Monday, December 22, 2014


Amid the chaos that is Christmas season, let us not forget the "reason for the season," so a blessed Christmas to those who observe, and may the Light of the Lord fill everyone's house!

Now, for far more frivolous matters, I burned my final vacation day from work today for exciting endeavors, like sitting in the AAA service center (as we speak) to have my wife's car serviced after much procrastination and addressing other priorities. 

Source: Technology Buzz 101
Nothing says vacation day or "Merry Christmas" like a large bill for maintenance and new tires. 

Every day since Thanksgiving Eve, really, has been a whirlwind of nonstop activity -- some good, some bad...mostly mundane compared to competing in handicapping contests.

In catching up on email, however, one message really caught my eye.

NHC Information

Those of us on the NHC Tour (remember to register soon for 2015) are accustomed to the entertaining and information weekly Tour newsletter, but the last correspondence I received had additional meaning.

I saw, but did not really read until this morning, a message sent by Michele Ravencraft, including several attachments pertaining to the actual 2015 National Handicapping Championship.

As I worked through each attachment, participating in the NHC at Treasure Island in Las Vegas (January 23-25) suddenly became far more a reality than it had even seemed back in September when I qualified via the Del Mar Online Handicapping Challenge. 

T Minus...

In reality, there's only 1 month until the Championship, so now I'm even more anxious to get out there, compete, enjoy...and win.

I will absolutely shoot for the top. 

Above all, I am grateful for the opportunity.  

I recognize that the odds are somewhat stacked against me, considering the depth and quality of the NHC field, including several dual-qualifiers (e.g. people playing 2 tickets), full-time and professional handicappers, past NHC champions, qualifiers who have competed on TV, and several others who have taken thoroughbred handicapping far more seriously than me for far longer.  

Regardless, I anticipate going in guns ablaze and sticking to my long-shot focused strategy.

When my mind has not been cluttered with thoughts of family duties, work, coaching and, well, general clutter, I have contemplated how to prepare for the NHC.

I'm a first-time qualifier, after all.

Seeing in the recent Tour email the list of 7 potential tracks and NHC rules reiterating that I will have to play at least 40 races and upwards of nearly 50 over 3 days, I know that I must remain grounded.  

The volume of true "handicapping" -- video analysis, poring over past performances -- could prove overwhelming in my busy daily schedule, but a month from the event, I will not get wrapped up in trying to be perfect in Vegas.  

For the time being, I am simply using the time leading up to Christmas and the New Year to relish filling my phone's calendar with every little item on the NHC's recent email.

Flight from New York and NHC registration 31 nights from now.

Daily breakfast and lunch at the Caribbean Foyer of Treasure Island each day of the NHC.

The NHC Awards dinner on Sunday night.

If nothing else, I anticipate a wonderful experience and opportunity, and delving headlong into my preparation for the National Handicapping Championship at the start of 2015.

Everyone please be safe this holiday season, and best of luck, too, to my NJ Horseplayer brethren competing on Saturday, December 27 in Monmouth Park's last-chance NHC qualifier.

I appreciate you reading my blog and anticipate more fun with it in 2015!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Remembering Steven Nico

The last email correspondence I received from Steven Nico was on November 14.

Steven Nico, 53, of Long Valley
Fellow New Jersey Horseplayer
"Another 2nd-place finisher today. Every day so far...incredible."

Ah, spoken like a true horseplayer.

You see, Steven -- under the pseudonym "scottsdad" -- was the Champion of this summer's Del Mar Online Handicapping Challenge

As his runner-up, I can attest that Steven's victory was no easy feat; and based upon our futility in Del Mar's November tournament (which Steven referenced above; the first 4 horses he picked to win all finished 2nd), it took mettle to beat out thousands of generally anonymous, but highly skilled players for one of two coveted prizes.    

See, the two of us -- both New Jersey guys -- captured our first-ever berths to the National Handicapping Championship, the Holy Grail for contest horseplayers, and exchanged emails in the weeks after taking down a virtual tournament, ironically, hosted 3,000 miles away. 

Steven was the first to make contact after finding my email, flatteringly, through this blog.

Our conversations thereafter were light and bordered on giddy, ranging from flight plans to handicapping to jokes about whether the travel stipends would leave room enough on Del Mar's dime for us to enjoy a fine steak dinner out in Las Vegas (home to the NHC), or merely a cup of coffee. 

Either way, we'd finally get to hang out and revel in our success through Del Mar.

Conflicting work schedules, family matters and personal commitments and some 50-60 miles of distance got in the way of a face-to-face meal or beverage here in New Jersey.  

At the least, however, we were excited that we'd be in Vegas from Jan. 22-26, each getting a 1-in-500 shot at winning $1 million in a thoroughbred handicapping championship against real professionals. 

In a cruel twist, a message with the subject "please read" arrived in my inbox late Wednesday.

I received an email from Steven's wife, Lucy, that her husband passed away on Tuesday after suffering a heart attack on Thanksgiving.

Steven Nico was 53.

The kinship I felt with this man, whom I had never met but shared a unique bond on account of something that may seem child's play to some but is serious business to others, helps to explain the heavy heart with which I share my short brushes with Steven. 

Although I had my obvious suspicions about what "scottsdad" represented, from the obituary that Lucy shared it's abundantly clear that Steven's horseplayer pseudonym represented rich commitment as a husband and father to four children (Ilissa, Michael, Joseph and, yes, Scott).  

I knew from our correspondence that Steven worked nights, but much as we do with many acquaintances in life sometimes we neglect the details.  

According to a story on Long Valley Patch, Steven worked the night shift in order to care for his sons during daytime hours.  Anyone who has worked nights (myself included) can attest that it's no easy task.

By this account, Steven's caring extended beyond his own kids and had to be part of the formula, I would suspect, for his job was as a Behavioral Supervisor at the Daytop of New Jersey in Mendham, a residential treatment center for teens in need of "comprehensive substance abuse treatment and education programs"

Seeing that kind of resume is a fresh reminder that I, along with others on the handicapping contest circuit, encountered a true gentleman who gave nothing but a first-place effort in life.  

Please join me in keeping Steven and his family in your thoughts and prayers, and consider a small donation through this fundraiser started by his colleagues.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Biding My Time

It seems like an eternity since I qualified in early September for my first National Handicapping Championship.

The wait for my flight to Las Vegas on January 22, 2015 for the $2 million NHC seems even further away.

Fortunately, in the interim, I have been occupied pretty extensively with work, a new endeavor coaching a church parish basketball team that formed this year, and the usual humdrum and autumn activities.

A trip to Keeneland and Lane's End Farm in mid-October as part of a Rutgers football weekend in Columbus, Ohio broke the monotony and was a ton of fun.

The contest circuit and ruminations (blogs) about how to qualify for the NHC have been absent, however.

I suppose this is a good thing.

On the other hand, I have had a hard time getting inspired by or involved much in terms of NHC-focused handicapping tournaments over the past few months.

I suppose that's natural, but a new feeling for me as the unofficial king of qualifying lament.

If not for an 0-for-11 start in the Del Mar November Challenge, I guess I might be more excited about that contest, or broken up about the close calls (all $100 win bets that finished a game second) like Rousing Sermon at 16-1 on Sunday, Power Ped at 8.5-to-1 on Thursday or Number Five at 13-1 on November 8.

