Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Esquire Sheds Favorable Light on the Horseplayer

Symbolic of a fragmented industry with an identity problem, the only drawback to the fresh TV show Horseplayers is its relegation to the standard-definition "Siberia tier" of my Verizon FiOS system, somewhere between a 24-hour infomercial network and a host of curiously-named chick channels.

NJ Horseplayer:
Searching the TV tundra
for Esquire Network's
Otherwise, through two episodes, the Esquire Network has produced an excellent show that, at the very least, deserves placement on parent company's NBC Sports Network, already in its early stages bereft of mainstream sports programming (unless you give the NHL, English Premier League or "Total Gym for $14.95" the benefit of the doubt).

Give credit where credit is due.

Although real horseplayers have been pitched Horseplayers, the show, for what seems an eternity, the show's creators deserve much credit for providing a credible and extremely interesting snapshot into the lives of about a half-dozen real-word horseplayers.

Albeit sensationalized in parts (i.e. egregious factual errors on certain horses' odds, some seemingly staged emotions by the show's "stars"), Horseplayers is human interest, horseplayer education, sports and entertainment all rolled up into a need 60-minute weekly package.

The first episode had me riveted, introducing viewers to three sets of prominent horseplayers -- 2009 National Handicapping Championship winner John Conte, bohemian handicapping wunderkind Christian Hellmers, and New York trio "Team Rotondo," managed by Breeders Cup exec Peter Rotondo, Jr.  These are names I have seen on handicapping contest leaderboards and on Twitter at times, and Horseplayers gave a clearer glimpse of each of these characters.

In Tuesday night's second episode, I felt a little less "out of place," with the introduction of Matt Bernier, nearly half my age but himself a nascent NHC Tour player and handicapper.

Whereas the characters profiled in Episode 1 were high-bankroll types, most with decades of handicapping and betting experience and in the case of Conte $3,000 lighter after one tough afternoon at Aqueduct, Bernier got into the game in 2010, similar to my own experience.

It was interesting in a latter scene of Episode 2 to watch Bernier interact with the more-established handicappers at places like the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, where Bernier almost sheepishly referenced a $300 bankroll and made wagers (i.e. $30) more on par with my budget.

It was refreshing to see this on television, and equally important for people interested in getting into horse betting to know that a high-stakes player passes no judgement on another's wagering bankroll and is always willing to discuss strategy for the advancement of one's handicapping "education."

The top-level Horseplayer is open-minded, approachable, and interested in introducing people to this great game.

The overriding theme, as I see it, is that Horseplayers is the perfect tool for dispelling stereotypes of horseplayers as uneducated, low-hygiene degenerates who would bet their last cent on a race.  Maybe there are a few.

Rather, Horseplayers portrays a far savvier thoroughbred racing clientele -- Hellmers, the tech-savvy, analytic handicapper with an almost surfer demeanor; Conte, the son of an old-world bookmaker still willing to play the ponies and hit on HRTV analyst Michelle Yu; and Team Rotondo, a tight-knit family spearheaded by long-time horseplayer Peter Rotondo and his son, a bow-tied industry exec practically raised track-side.

Throw in the affable Louisianan Michael Beychok, the political consultant who claimed and subsequently retired the horse who solidified his 2012 NHC title, and Episode 3 teasers for the seemingly brash "Brooklyn Cowboy" Kevin Cox, and Esquire Network has found the winning formula for marketing the thoroughbred racing game in a unique and necessary way.

Face it.

Thoroughbred racing has few places to hang its hat and draw the public's interest.

Outside of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, very few Americans care about the sport, unless there's a Triple Crown involved.

Boutique meets such as Saratoga and Del Mar flourish for their resort appeal and extravagance, but otherwise the industry is a mish mosh of tracks with often thin and unappealing racing cards and weeknight racinos offering inflated purses for bottom-of-the-barrel fare.

The Breeders Cup is, hands down, the industry's best event, yet draws scant public or media recognition halfway through the NFL season and is probably even trumped by college football.

Horseplayers can achieve what marketers have long been unable to do to promote the sport to a broader audience, without the controversy of a show like HBO's Luck, which lived too short a life on the makers' insistence for using live racing action and was tied by media to the death of three horses during filming.

