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.

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