Otherwise, I wagered (with real money and no success) the Breeders Cup and try to stay sharp in small-ante tournaments, but to no avail.

Monmouth Park: Reasons To Get Excited

I anticipate that my real juices will be flowing again on Saturday, January 10, when Monmouth Park will host its first of four 2015 Simulcast Series Challenge (SSC) qualifiers, kicking off the new NHC qualifying season.

Credit to Brian Skirka and the rest of the Monmouth Park team for already setting the dates for what I consider to be one of the most fun and challenging tournaments on the circuit.

As always, players will have four opportunities to qualify for the SSC Invitational, scheduled for Saturday, April 25 and offering two qualifying spots to the 2016 National Handicapping Championship.

The format is similar to past years, where the Top 20 from each qualifier (the other three are slated for Saturday, February 21, Sunday, March 15 and Saturday, April 11) earn cash prizes and advance to the April 25 play-in to Las Vegas.

It's still very early, but I assume the buy-in will remain $200 for the SSC qualifiers.

In response to a survey that Monmouth Park took in the run-up to announcing the SSC dates, I proposed doubling the number of NHC prizes (to four) through the SSC Invitational and taking those two extra seats away from tournaments later in the season, but that concepts did not gain traction.

Still, for NHC Tour members who did not receive or take part in that survey, rest assured that Monmouth Park is really upping its tournament game, in my opinion, as the track is giving consideration to hosting TWO, instead of one (as in 2014), 10-seat super-qualifiers.

I suspect that concept will appeal to NHC Tour players with deeper pockets and who are at this game full-time, but for me (a horseplayer on a budget) the concern is that an additional super-qualifier makes the SSC format less appealing.

Assuming the 2015 super-qualifier fee remains $400 as was the case in 2014, I think the more budget-conscious player might consider passing on the SSC format and holding out for the tournaments offering five times the number of NHC seats.

The rationale is that one might have to pay $800 total to first qualify for the SSC Invitational ($200 per qualifier) and another $200 simply to play in the Invitational (a $1,000 total investment) giving away just two seats, rather than spend $400 a pop in a tournament without pre-qualifiers and with about the same number of competitors but giving away 10 spots to the NHC.

Basically, pay $400 and win 1 of 10 NHC berths in a single-day tournament, or pay upwards of $1,000 for 1 of 2 NHC berths and have to place in two tournaments in order to get there.

As a big fan of the SSC format, I am concerned that the super-qualifiers will cannibalize not only the SSC, but also subsequent Monmouth-Woodbine contests during the live racing season that also cost $200 but give out just 2 NHC seats as well.

Now, based on apparent record-high turnouts for SSC#2, SSC#3 and SSC#4 in 2014, perhaps my concern will prove unfounded in 2015.  And, hey, the fewer people that turn out, probably all the better for my chances to advance to the SSC Invitational.

However, I contend that the turnouts for the Monmouth-Woodbine qualifiers portray less interest in those particular tournaments and NHC Tour players would rather see 1 or 2 of those NHC berths go toward the SSC Invitational.

Regardless of where you might stand on the topic (and feel free to continue the discussion below), as a New Jersey-based horseplayer, I am ecstatic that Monmouth Park is doing so much to enhance the on-track NHC tournament product and soliciting player feedback.

The 2015 contest offering is a marked upgrade over past years, where far fewer NHC berths were offered than the number considered for next season.

Closing Remarks

As the trees are bare and snow and sleet are upon many of us, I guess it is a sign that I should simply embrace the comfort of knowing that I have already accomplished my goal of simply qualifying for the NHC and bide my time until taking off for Las Vegas.

Heck, that's less than 60 days away!

In the meantime, I am thankful that the new NHC qualifying season is just around the corner and will at the same time serve as real-word preparation for the real thing -- the 2015 NHC.

Everyone have a safe and healthy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Gunning for Scott's Dad in Del Mar November Contest

Strictly in jest, the bull's eye this November is squarely on fellow New Jersey resident and NHC XVI qualifier Steven Nico, champion of the Del Mar 2014 Online Handicapping Challenge.

Playing under the pseudonym scottsdad, Nico was the champion of this summer's free online NHC qualifier offered by Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.  As billhobo, I finished second. 

I assure you that Steven, like me, will not hide from the competition in gunning for a second spot in the 2015 National Handicapping Championship, worth $2.2 million in purses, in Las Vegas, January 23-25.

I had the November Del Mar contest already on my calendar, but Steven reminded me last week that, beginning this Friday and running through November 30, Del Mar will offer another 2 seats to NHC XVI at Treasure Island.

"Bing Crosby Season," as billed by the Club in press releases, is a 15-day race meet that mark's the first autumn racing at Del Mar since the late 1960s.  In short, Del Mar is picking up some of the dates vacated by the 2013 closure of Hollywood Park, and at the same time being very generous to contest horseplayers -- a lesson that other U.S. race tracks can learn.

Why Not Be Greedy?!

Regardless of the industry's reception to Bing Crosby Season, I am most interested as an unofficial ambassador of the contest circuit in spreading the word among fellow handicapping contest players about a great no-cost opportunity to qualify for NHC XVI (and pick up hotel accommodations and a travel stipend) through Del Mar, and even picking up a second NHC seat or some NHC Tour points along the way. 

The Tour a few years back changed the rules to allow NHC Tour members to qualify twice for the annual championship.  Surely qualifying once in my first four years on the circuit was hard enough, but what the heck...I'd sign on for a second seat in Las Vegas in a heartbeat!

For those who have never played Del Mar's online contests, the rules are simple -- accrue the biggest bankroll possible and finish in the Top 2 to qualify for the National Handicapping Championship.  

Players receive a notional $100 per day to make win, place or show bets on a predetermined race each day of the meet.  A player must make mythical wagers of at least $50 on at least 10 of the 15 racing days, and unlike most contest I have played, can hedge bets by playing more than 1 horse in each day's race.

Del Mar posts each day's contest race about 24 hours in advance and provides free past performances for players to analyze each race.

Not a Bad Deal, Right?!

I intend to stick with my strategy of $100 win bets per day, as supported by my tracking of the summer online contest, which ran more than twice as long (36 days) but where playing undervalued horses proved to be the winning strategy.  

The shorter Bing Crosby meet, in my opinion, should not discourage the prospect of some overlooked horses paying outsize prices in each contest race. 

Furthermore, and ultimately this may not be the case, I anticipate a smaller field of contestants for the November contest, since Del Mar may not yet be on everyone's radar in the wake of the Breeders Cup and considering the "newness" of the meeting.  

As of this publication, and within just 3 days of the sign-up deadline, less than 650 players signed on for the Del Mar November Challenge.  

Granted, I suspect there are many procrastinators who will sign up either late Thursday or Friday, but it is hard to imagine that 3,000 fresh players will register in the next 72 or so hours to match the contestant base in this summer's online handicapping contest (~3,750).  