Much like the intriguing show Jockeys a few years back, Horseplayers penetrates peoples' homes (well, at least for those of us lucky enough to have, and locate, Esquire Network) and puts a face to the product, giving a bird's-eye view of people who support the sport financially.

A far more diverse, cultured and interesting group than one might expect, we the horseplayers keep the game going and are finally getting our due.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Wonky, To Say The Least

In discussion with a friend who has qualified for next weekend's National Handicapping Championship (NHC XV), he expressed comfort in handicapping some tracks that he regularly plays, such as Gulfstream Park, and classified others, such as Tampa Bay Downs and Golden Gate Fields, as "wonky" -- a term I have often equated to politics but seems appropriate for horseplayer parlance.

Certainly the term "wonky" is not meant to suggest that certain race tracks, or (broadly speaking) thoroughbred racing, by literal definition are "crooked" or "off center," but I totally got this player's point, and it got me thinking about Tampa, specifically, and how contest organizers need to be cautious about designating tracks to play for handicapping contests.

At stake in NHC XV is roughly $1.5 million, so every race outcome matters almost more than within the course of, say, an online bankroll-builder or small-dollar cash tournament.

All of the roughly 500 NHC XV contestants will be in the same boat, having to handicap an exorbitant number of races over 2-3 days, including many at tracks outside their comfort zone.

As contest players, we can all appreciate this scenario.

So much data, so little time.

The "wonky" factor raise some concern, however, as highlighted by questionable stewards decisions at Tampa within the past week.  This is not to knock the track's integrity, but having watched a fair number of races there and played the track for two recent contests (one online, another on-track), it seems to me there are more than the normal course of stewards inquiries and jockey objections at Tampa, almost to the point where I would rather avoid playing the track for inconsistent stewards' decisions.

Granted, I have no training as a race steward, but I watch enough racing to have an opinion.

Race 7: Wednesday, January 8

The No. 2 horse, Ziptomylu, takes the 10-horse maiden field wire-to-wire at a mile on turf and, after an objection lodged by the ultimate third-place finisher, Maggies Applause, is declared the winner.

Courtesy of, here's the replay.

In watching the replay for the first time, and without knowing the race result, I thought for sure that Ziptomylu would be taken down after moving 4-5 paths off the rail (with left-handed encouraging) into a fast-approaching Maggies Applause (41-to-1, I might add) and runner-up Bump Bump.  

In my humble view, the horse certainly impeded Maggies Applause and set off a chain reaction that led to another jockey filing an objection against Bump Bump for interference.

The stewards made no change without much explanation and even as the head-on replays seemed to indict Ziptomylu for interference.

Rewind To Race 5: Saturday, January 4

Apologies in advance, as I could not locate the full race video (here is the pan shot from 4NJBets), but based on the head-on replays shown during Simulcast Series Challenge #1 at Monmouth Park, it seemed the infractions in this race were not nearly as severe as Ziptomylu's in the aforementioned January 8 race.

In Race 5 on January 4, the stewards disqualified winner Lil Escape Artist for claims of "interference in deep stretch" lodged by Brian Pedroza, jockey of 19-to-1 runner-up Butterdish, and ruled Butterdish the winner by DQ.

To anyone who can find the head-on replay, and even based on the side angle of the stretch run, I challenge anyone to find what Lil Escape Artist did to Butterdish that was any worse than the alleged foul by Ziptomylu against Maggies Applause.  

Details in the steward's notes were terse, at best, further obscuring the DQ on Lil Escape Artist.

No Bias

The outcome of the January 4 race meant little to me (I had neither horse for Tampa Race 5, one of 30 carded for SSC#1), but provided the biggest winner to that point in a contest rife with low-priced winners.

I can accept defeat under any circumstance, and in fact did so last year in a race (from Tampa) where my horse, who went off at high odds, came out on the short end of a claim of foul.

However, with the stakes that much higher for an event such as NHC XV, contest players and organizers alike should be wary of tracks with a seemingly higher incidence of questionable stewardship.

Within the two-day sample I have provided, there were objections and/or inquiries in 4 of 19 races.

