I had tough-to-swallow defeats in back-to-back Tampa races with logical horses: Delta Bluesman in Race 8 and (my best bet from Tampa) Iloveyourbutimbored in Race 9.
Two admittedly speculative losses after the Thor's Mjolnor score set me back $40, and with $274.25 remaining (and running out of races to bet as, amazingly, I was extremely patient with my selection) my goal was to try to increase my bankroll to around $400 -- enough for a major late wager on a favorite to steal the contest where it looked, to me, the chalk would win the late races.
Delta Bluesman was a third-time maiden who ran decently against similar Special Weight company and pitted against what I considered a lackluster 8-horse field with only one first-time starter. Delta's debut on February 17, a 6-furlong sprint, was the key -- a race that included 2013 Colt and Gelding Division OBS Championship winner Michael With Us, owned by local connections at Kenwood Racing. The barn is rather hot this season, and I regularly keep tabs on H. Robb Levinsky's horses.
The 3-to-1 odds seemed fair, so I bet $20 to win on Delta, who, to quote the Daily Racing Form chart, "showed strong stamina to drive to a clear lead a furlong out only to hang near the wire." Of course the winner was the first-time starter, Dancin n' Dealin at nearly 13-to-1 (jockey Danny Coa won 3 of the last 4 Tampa races). That was the only time I punched my table all afternoon in frustration.
Next race, I loved Iloveyoubutimbored at a 6-to-1 morning line and even stayed on him with a $40 win wager when bet down to 5-to-2 co-favorite, but apropos of my Tampa selections this day, my horse hung in the stretch and finished second.
Had those two horses held on for wins, my bankroll would have been roughly $380 instead of $216 with five races left on the contest card. To boot, had my bet between those two -- $20 to win and show on 7-to-1 runner-up Spun Cap -- had enough stamina to hold off the impressive Sweet Cassiopeia in the $100,000 Giants Causeway in Race 8 from Keeneland, I'd have had around $520...mission accomplished, right?!
Saddle Literally Shuffled -- Final Turning Point
I was not enamored with any horses in the finales at either of the three tracks, and had merely lukewarm conviction about the Coolmore Lexington Stakes from Keeneland (Race 9).
Scratched from the top of my notes on the race from my pre-contest handicapping Saturday morning was "lukewarm on the No. 1", altered to "prefer 7, but only lukewarm."
For the record, No. 1 was Winning Cause ($15.60 winner) and No. 7 was Examen (9th place). Ugh!
The more I looked at the Coolmore, I knew the race was prime for a stalker-closer type, and stuck with Examen, based on the connections (34% win rate for Garrett Gomez-Tom Proctor), my usual admiration of Gomez's handling of late runners in turf races and that Keeneland's synthetic surface would suit Examen, and a Giant's Causeway pedigree. For those reasons, I gave him the edge over Winning Cause, who I knew could close but was not sold could win at two turns (his two wins were at 7 furlongs, but at Keeneland).
Examen looked to be making up ground toward the final turn and was angling toward the rail but ran squarely into traffic, and from that point on his race went downhill, with Gomez tugging Examen up ever so slightly and Gomez appearing uneasy in the saddle.
Net result -- $50 win and $20 place wager out the window, and my bankroll down to $146.25.
After two ill-advised $20 stabs at big prices in chalky-looking Tampa and Aqueduct finales, I bet $60 win and $40 place on 16-to-1 Break of Silence, who was double his morning line odds and won two straight but was up against a clear favorite in Suyeta, who ultimately won by a widening three lengths in the Keeneland finale. I cannot complain, as my horse ran a game fourth but was a cut below.
No Real Regrets
Credit to Nicole Lince for running what was another spectacular Simulcast Series Challenge (SSC) -- my favorite handicapping contest series. Monmouth Park management could consider catering the affair similar to New York contest venues (i.e. Belmont, Aqueduct) to give the invitational players something more for their accomplishment, but otherwise offers players a tremendous and utterly challenging tournament.
More than 2 NHC seats would be nice too, but that's for another discussion.
I suppose I could benefit from the 900+ NHC Tour points for clinging to around a 15th-place finish just for holding on to a few bucks of bankroll in the end, but realistically I'd need to play in online tournaments more regularly to accrue enough points to sustain a place in the Top 150 of the Tour standings (a backdoor into NHC XV). There's plenty of tournament season left to pick up some points in other venues, and unlike a lot of other Tour players I suppose I have the benefit of logging requisite points for one on-track tournament; the rest I'll get online.
Saturday's bid to finish first or second, however, was scuttled by several near misses that, again, prove at certain times it's better to be lucky than consistent, and I need to go back to the drawing board in terms of when to really drop the hammer on a top choice like Thor's Mjolnor and eschew conservatism, rather than worrying about knocking myself out of a contest too early.
On the flip side, I did not want to come away from two contest entries totally empty (colleague Steve Fitzpatrick reminded me that the Top 30 finishers would earn NHC Tour points), and playing my way into two entries in the first place is a bullish indicator for my handicapping contest future, so chalk Saturday up to another valuable learning experience on my quest to an NHC berth.