I certainly hope that all readers will consider signing up for the Del Mar 2014 November Challenge, especially my other friends from New Jersey who have yet to qualify or, like me, would not mind playing two tickets (of an estimated 500) next January for a shot at the estimated $1.1 million first prize for winning the National Handicapping Championship. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Loosey-Goosey Nearly Pays Off

I entered the Monmouth-Woodbine Handicapping Challenge on Sunday, September 14 a looser-than-normal contestant after qualifying about a week prior for my first-ever National Handicapping Championship (NHC).

In the wake of my maiden NHC score, I was in the unusual position of having already locked up a berth in the NHC finals, to be held January 23-25 at Treasure Island in Las Vegas, and so I had a different perspective than normal.

No concerns about going oh-fer the contest.

No "guess I'll have to wait until next year" mentality about NHC qualification.

No "could have used that hundred bucks a better way" lamentations.

Photo courtesy of
Spiegel Online
Sure, winning a second NHC finals berth for a Top 2 finish would have been nice.

However, last Sunday was the first time that capturing the top cash prize ($10,500) was at the forefront of my process -- a foreign feeling, but, oddly enough, admittedly an afterthought when trying to qualify for a $1.8 million tournament in Las Vegas.

From a handicapping perspective, I was not disappointed with 4-of-15 in-the-money finishes.

Perhaps playing 15 of 21 carded races reflects a lack of selective decision-making, but in live-money contests such as last Sunday's my goal is to generally to survive and accrue enough to make a late splash.

I hit with two winners, 4-to-1 Theogony in Race 7 from Woodbine and 5-to-1 Social Network in Race 10 from Monmouth, and two for place that would have produced nearly $600 of winnings had the horses scored on the win end of my wagers.

Specifically, 33-to-1 Soniko ran lights out but faded to second in Race 5 from Monmouth.  The $10 win portion of my wager would have produced roughly $350 of earnings and perhaps altered my thesis entering the second-half of the contest card.  That's irrelevant at this point.

Meanwhile, in the second-to-last contest race, 11-to-1 Lady Diba lost by a head at the wire.  Hitting the win portion of my $20 win-$10 place wager there would have produced another $235 or so of earnings and based on my real bankroll at the time, given me around $370 for the final contest race.

Instead of being in the top 5 heading into the final (mandatory) race, I was left with a still-respectable $159.50 bankroll heading into the Woodbine Mile.

The leader at that point had amassed a little more than a $1,000 bankroll, so I figured I needed at least a 6-to-1 or 7-to-1 in the Woodbine Mile to have a shot at winning the tournament, and assumed that a good number of players ahead of me were shopping that price range as well.

I landed on Lookout, a Mark Casse-trained sprint closer stretching out but that I thought made sense at a 17-to-1 overlay (off a 10-to-1 morning line) in a speedy field.  Lookout, however, looked on while beaten by half of the 11-horse field and finishing a never-threatening sixth to British invader Trade Storm.

Mission accomplished in having enough to make one big play at the end, but $100 win-$50 place on Lookout went out the window, leaving me at a final $9.50 bankroll, which I held in the event that a bunch of others went "all in" and maybe I could collect a few cheap points in the NHC Tour standings.  Ultimately, $9.50 was good for 22nd place but no Tour points.

The final wager was infinitely my largest ever and well outside my comfort zone, but was the correct decision and sort of monumental in my history of contest play, in that I had no regrets about backing a horse with conviction and giving myself a true shot at a significant victory.  Maybe other players ahead of me in the standings landed on the same horse and ultimately would have beaten me regardless, but I have to believe that others bet "safer" horses than Lookout.

If nothing else, I can look back on the September 14 contest as a great learning experience.

Perhaps I should have been more aggressive than $10 win-$10 place on Soniko earlier and said "so what" if I crapped out with half a race card to go and the horse ran dead last as the betting public had expected.  

Perhaps I should have been paying closer attention to the late odds on Social Network, which I wagered at 7-to-2 with about two minutes to post time but I had not noticed was sent up to 5-to-1 and started the race before I could increase my bet by another $20 to win as I had intended.

Perhaps I should have gone "all in" on Lady Diba.  In hindsight, I liked her a lot more than Lookout a race later.

None of these hypothetical scenarios mean anything in the end, but the real-life cash management and wagering choices last Sunday inspire a greater sense of self-confidence in advance of future live-money contests, namely next winter's Simulcast Series Challenge.

In the meantime, I have no other live-money contests on my radar until next season (another luxury of NHC finals qualification), but in the meantime will focus on online tourneys as time allows and to stay fresh and hope to see you there!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Vegas Here I Come!

The reality is starting to sink in that I am one of 500 qualifiers for the 2015 National Handicapping Championship (NHC XVI) from January 23-25 at Treasure Island in Las Vegas.

Final details from the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club officials are yet to come, but I received congratulatory email from NHC Tour officials signaling that my second-place finish (under the nickname "billhobo") in the 2014 Del Mar Online Handicapping Challenge puts me in Vegas.  

In my fourth year on the Tour as predominantly a part-time weekend player, I face the prospect of competing against the best in the U.S. (and Canada) for a projected $1.8 million purse

NJ Horseplayer earns first-ever
berth to National Handicapping
Of course the blind squirrel finds a nut every so often, but I figured I would qualify at some point; just never through a 3,752-player free online tournament where, especially in the latter stages, people were gunning for Del Mar's top prize of NHC berths to the top two finishers. 

Reflecting over the last week about my success in the Del Mar contest, I kept coming back to the value of my homework ("Seven Bullets Remaining," August 27) ahead of the final week.

Perched in 8th-place going into the final six races of the contest, my goal was simply to get into the Top 2 and get to Vegas.  

I contemplated strategies and consulted with some close contest handicapper friends before deciding that it was best to continue to ID playable long-shots and solely play (mythical) $100-win wagers, breaking from my earlier hedge of $50 to win and $50 to place.

The latter strategy got me into the top 10, but I realized that one well-placed $100 win wager could pay dividends. 

After starting the final contest week 0-for-3 and watching eventual contest champion "scottsdad" score three consecutive $100 win wagers to vault all the way up from 17th to 3rd (six spots ahead of me and, yes, I was tracking the Top 20 every day to gauge possible patterns), the two of us secured our NHC berths with $100 to win on 29-to-1 Meinertzhageni in Race 8 on Saturday, August 30.

The $2,940 of notional profit put scottsdad about $800 ahead of me in the standings and yours truly $1,225 ahead of the third-place finisher with three races remaining in the contest.

Admittedly, I was so gassed by handicapping Saturday's big score that I sat out Sunday's card, but returned with two unsuccessful (strictly defensive...more on that later) $100 win wagers on Monday and Wednesday.

A 15-to-1 horse named Calculator made me sweat it out a bit in the Del Mar Futurity (the final contest race on Wednesday, September 3), but ultimately second-choice American Pharaoh won going away to guarantee my second-place contest finish.

Key to Success: Long-Shots

Scoring four enormous long-shots (24-to-1, 29-to-1 twice and 39-to-1) and, overall, "in the money" finishes on 6 of 8 days where the winning horse went off at double-digit odds set the tone.  

I did not exclusively play ridiculous bombs either, picking up earnings on four horses sent off between 4-to-1 and 10-to-1.  

I predominantly focused on potential overlays (horses sent off at odds above their morning lines), including Meinertzhageni, listed at 8-to-1 in the past performances.  Never did I imagine getting $60 per $2 of win bet on such a logical upset prospect.  It happened, however, and the rest is history.