If anyone has the data to show that there are claims of foul in more than 1 of every 5 races per track, then my apologies to Tampa.

Until such time, however, let the two races from Tampa serve as a cautionary tale about picking tracks where the horseplayer will get at least a consistent shake in seemingly wonky stewards' decisions.

There would be nothing worse than to lose out on a $750,000 first prize as a result of a questionable race disqualification at a second-tier track.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Dog Ate My Homework

Long a student, I have never used the excuse.

I'm not a dog guy; like 'em, especially other peoples', but as I have said to many people (my wife, in particular), I'd just as soon had a few more children before becoming a dog owner.

My parents were never dog people, so I never had one growing up.
Photo courtesy of Harvey Mudd College

No canine at home to blame when I wanted to skip my schoolwork.

I just had to do my homework, plain and simple.

Now a student of handicapping thoroughbred horse races, and the handicapping contest circuit in particular, I still diligently set out to do as much homework as possible ahead of a major contest.

Time constraints keep me from spending hours in the video library watching race replays, but I can at least print past performances, lounge out on the couch or in bed at night and get a look at what's ahead.

I have come to the realization, however, that often homework does not matter.

Take my 0-for-10 performance in yesterday's first of 4 winter Simulcast Series Challenges at Monmouth Park.

My contest handicapping strategy is, was, and will almost exclusively rest on beating favorites.  This logic underpins virtually all of my handicapping preparation and is the premise for my 3-4 years of blogging about this niche of the thoroughbred racing industry.

Sure, there are times when playing the favorite makes sense, such as yesterday's final contest race (see below), but consistent with my professional employ as an small-cap equity research editor, my job is to try to poke holes in peoples' arguments whether or not to buy a particular stock.

Professionally, I'm talking equity research analysts.

At the track, it's the chalk players.

So, snowed out of my role as basketball coach for my daughter's team, and without a practice to run on Thursday night and a game to coach on Friday night (plus sitting through 2 of my son's games on Friday and Saturday), I set down to getting a beat on Saturday's contest card.

For those unfamiliar with Monmouth Park's SSC series, players have a $100 live bankroll (i.e. players keep any winnings) to spread over at least 10 races from Aqueduct, Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs.

The contest mandates are simple: to qualify for prizes, at least 10 win, place or show wagers (or combinations thereof) of $10 or more on races at any of the three tracks.  Top 20 bankrolls at day's end advance to the SSC Invitational (on Saturday, April 26 this year, with two seats to NHC XVI awarded), and Top 10 win cash prizes (from the additional $100 entry fee; total contest fees are $200).

Yesterday's winner turned $100 into $1,371 of profit, AND took home a $9,550 cash prize.  Actually, the same person played two entries, finishing 1st AND 2nd, turning $400 into nearly $16,000; not a bad day on a day where 191 participants turned out after a winter storm!

Deciphering 30 races is a tall order, which is what makes SSC so intriguing, in my view.

SSC players get to pick and choose which races to play, rather than most online contest formats where everyone has to play a series of 10-12 predetermined races.

I absolutely love this format, arguing that it puts a premium on bankroll management and patience.

The live-money format otherwise pokes a gaping hole in some NHC Tour players' criticisms about rivals who like to play long-shots, particularly in the online tourneys.

In SSC, I'm putting real money where my mouth is, not just taking stabs at huge prices (as detractors might argue) with notional $2 win-place wagers in hopes of getting lucky once or twice.

My selections are logical (at least to me) in all instances, whether in the SSC format or with online contests.

Based on the quality (or lack thereof) of the cards at Aqueduct, Gulfstream and Tampa, I had trouble going into SSC even finding 10 races I wanted to play (and I usually avoid the early races, on account that many are bottom-level claimers), but the first two from Gulfstream had suspect favorites, in my view.

SSC#1 Tasted Chalky
In the opener, a $12,500 claimer six furlongs on dirt, Dale Romans-trained De Price was set at the 5-to-2 favorite in a 7-horse field that scratched down to 5 runners and subsequently bet down to 3-to-2.

