The voice of reason often arises when you least expect it.
"13th place not all bad, U beat a lot of pros."
Reality: Part-Timer vs. Pros
A decent run of "pre-qualifiers" in Horse Tourneys' contests padded my bankroll enough to enter a few NHC qualifiers ($240 entry fee), and yesterday provided prime conditions (i.e., disgustingly humid outside, kids away with friends, wife out and about) to throw my hat in the ring for a meaningful NHC qualifier.
The 12-race contest featured races from Woodbine, Arlington, Hollywood and Ellis Park (home base for HorseTourneys.com).
Payouts on notional $2 win-place wagers were capped at 20-to-1 for win and 10-to-1 for place. Top 2 finishers won spots to NHC XV. Tour points were awarded to the top 10% of finishers.
When I handicapped that race from the shores of Avon-by-the-Sea on Sunday morning, I thought I had a diamond in the rough. As a 2-year-old, Surtsey won a restricted stakes stalking the pace, and I anticipated much the same race shape Sunday and was not worried about the first-time turf angle.
In addition, the Damsel field was not that great, and Surtsey's 2013 debut was a toss, as I saw it, considering a 9-month layoff and the curious rider assignment. I totally respect Chantal Sutherland as a rider, but suspected perhaps some cobwebs in her return to Woodbine last month off a stint in retirement and perhaps Surtsey got short shrift in the 2013 debut on June 15.
I stayed hot, picking up another $16 of win-place money with a 4-to-1 score on Norma's Dream in Race 6 from Ellis Park, where, by default, Norma's Dream seemed to be the only runner who liked the dirt and ultimately won by five widening lengths. At that point, I was in a 3-way tie for third or fourth.
As fate would have it, however, my next pick -- Bug Juice (nearly 5-to-1) in Race 7 at Arlington -- was strong but got stuck in traffic and finished third by a half-length, proving the first of a scoreless finish for NJ Horseplayer for all ensuing contest races.
Aside from Miss Giacomo, whom I marked as a contender but passed on in the finale from Woodbine and paid a handsome $14.60 to win and $5.90 to place, I would not have played any of several short-priced winners as the contest approached the finish, so I have no huge regrets there.
The final race, however, is where I faced a dilemma and kicked myself thoroughly afterward, and where Jim Peake's tweet provided proper grounding.
I was in a 3-way tie for 11th-place. The leader (and eventual winner James Michelson) had a $126.60 bankroll, followed by Roger Cettina at $113 and a handful of others, like me, in the $80-$95 range.
I had two choices -- pick a longshot and hope no one else would land on that same horse and maybe sneak into the Top 2, or stick with my rational morning handicapping, take a lower-priced winner, and hope to come away with NHC Tour points for finishing in the top 10% of players.
Race 8 from Hollywood, which to me shaped up as a speed duel between nine horses at 6.5 furlongs, favored Charlie'sboywins, an off-the-pace type who finished in-the-money in 8 of 15 starts on the surface and was cutting back from over a mile.
Problem is, after handicapping the race on Sunday morning, two horses were scratched, and I was $46.60 out of first. I figured, at best, I could steal second-place (remember, Top 2 advance to NHC XV) if I found a plausible play around 13-to-1 (and no players ahead of me in the standings would).
There were three horses offering double-digit odds right before post-time.
I opted to "play for the win", as irrational as that proved in hindsight, and picked 16-to-1 Hugo Pirate, ridden by front-running specialist Agapito Delgadillo.
My rationale: how often is a horseplayer -- especially a part-timer like me in a field of many full-time professional handicappers -- within striking distance of WINNING a spot in Las Vegas?
I went for it, but told a neighbor who randomly stopped by my house and ended up watching the race with me the horse probably did not have a shot.
Until the last second when HorseTourneys.com locked down the picks, I battled internally.
Go For The Gusto, or NHC Tour Points?
Hugo Pirate for the improbably NHC win, or stay with Charlie'sboywins and use the roughly $20 of winnings to, perhaps, come away with a 5th- to 8th-place finish and around 1,000 NHC Tour points?
As luck would have it, no one above me in the standings took Hugo Pirate, so my gambit was, if nothing else, well designed.
A miracle win at 16.6-to-1 would have yielded at least $35 to win and, I'm guessing, at least $10 to place and maybe launched me (and two others with the exact same picks and bankrolls) into a Top 2 finish.
Hugo Pirate, however, as anticipated, locked into a speed duel with four others before running out of gas and was passed by, you guess it, a FLYING Charlie'sboywins late in the stretch.
Charlie'sboywins paid a combined $21 of win-place.
The $21 of potential earnings would have capped my contest bankroll at $101, good for sixth-place and (if I'm reading the NHC Tour rules correctly) 1,000 NHC Tour points.
Combined with the 989 points earned for the Simulcast Series Invitation at Monmouth Park in April, I would have moved up to 118th-place on the Tour leaderboard. The Top 150 at season's end gets you a spot in NHC XV.
The Downside to Points
Perhaps my rationale makes no sense, but qualifying for NHC XV by accruing Tour points is probably not attainable for part-time NHC Tour players like me.
Simply put, I do not play in enough tournaments, nor am I good enough a contest handicapper, to stockpile points. The only live tournaments for me this year are Suffolk on August 3 and Monmouth in September, in all likelihood. I have friends playing in the Saratoga and Aqueduct two-day tournaments later this season, but have neither the time nor the bankroll to participate.
I still have some bullets on HorseTourneys.com and can otherwise probably play a few other online venues, but in the end it's very difficult to match strides with folks who either do this for a living (or "pros," as referenced by Jim Peake) or have no constraints in playing multiple tickets per NHC qualifier. I earned that right in the SSC Invitational, but found it difficult to juggle two contest cards.
A look at the list of Tour players who have already qualified for Vegas shows the aforementioned Mr. Michelson not only near the top of the points leaderboard, but also already having won, count 'em, TWO spots in NHC XV!
Unless there's a different person with the same name, Mr. Michelson played (and won) Sunday's HorseTourneys.com qualifier not only just for the NHC Tour points, but the prospect of upwards of $5,000 for Tour players who win four tournaments in a season. Quite the luxury!
One Simple Goal: Win 1 Tournament to Get to Vegas
The notion that a player can take down three, let alone one, NHC qualifier is mind-boggling and only reinforces the admiration I have for contest players who can succeed on a regular basis.
Contrary to my views post-contest, Sunday's outcome was not all dour when put into proper perspective.
Maybe I just need to take the points when I can and hope to get to Vegas through the back door (i.e. Tour points).
Winning a handicapping tournament outright, on the other hand, just seems the most direct route for a part-timer like me, but the water is clearly deeper when NHC berths (and Tour points, for full-time players who compete for the $150,000 the Tour awards to half- and full-season points leaders) are at stake.
I'm a guy still testing the waters, but courageous enough to swim around even the biggest fish.
An unsolicited messaged helped to reinforce that notion.