In the end, I finished in the money on 8 of 34 plays (24%), with wins in 5 of those (15%). 

Top 3 wagering choices won at least half of all 36 contest races, a pretty high strike rate.

Otherwise, in tracking the leaderboard over the last week, I surmised that most contest players toward the top gravitated to long-shots as well, considering that no more than one or two players on any day scored with $100 win wagers on horses at much shorter odds.  This reinforced my confidence in pursuing a $100-win strategy exclusively.

Final Thoughts

The final race (the aforementioned Del Mar Futurity) proved painstaking for me and provides potential fodder for another column down the road about "playing defense" in handicapping contests.

Each contest is unique, and therefore a one-size-fits-all strategy for handling a late contest leader probably would not suffice.

However, I learned a valuable lesson about protecting leads in the Del Mar online contest.

Recognizing that the player in third would need to pick an 11-to-1 winner or higher (combined with a "billhobo" $100 loss) to surpass me in the standings, I was excited that the contest organizers selected the Futurity as the final race.

The morning line maker installed only 1 horse above 15-to-1, and so I figured that maybe one more would go off at double-digit odds and I could divide my bankroll $50-$50 between two horses to protect second-place.  

Rather than actually handicapping the race to identify a winner as I had done throughout the contest, I crossed out all horses 5-to-1 in the program and below, and ultimately was left with 4 horses from which to choose as defensive plays.

Of course the best laid plans never seem to work out, as bettors hammered one horse (Skyway) and left not 2, but 4, others dead on the tote board, and I could not cover all 4 (sent off at odds of 14-to-1 or higher) to protect my lead.

A strong mid-pack run by Calculator (15-to-1, but whom I insufficiently covered with a $20 win selection) appeared threatening turning into the homestretch, but in the end the outcome did not change.

Still, I was left with some food for thought down the road if ever I am in a position of having a target on my back. 

Optimistically, I would relish being that target again, but at the 2015 National Handicapping Championship next time around.


Daily Results for 2014 Del Mar Online Handicapping Contest
(*=post-time favorite, **=second-choice, ***=third-choice)
(yellow=picked winner; grey=picked runner-up)

Date Profit/Loss Race Winner Win Place Bankroll
7/17/2014 ($100.00) 8 3-1* $7.80 ($100.00)
7/18/2014 ($100.00) 6 4-1** $9.40 ($200.00)
7/19/2014 $330.00 9 10-1 $22.80 $13.20 $130.00
7/20/2014 $1,555.00 9 24-1 $50.40 $15.80 $1,685.00
7/23/2014 ($100.00) 8 21-1 $43.60 $1,585.00
7/24/2014 ($100.00) 8 8-1 $18.00 $1,485.00
7/25/2014 ($100.00) 7 8-1 $17.60 $1,385.00
7/26/2014 ($100.00) 8 3-1** $8.00 $1,285.00
7/27/2014 $135.00 6 4-1** $10.80 $9.40 $1,420.00
7/30/2014 ($100.00) 5 1-1* $3.80 $1,320.00
7/31/2014 DNP 7 2/5* $2.80 $1,320.00
8/1/2014 ($100.00) 7 7/2 $9.20 $1,220.00
8/2/2014 ($100.00) 6 2-1** $6.00 $1,120.00
8/3/2014 ($100.00) 7 4-1** $10.20 $1,020.00
8/6/2014 $790.00 6 8-1 $15.80 $1,810.00
8/7/2014 ($100.00) 7 2-1** $6.20 $1,710.00
8/8/2014 ($100.00) 4 11-1 $24.80 $1,610.00
8/9/2014 ($100.00) 7 11-1 $23.40 $1,510.00
8/10/2014 ($100.00) 6 5-1*** $11.80 $1,410.00
8/13/2014 $2,350.00 6 39-1 $72.00 $3,760.00
8/14/2014 ($100.00) 7 3-1** $8.40 $3,660.00
8/15/2014 ($100.00) 6 1-1* $4.00 $3,560.00
8/16/2014 $170.00 8 9-1 $20.20 $10.80 $3,730.00
8/17/2014 ($100.00) 8 3-1* $7.80 $3,630.00
8/20/2014 ($100.00) 7 5-2* $6.80 $3,530.00
8/21/2014 ($100.00) 7 6-1 $14.40 $3,430.00
8/22/2014 $1,905.00 6 29-1 $59.20 $5,335.00
8/23/2014 ($100.00) 8 3-2* $5.20 $5,235.00
8/24/2014 ($100.00) 10 1-1* $4.40 $5,135.00
8/27/2014 ($100.00) 8 5-1 $12.40 $5,035.00
8/28/2014 ($100.00) 7 9-2 $11.40 $4,935.00
8/29/2014 ($100.00) 5 7-2** $9.80 $4,835.00
8/30/2014 $2,940.00 8 29-1 $60.80 $7,775.00
8/31/2014 DNP 6 6-5* $4.60 $7,775.00
9/1/2014 ($100.00) 9 9-2 $11.20 $7,675.00
9/3/2014 ($100.00) 8 3-1** $8.40 $7,575.00

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Seven Bullets Remaining

Right now, I'm sitting in 8th place among 3,700-plus players in the 2014 Del Mar Online Handicapping Challenge, or about as close as ever to reaching my goal -- four years in the making at this point.

The top two finishers, regardless of whether they are members of the NHC Tour, will win berths to the 2015 National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas, so my goal over the final seven racing days at Del Mar is to find some way into the Top 2.

The standings have me at a $5,135 bankroll (all players started at break-even and were granted a notional $100 bankroll for each predetermined race).  The leader is at $5,930, and second is $5,716.

Photo courtesy of
If nothing else, I am in pretty good shape to get nearly 3,000 NHC Tour points assuming I finish in the Top 30 (30th has a $3,645 bankroll at present) and long-shots that I do not pick do not dominate the rest of the contest's race results.

Otherwise, I come away with absolutely nothing, which would be crushing.

In any event, I wanted to analyze the outcomes of the contest races thus far as a potential guide to how to play the remaining seven races, beginning with Wednesday's Generous Portion Stakes -- Race 8, going off at 8:35 p.m. ET.  I will not publish a pick, since I have done poorly the 2-3 times I justified my pick on particular days.  Bad karma.

There are some pretty interesting data points through 29 contest days.

Long-Shots A Must

I can safely credit my 8th-place ranking at present to identifying and hitting the three longest shots in the contest: 24-to-1, 29-to-1 and 40-1 (the latter capped at 35-to-1 by contest rules).

Identifying playable long-shots is the premise of my blog in the first place, and the only second-guessing comes in having played $50 win-place wagers instead of $100 win wagers.

Assuming I had played $100 straight win wagers per day, and subtracting three $50 place wagers where I cashed, I would now have a $5,900 bankroll, which is good for second place and one of the two NHC spots in Vegas.

However, with plenty of contest action remaining, a lot can clearly change.

Still, crunching the numbers at least gives me the impetus to ponder an alternate final-week strategy, if necessary.

Better "In" Than "Out" Of The Money, But Too Early For Capital Preservation

Hitting the board in 7 of 28 contest plays equates to being "in the money" 25% of the time, which based on handicappers' assessments of trainers and jockeys is a nice number.