My choice, Skibo in July, took no action and went off at 14-to-1 off an 8-to-1 morning line, but was second off a layoff and cutting back in distance off a 1-mile turf race I perceived as a warm-up.  The low-percentage connections (relative to Mr. Romans and jockey Corey Lanerie) were not a detractor.  Jockey Luca Panici rode Skibo to victory in a $16,000 claimer at Gulfstream last July.

De Price is a 7-year-old with 18 in-the-money finishes in 29 tries and earned $228,700 for his career, and generally raced against much tougher company than the other four runners, but had not raced since last August in Saratoga and has won only four times.

I bet $10 to win on Skibo, hoping to knock off the prohibitive favorite but finished second, with De Price drawing off under urging for a 5-plus length victory.  In a deeper field, I might have made a win-place wager, but I knew Skibo, who beat the next-best runner by 4 lengths, would have paid little ($6) for place and passed on that hedge.

Race 2 from Gulfstream presented a similar scenario, with Jamaican Smoke sent off around her 8-to-5 morning line in an 8-horse optional claimer worth $62,000, but two other low-priced horses (3-to-1 Bear Tough Tiger and 4-to-1 Positively) made some sense.

Narvaez, off an 8-month rest and a fourth-place finisher in the 2013 Florida Derby, was an attractive and slight overlay at 9-to-1, so I bet $10 to win on her, only to finish a game fourth to Bear Tough Tiger, Positively and Jamaican Smoke.  

To avoid belabored race-by-race details, 8 of the 10 horses that beat me on Saturday were 3-to-1 or less.  The other two were 5-to-1 (Didn't Take It in Gulfstream 6...a horse I gave much consideration) and 8-to-1 (Naples Bay in Gulfstream consideration).

For my efforts, I ended up selecting two second-place finishers (14-to-1 and 5-to-1), two third-place finishers (6-to-1 and 9-to-1) and two fourth-place finishers (9-to-1 and 11-to-1).  The other four, including 24-to-1 Poetic Kid (my top selection on Public Handicapper), were duds.

Contest result: $0

Busted in SSC#1, but as karma would have it, a horse I really liked toward the end of the contest card, Nesso in Race 9 from Tampa (the $100,000 Gasparilla Stakes), won at 4-to-1 and capped a $108 exacta ($2 base wager) that I hit to halve my total losses for the day.

So not all was lost.

In the end, congrats to the contestants who finished in the Top 20 and advanced to the SSC Invitational in April, and especially those who scored with one of the few long-shots on the day, 19-to-1 Just Call Kenny, ridden by Jersey Joe Bravo in the 6-horse Spectacular Bid Stakes from Gulfstream (Race 10).

With two races to go, there was a 13-to-1 winner (It Takes Heart) that simply got the jump on everyone else to wire a bottom-rung turf claimer from Tampa (one level where I actually like front-runners on turf).

In hindsight nearly 24 hours later, I still would not have landed on this horse, identifying 3-4 other runners I thought had better gate speed.  Judging by the contest leaderboard as well, I sense few had It Takes Heart.

In the contest finale, Race 11 from Gulfstream ($35,000 maiden turf claimer), 3-to-5 Principessa Gina, on paper, looked and proved unbeatable, drawing away from the field to beat 91-to-1 Charanga.

I'm not sure how I would have handled wagering on the finale, and in all honesty would have probably stuck to my guns in attempting to beat the favorite but in no way selected Charanga.

Sitting, say, just outside the Top 20 on the leaderboard (20th place finished with $365), and knowing that really the brass ring in this case is making the SSC Invitational for a shot at two NHC XVI seats, certainly a well-placed $200 win wager on the chalk would be justified.

In the end, I would not have put my money on Principessa Gina, so I probably would have had a fruitless day regardless, but if nothing else, I learned that hours of homework often does not matter.

I just as well could have done zero homework (Red Rock or Bust's mantra yesterday) and met the same fate, but I would have certainly come away with infinitely greater regret than I do about yesterday's performance in SSC#1.

There are three more opportunities to qualify for the SSC Invitational, and Monmouth is hosting contests NHC-based contests this season and giving away 20 (of a presumed 500) NHC XVI seats, far more in years past (a topic I'll blog in the weeks ahead).

Sunday, February 16 is SSC#2, so there's some time to ponder contest prep.

As always, I'm open to suggestion and welcome all comments.