Of those, I have 4 winners and 3 runners-up, so if I can find another horse or two over the last seven contest days, I should improve my chances of catching the leaders or least securing Top 30.

Friend and contest colleague Stephen Fitzpatrick shared a thought with me this past weekend that "show" wagers can be a useful tool for capital preservation.

I have blogged on that concept in the past (see above link) and would typically give it much greater weight, but from my analysis, the show payouts at Del Mar are extremely paltry.  Ann of the Dance, my 29-to-1 winner this past Friday night, for instance, paid a measly $6 or so to show -- not much reward for identifying the longest shot on the board as the winner.

Perhaps it makes sense to use show wagers on more of the "sure thing" horses in the final contest day or two, but I am not sold that an incremental $20-$25 of winnings at this point is worth the effort.  At the same time, in the chalky Pacific Classic on Sunday, only 2-3 of the Top 30 players either sat on the sidelines or placed winning contest wagers, suggesting most are still playing "full bore."

Were I way ahead of the field, then maybe show bets would make sense, but I have to make up ground.

Slim Pickings On Contest Long-Shots

The favorite has won 8 of the 29 Del Mar contest races thus far, with only two above 3-to-2 odds.

The second and third betting choices boast another 8 wins, meaning the chalkiest horses have won 55% of the contest races, most of which have had at least 8 runners and 12-13 in a few instances.

On the days where I failed to find the correct long-shot, only three went off at double-digit odds: 22-to-1, and 11-to-1 (twice).  So, in sum, I scored on double-digit odds horses in 6 of 9 such instances.

Assuming Del Mar offers deep fields over the final week, I am speculating that it will take at least another logical long-shot for me to land in the Top 2 regardless, since players lower in the standings will no doubt go the same route.


Outside of finishing one spot away from an NHC berth, the worst-case scenario for me with seven contest races to go is seven losses at $100 apiece decreasing my bankroll to $4,435 (good for 14th-place and some Tour points, based on today's leaderboard values) and falling outside the Top 30.

It is entirely possible for players further down the standings to hit 3-4 $100 win bombs this week and throw a monkey wrench into my equation, but over the first six weeks of this contest, a bomb has hit about once per week on average.

The law of averages suggests a slim chance of multiple 35-1 cap winners and, say, 100 players moving up the standings by hitting three such bombers.

That being said, I will likely continue to play long-shots, although I may lean toward $100 straight win plays instead of the $50-$50 win-place split I have employed thus far.

Historical data from this summer's Del Mar contest would validate that approach, considering as we speak I would be in second, rather than eighth, had I gone "all in" at $100 to win each race.

In any event, Sunday's analysis alone (where all but 2-3 of the Top 30 did not wager) would suggest that making no more wagers and sitting on $5,135 is not a winning formula.  Getting in through "the back door" is unlikely, as I see it.

Clearly the players above me in the standings are great handicappers, probably slanting toward the same long-shot logic that so many contest players employ in most handicapping contests.

In my opinion, it all comes down to being able to pick 1-2 winners at good prices to make a dent.

The ride has been fun thus far, but approaching the finish line I need to rely on smart handicapping to find a few horses to ride to Las Vegas next January.

Maybe in the last day or two I could consider conservatism, but it's too early to go that route.

I'd be curious to know, how would you play it?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Cogito, Ergo Win

I think, therefore I win.

OK, give me credit for appearing confident about tonight's Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap, which is the race of the day in the Del Mar Online Handicapping Challenge and where I spent far too much time trying to talk myself out of my $50 win-place selection of #12, Cogito, at 20-to-1.

Sharing my thoughts on the blog about select races this Del Mar contest season has generally proven the death knell for my hopes, but this particular race really got me thinking about how confidence can turn from mild to strong in an instant.

This particular contest got far more interesting for me last night with a successful $50 win-place wager (notional; no real money exchanges hands in this contest) on 29-to-1 Ann of the Dance in Race 6, which moved me into third-place of 3,750 contest players and, for now, a spot away from qualifying for the coveted National Handicapping Championship.

There are several parallels between Cogito in tonight's mile-and-three-eighths Del Mar Handicap on turf and Ann of the Dance in Friday night's contest race (same distance), as I see it.  Each horse:
  • boasts commendable distance turf pedigree -- Ann of the Dance an English Channel and Cogito sired by Giant's Causeway
  • second off a layoff -- (before this weekend's races) a 6-7 month rest for Ann of the Dance and exactly one year away for Cogito
  • ran against much tougher than most other foes last night and tonight -- Ann of the Dance competitive at Gulfstream Park against multiple stakes winner Angelica Zapata and Cogito spotted in the 2012 Breeders Cup Turf (a somewhat troubled seventh-place) and the Eddie Read in 2012 and 2013.
  • dismissed by the morning-line maker at 20-to-1 and, hopefully tonight, a big overlay.
The law of averages suggests it is highly improbable that I hit back-to-back bombs, but the more I reviewed the past performances, my selection of Cogito improved from lukewarm to increasingly confident.

As I see it, the scratch of 5-to-1 Quick Casablanca is significant, since I viewed his off-the-pace running style as similar to Cogito's and perhaps my alternate selection, and the top competitor to 7-to-2 favorite and two-time Grade 2 winner Fire With Fire.

The drawback to Fire With Fire, as I see it, is that #5, Bright Thought, looks to me like a one-paced type who needs the lead (and is nowhere near his Grade 2 San Luis Rey win in March 2013) and #10 Unbridled Command (another whose better days seem to have long passed; Grade 1 Hollywood Derby winner in November 2012) is running with blinkers for the first time and may challenge early.  I pass on all three.

The rest of the 10-horse field have questions in terms of class and/or form.

Cogito finished last of six in the Eddie Read on July 20, but the effort was not that bad off a year's layoff, with Cogito making what I saw as a strong middle move into the final turn before tiring in the stretch.  Losing to Tom's Tribute and Summer Front is no shame, and in fact I reckon Cogito is in a much softer spot here.

It may not work out, as Cogito has not won in two years and I was never a huge fan of jockey Mario Gutierrez in turf races (although he is winning at a respectable 11% in 109 starts), but at least I think, no, I am confident that this mid- to late-pack closer can fend off the likes of deep-closer types #4, Big John B, and #6, Starspangled Heat in the stretch.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Beach = Clear MInd

On the heels of a great but financially unproductive weekend in Saratoga, I am extremely thankful to spend the rest of my vacation on the Jersey Shore.

All that's cooking on the handicapping front for me is the Del Mar Online Handicapping Challenge, where miraculously I am 25th of 3,700 players with a bankroll around $3,700 and about $2,000 behind the leader. 

For me, the outcome could prove significant, as the top two finishers get to the National Handicapping Championship next January. Otherwise, it's NHC Tour points (generally meaningless for a part-time Tour player like me) to the Top 30, and moral victories for anyone on the outside. 

I guess the worst place to finish is 31st.

Nonetheless, between soaking in the rays all day and enjoying the warm surf boogie boarding with my kids, I made some time to over-analyze today's Del Mar contest race, landing on Philip D'Amato trainee Oeighter in Race 7.  My play (with mythical money) is $100 to win. 

After committing way too much time handicapping Saratoga this past weekend, I vowed to myself (with my wife's endorsement) never to spend too much time poring over past performances. 

The preparation was fruitless and the butt-whooping at the betting window proved exhausting. 

Granted, Saratoga's one of the most difficult tracks to handicap, but still, outside of a chalky $20 win score, the closest I came to cashing a ticket was a first-third finish on an exacta where my horses were 13-to-1 and 33-to-1; and realistically, it was not really that close for second.

Oeighter, on paper, looks like a capable long-shot at an 8-to-1 morning line facing winners for the first time in a 9-horse allowance field (n1x) at 1 mile on turf (3-year-old fillies).  

Past performances understate the talent that, in my view, this horse has shown through three lifetime starts, and I am guessing there's a chance that Oeighter will be an overlay.  

I sense that 4-5 horses may gun for the lead into the first turn (Disregarded, Gratification, Tacit Approval and 5-to-2 favorite Alexis Tangier).  I have typically leaned toward what I perceive to be a front-end speed bias as Del Mar, but am not enamored with that group.  I considered Disregarded (8-to-1) on the game Grade 3 Senorita Stakes try in late-June, but would not expect to get above 9-to-2.  No value for me.

Oeighter, on the other hand, may get dismissed coming off a maiden score on dirt on July 5 at Los Alamitos, where horses on or near the lead almost always won.  Such was the case in Oeighter's victory that day.

Whether or not Oeighter caught a softer field or just liked the dirt on July 5, her two races prior (both on turf, including one at a mile) offer hope this evening.

In Oeighter's debut on the Santa Anita downhill turf on May 11, she got out slow in a $75,000 maiden claimer but drew the dreaded inside post before closing like gangbusters (to finish 5th) and blowing by the winner on the gallop-out. 

Next out, stretching out to a mile, Oeighter got forced about 6-7 paths wide into the first turn by a horse who blew the turn, then cut off in the home stretch by a tiring horse, before finishing a game fourth of 10. 

It is worth watching the replays for those with the time, but I am relatively confident that Oeighter has a good shot off her first win and off a short rest, and will be able to close on the field to score at a decent price in Race 7.  Second-time blinkers and Joe Talamo's familarity are other bullish themes. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Tripping with Stormberg

The adage about never being too old to learn is completely valid.

I spent a good part of an overcast Saturday at Monmouth Park volunteering for my third time this meet as "racing ambassador," with a grassroots goal of cultivating and educating new or inexperienced fans one at a time about thoroughbred racing.

In educating these fans to the best of my ability, however, I find myself learning a lot as well, proving extremely beneficial as a part-time handicapper ultimately attempting to qualify for the National Handicapping Championship.

Jockeys and trainers have come into focus of late, since as an ambassador I get to take patrons into the paddock to watch trainers saddle their horses and can eavesdrop a little -- a really great experience that yields valuable insight as a handicapper.

Saturday afternoon, I was introduced to top local trainer Kelly Breen in the paddock prior to race 6 and listened to his pre-race instructions to jockey Victor Santiago aboard second-time starter Jackie O' Mine.

Even in a fourth-place finish of nine starters, the jockey followed his trainer's instructions to a tee, with Jackie O' Mine -- an inexperienced horse with more of a two-turn pedigree and not the best early speed -- urged from the gate in a 5-furlong sprint in the slop (to see how she would respond) and giving the connections some valuable information on the horse moving forward.

A race prior, Santiago made a race-winning move aboard 9-to-1 Karobushka in a 6-furlong claimer, navigating his horse through a wide opening along the rail left by front-runner Iron Dale Al, who floated wide into the homestretch and lost valuable ground.

I already have immense respect for jockeys, but after just a small two-race sample I came away with tremendous respect for Santiago, who has a 9% lifetime win percentage, according to Equibase, and in 2014 had a mere 8 wins in 140 mounts heading into today.

The jockey theme is one that leads me to a horse named Stormberg in Race 7 today at Del Mar ($62,500 optional claimer at 1 mile on the synthetic track) -- my selection of the day in the Del Mar 2014 Online Handicapping Challenge.

Stormberg is 15-to-1 on the morning line, but the change in trainer and jockey is what proves intriguing off the horse's last three efforts on the 6 1/2-furlong downhill course at Santa Anita.

If you do not have an online wagering account, sign up for free at (free replays at all California tracks) and watch the last three race replays for Stormberg. 

The horse, in my opinion, got three horrible trips with jockey Tyler Baze and trained by high-percentage California trainer Jeff Bonde.

Granted, based on breaks in the horse's past performances, it looks like the 6-year-old Stormberg has had health issues, racing only 13 times and netting $108,615 of lifetime winnings -- a bad return on the $450,000 purchase out of the 2009 Keeneland September sale.  The horse ran only one race in 2013 (Gulfstream in March) for trainer Michelle Nevin before shipping out west to the Bonde stable.

Stormberg made his 2014 debut on April 20 and finished an extremely game third of 10 horses off a 13-month layoff.  Next out, on May 24Stormberg ran very well but lacked room, checking at one point and re-rallying to finish third.  On June 20, under the same conditions ($62,500 optional claimer on the downhill turf), Stormberg again was run into trouble, steadying hard in the stretch to finish sixth of seven behind winner Rangi, who finished second next out in the $90,000 Wicker Stakes.

On paper, Stormberg's performances appear less than stellar, which along with the horse's first try on synthetic surface in nearly three years and stretch-out to a mile may help to explain the 15-to-1 morning line.

Beneath the surface, however, the change in trainer to Robertino Diodoro and rider Fernando Perez are bullish angles, in my opinion, and the horse kept some pretty good company in his recent races.

This jockey-trainer combination has 4 wins in 19 tries over the last 60 days, and Perez has proven a formidable and underrated rider at the Del Mar meeting.

Horses coming off downhill turf sprints at Santa Anita seem to have played somewhat well on stretch-outs, from the Del Mar races that I have seen.

In addition, the scratch of rail horse and 3-to-1 morning-line favorite Secretsatmidnight inspires confidence that Stormberg can get to the lead from an outside post without much difficulty.  The horses to either side of Stormberg show more of a stalking tactic, in my view, freeing Perez to get Stormberg to the lead into the first turn.

With front-end speed holding up pretty well at Del Mar, I am banking on Stormberg benefiting from the stretch-out from a three straight sprints to two turns -- an angle where Diodoro wins 19%-22% of the time and is in the money nearly 50%.  Diodoro is also winning 25% of the time on new horses to his barn.

We'll know for certain a little after 8 p.m. ET, but I'm going a notional $50 win-place on #9, Stormberg, as my selection in the Del Mar online contest, which would go a long way in improving my 210th-place standing of 3,500-plus players.

It'll be interesting to know whether or not a new jockey and trainer make the difference for a horse with apparent talent but has simply ran into a lot of trouble of late.


For additional reading on jockey angles, take a look at this valuable piece from Joe Kristufek for America's Best Racing.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Consistency, Where Are You?

Sidetracked by several professional and personal matters, I have had little time in the last 4-5 weeks to pursue (or write about) my bid for a berth in the National Handicapping Championship

This season in particular, I am finding it difficult to generate any consistency as a part-time player on the NHC Tour, and when I have the scant time to play between professional licensing exams, shuttling kids all over creation and other priorities, I have been beset by bad fortunate.  

Take this afternoon, when a shortfall of player entries into a late-afternoon bankroll builder contest on (HT) prompted cancellation.  

Sums up recent fortunes for
NJ Horseplayer
Whereas I could not hit the broad side of a barn with my picks in Sunday's NHC Tour qualifier at Monmouth Park, this afternoon I ID'd the opening race winner of Friday's HT event to no avail.  

Picking an $8 winner is nothing to write home about, but after this past Sunday, getting off on the right foot for once inspired confidence.  You know the expression about best-laid plans.

Backtrack to Sunday's Monmouth Park tournament, I had no plan.

Perhaps was not a good idea, but based on a 1-for-36 start (-$52.80) to this season's online contest at the Public Handicapper, winging it seemed as good a plan.

My 0-for-10 performance at Monmouth ultimately proved otherwise, but I would chalk some of that up to rustiness or lack of consistent daily handicapping.

Strike 1

In Race 5 at Monmouth on Sunday, I knew that Magic Mesa was the best sprinter in an 5.5-furlong, 11-horse turf sprint and told my playing partner Red Rock or Bust as much, but as stupidity would have it, let an easy $8.40 winner pass in search of "better value."  

My horse, 16-to-1 Trish's Wish, finished a decent fourth about 3 lengths back, but instead of running my starting bankroll from $90 to at least $132, I ended up down $20 (to $80). 

Strike 2

As an equity research editor by day and extremely familiar with the stock market and Wall Street compliance, I know that past performance does not measure future success, but made an awful selection in Race 7 from Woodbine based on sentiment.

Surtsey scored for me at 41-to-1 last July in an online contest and was a long-shot in an 8-horse field where I thought Deceptive Vision was the best horse, even if a short 2-to-1 morning line.  Deceptive Vision lost by a nose, but Surtsey never really had a shot, getting hemmed in on the rail.  

The loss was only a $10 setback, but by then, and with the top two on the contest leaderboard already at $1,000-plus and $500-plus, I felt sort of drowning in the tide.

Strike 3

The nail in the coffin was my fifth wager -- $10 to win on 3-to-1 overlay Constantino in an allowance race from Woodbine (Race 8). 

In a 6-horse field devoid of early speed, I liked Constantino and figured he could dictate tempo and wire the field.

Two other bullish indicators, for me, were second time at two turns off a decent second-place finish on June 15 and top Woodbine jockey Patrick Husbands riding for high-percentage trainer Mark Casse.

All went according to plan as Constantino carved out slow fractions under scant pressure (three-quarters of a mile in a dawdling 1:13) until 2-to-1 Steel Dust Dancer got up in the final strides.  

Ballgame Over!

Down to $50 and deflated, I took some wild stabs with my last batch of selections, figuring I needed a big price to have a puncher's chance at a Top 2 finish needed to secure an NHC berth.

Yes I do, poet Dan Liberthon...
from "The Pitch Is On The Way"
In hindsight, that proved accurate as the winner and runner-up finished with respective bankrolls of $2,093 and $1,845. 

Regardless, I had a dreadful performance on Sunday, underscoring what with the exception of one Simulcast Series Challenge qualifier this winter has been a dreadful season in on-track tournaments.

On the other hand, as of this posting I am in 78th place of 1,279 remaining active players in Monmouth Park's Survival at the Shore online contest (with a "life preserver") to boot, so not all is lost.

Consistency, however, seems well out of reach and probably to be expected when entering contests off a sporadic work tab.

Next Up - Summer Freebies

In addition to Survival at the Shore, I will "refresh" my handicapping skills with more-daily online play, focusing on a select few races per day instead of jumping into the 8- to 10-race feeder-type tournaments on HT or now, which is cannibalizing the market with a similar "bankroll builder" concept that Horse Tourneys first perfected (more on the latter theme in a later blog post).

Other part-time players could benefit as well from two "freebies," in particular.

Public Handicapper remains a weekly option, offering its usual card of 4 notional win-bet races per weekend, and I would highly recommend any players (and NHC Tour members, in particular) sign up for the Del Mar 2014 Online Handicapping Challenge.

First off, top 2 finishers win berths and a travel stipend to NHC XVI.

Otherwise, NHC Tour points are awarded for strong performance. 

The Del Mar contest runs from July 17-September 4 and gives players up to $100 notional dollars per day to place a win, place or show bet (or combination thereof) on a pre-selected race each day.  This is a season-long bankroll building contest and one I have played for a few years.

Free past performances for the daily race are generally available on Del Mar's contest site, making for a seamless and fun experience, even for the casual player. 

Here's to getting back on the horse and maybe establishing some consistency as the NHC Tour moves into the second-half of its 2014 calendar.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Trainer Intent

I have never been a party to the decision-making that goes into placing a horse into a race, but a question posed during my latest stint as volunteer fan ambassador at Monmouth Park this past Sunday, and my glance at a particular entry on Friday card, prompted me to reach out to an owner friend on the topic.

During one of the educational tours that I organized on Sunday (contact me if ever interested), I was asked by interested handicapper Diane Skurat of Tinton Falls why Tannery scratched out of the $200,000 Grade 2 Monmouth Stakes. 

I could only speculate that either the horse had a short-term health issue or that Colts Neck Stables did not want to put its filly up "against the boys," opting instead for a softer race or all-female condition down the road.

This led to a discussion on how horses end up in particular races.  

Again, I have my theories, but coming up with the answer tends to be yet another component of the educated guesswork that goes into handicapping horse races.

Upon reviewing the first of three races for Friday's Survival at the Shore online contest, the placement of Lovefindsaway in Race 5 caught my attention.  

This 3-year-old Giant's Causeway maiden colt, making his third career start and first since January, is for the first time entered for a $20,000 "tag" (claiming) against six other betting propositions that, on paper, appear to validate Lovefindsaway's 3-to-2 morning line.

As reflected in the horse's two past performances, respected trainer Eddie Plesa placed Lovefindsaway into much more challenging spots against protected maidens ("maiden special weight").

Lovefindsaway finished fourth as the even-money favorite in his career debut at Monmouth last July but went to the bench, not appearing in a race until a fading fifth-place effort at Gulfstream Park on January 25.

The horse did not have a published work until six weeks later and has since clocked a half-dozen (in my opinion) uninspiring workouts.

In a betting context, I find 3-to-2 way too short and a clear "play against."

Instead, I selected 5-to-2 Justa Little Evil out of the hot Jorge Navarro barn.

Not a great price either, but I only identified 3 plausible contenders.

The field for Race 5 is middling and lacks significant pedigree.

Nonetheless, Lovefindsaway's connections are willing to sell their horse, purchased as a two-year-old at the April 2013 OBS sale for $120,000, for a bargain-basement $20,000 tag.

As a handicapper, the question I have about the huge class drop from protected maidens to claiming for Lovefindsaway becomes whether the horse is sound and the connections are hoping to steal an easy purse without a prospective buyer ponying up $20,000 to purchase a non-winning horse well off form, or if the owners just want to unload a horse that has under-performed his six-figure purchase price.

I respect and sought the advice of Robb Levinsky, founder and managing partner of Kenwood Racing, a very above-board partnership that hosts ownership seminars at Monmouth Park and, in my view, is refreshingly candid about the ownership side of the business.

On the handicapper side: 

"First, I agree with you that I wouldn't touch any horse with (Lovefindsaway's) form at what are likely to be short odds," Levinsky said.  "He's clearly capable of winning in a romp, but also clearly could get beaten as a heavy favorite.  I'd look to cautiously bet against him if I found another horse I liked."

In terms of intent of the connections:

"I can't really say without being part of that barn," Levinsky continued.  "I do know Eddie Plesa is a reputable, capable trainer.  If the horse wasn't safe to race I'm sure he'd not be in the race.  That said, obviously you don't run a horse that cost $120,000 for $20,000 for nothing."

For Lovefindsaway, Levinsky drew what I viewed as a suitable parallel to Lebron James, who had to sit out for key stretches of Game 1 of the NBA Finals against San Antonio with excessive leg cramping in 90-degree conditions at an AT&T Center with a broken air conditioning system.

"Virtually ALL athletes, human and equine, have issues.  Ask Lebron James," said Levinsky, "about the stress of high-performance competition.  I'm sure (the connections for Lovefindsaway) are looking to build confidence for both the owner and horse by placing him where he should be tough to beat.  That's smart."

We'll have a better idea of the ultimate outcome around a quarter-to-3, when Race 5 at Monmouth Park concludes and whether Lovefindsaway walks away with an easy $10,200 winner's take of a $17,000 purse AND their more-confident horse fresh off his first win, or someone who maybe saw Lovefindsaway as a 2-year-old at the April 2013 OBS sale sweeps in with a bargain claim.

Postscript to My Analysis

Once in awhile things go according to plan, as was the case with Race 5.

Justa Little Evil and first-time starter Uncle Chubb got the jump on Lovefindsaway out of the gate to finish first and second, respectively, while Lovefindsaway wilted to finish sixth of seven.

Interestingly, Justa Little Evil and Uncle Chubb were claimed out of the race for $20,000 apiece, while Lovefindsaway remains with owners Majestic Racing Stable and Laurie Plesa.

I generally do not have the time to go into handicapping claiming races to such depth, but keep an eye on future entries for these three to see where they land.

The lesson as a handicapper may be to put less stock in purchase prices.

The last two finishers in Race 5 cost $120,000 and $30,000, respectively, at auction, whereas the nondescript New Jersey bred first-time starter Uncle Chubb ran a game debut and appears somewhat promising.

Friday, June 6, 2014

An Ambassador and Samraat Kind of Weekend

A quick note, first, that I will serving as a volunteer racing "Ambassador" again this Sunday at Monmouth Park, so anyone interested in meeting up or has friends who want to learn more about what goes on at the track, how to read the race program, etc., please contact me on Twitter (@njhorseplayer) or email me and I'll provide my cell number.  

Otherwise, since a few friends asked, I will be more than happy as a huge thoroughbred racing fan for California Chrome to take home the Triple Crown, but as a bettor pored over the past performances last night and landed on Samraat as my upset selection

9 out of 10 Bollywood stars agree!
I have to admit that $20 of my wife's hard-earned dollars are already wagered on Chrome ($10 win, $1 exacta above the other 10 entrants), but likely in the wrong place in a rare gamble for Mrs. NJ Horseplayer.

As an equity research editor I recognize that past performance does not dictate future success, but in reviewing Belmont Stakes dating to 2007, winners by and large were within the top 5 throughout the race and a few lengths of the front-runner.  In addition, Da'Tara won wire-to-wire at 38-to-1 in the year that 1-to-4 Big Brown pulled up, while Paynter (2012) and Dunkirk (2009) almost won start to finish. 

Accordingly, there is precedent for the big shocker and a front-running type prevail at a mile-and-a-half.

Samraat, at 20-to-1, fits the bill and is a reasonable value, and in my opinion will be dismissed for wise-guy horses like Commanding Curve and Ride On Curlin, who turned in credible Triple Crown performances but seem far more comfortable well off the pace, which in my view will not work on Saturday.

Trainer Richard Violette was wise to rest Samraat after a taxing winter campaign that produced two Grade 3 victories and a hard-fought second in the Wood Memorial.  

I sense the connections simply took the shot at Kentucky Derby glory as many would, and subsequently skipping the Preakness was much needed.  The horse responded with a second best-of-15 work on May 18 and was stretched out with two 1-mile breezes in preparation for the Big Sandy.

The appeal, to me, in upsetting California Chrome is that Samraat, as shown in the Gotham, can turn on the jets out of the gate and then settle a bit to track a leader. Or simply take the lead and win at two turns, as in starts prior to the Gotham.  Plus, hot-riding Jose Ortiz (winner of Friday's Grade 2 True North on 9-to-1 Palace) has no horses between his and California Chrome to contend with from the gate, as runners 3-through-6 all appear to be slow breakers. 

I am dismissing potential early runners Tonalist (post 11 and another wise-guy horse) and maybe even General a Rod (post 10) as threats in light of their outside posts and questions I have about their class and fitness, respectively.  

Tonalist's win in the Grade 2 Peter Pan, to me, was against a weak field the week after all of the better three-year-old contenders ran at Churchill, while General a Rod likely needs a rest.

Accordingly, my hopes for Samraat hinge on two factors -- either getting the lead from Chrome and not relenting to him in the stretch, or forcing Chrome toward the rail, where in light of Chrome's picture-perfect stalking wins in the Derby and Preakness I have questions about whether he wants to run inside.  

In other words, better race riding than the outstanding stewardship that Chrome's jockey Victor Espinoza has shown thus far.  

Perhaps a tall order, but one I am willing to gamble. 

Ideally, Samraat will take a straight line out of the gate and force the outer "speed" horses wide, then squeeze Chrome toward the rail into the first turn. 

A stumble at the gate would kill my chances, but at 20-to-1 against 3-to-5, that's a given anyway.

My picks, in order, are Samraat, California Chrome and Wicked Strong.  

I have yet to place my Belmont Stakes wagers, but have already invested a meager $24 in the Pick 3 and Pick 4 culminating in the feature. 

Kaigun (15-to-1), in Race 10 (The Knob Creek Manhattan), is a key for me in the Pick 3 sequence to cash anything meaningful.  A close second to lawn wunderkind Wise Dan in the Makers 46 Mile in April and a game and hard-closing fourth in the Turf Classic on Derby Day signal to me this 4-year-old is vastly improving, and third off the bench can certainly keep moving forward on Saturday.

In Race 9, I expect Palace Malice to win but give Shakin It Up an outside shot at 6-to-1, anticipating the added eighth of a mile will suit this sprinter well, and he can close into any pace, as evidenced by winning the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita last December. 

I have no strong convictions about Race 8, the Just A Game Stakes, and went 5 deep.
  • $0.50 Race 8-11 Pick 4 Ticket: 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 over 1 over 1, 9 over 2, 7, 9 ($15 total)
  • $1.00 Race 9-11 Pick 3 Ticket: 1, 4, 13 over 9 over 2, 7, 9 ($9 total).
Good luck to all horseplayers on Belmont Stakes day, and be sure to reach out if you're at Monmouth on Sunday!