Friday, February 28, 2014

Bridge Jumpers Welcome

As a nascent horseplayer and subsequent blogger about thoroughbred handicapping contest strategy, I sometimes discussed, but only sporadically saw through, place and show wagering strategies in live-money tournaments at my home course, Monmouth Park.

Machismo often won out to taking the more-rational, conservative approach when betting a live long-shot. 

I found myself unable to consistently pull the trigger on conservative win-place, win-show or place-show wagers in several instances, sometimes on account of my low standing on the leaderboard and needing to make up ground, but more often than not out of arrogance for wanting to pick winners.

Handicapping is about picking winners, right?!

In hindsight, those blog posts were more a lamentation for making 10 win bets and watching (in one particular contest), say, 7 finish second and 2 finish third.  

Chronicling my misfortune was mostly a way to vent frustration over a host of tough beats on square prices.

The more I mature as a handicapping contest player, however, I have come to realize that employing a betting strategy focused on "minor awards" (track parlance for place and show finishes for horses) has its merits in live-money venues, especially when a "bridge jumper" gets involved.

Bah, humbug!
T.D. Thornton wrote a phenomenal piece last month for the Daily Racing Forum on the earliest-known bridge-jumper, "The Lady in Red", that goes into far greater detail and technicality (like Equinometry's take on so-called "negative pools") than I care to explore here. 

But, in simple terms, a bridge jumper wagers a preposterous sum on a horse to finish at least third in order to capitalize on the mandatory payout (usually 5%, or $2.10 on a $2 show wager) at most tracks.  

Heck, the idea is so in vogue that there's even a Twitter feed of Bridge Jumper Alerts!

Such wagers in West Virginia are even more lucrative, paying (per state law) 10%, and especially came into vogue when a horse named Jax and Jill hit the bullring at Charles Town, attracting $350,000 of show money (86% of the total win-place-show pool) in the 2013 Sylvia Bishop Stakes last August.

Jax and Jill, coincidentally, won that 5-horse race, paying $2.20 each to win, place and show, but two months later cost backers a bundle (prompting them to find the nearest bridge from which to jump) when she finished out of the money.  

As evidenced in the Equibase chart, the winner and runner up of that race each paid at least 60% more to show than place, with the show pool egregiously inflated by Jax and Jill.

Valuable lesson from Esquire's Horseplayers

The notion of settling for third is counter-intuitive at the track, or in any competition, as I see it. 

Daphne Zuniga:
The anti-"Sure Thing"
Professional track handicappers try to pick winners.  

At Monmouth, I always pay attention to potential long-shot winners that Brad Thomas has to offer.

Meanwhile, certain patrons cannot contain themselves, offering unsolicited opinions on their locks of the day to anyone within earshot.  

Rarely have I come across a hot tip on "sure thing" designed to make a 10-cent profit on a dollar. 

That's no fun.

Ask John Conte, the 2009 NHC champion and one of the six "stars" of Horseplayers, who found out the hard way in the latest episode of the Esquire TV show

"You bet a horse to win because it's all about getting the most money," Conte said as the camera rolled, explaining $250 win wagers on two horses in a 5-horse field in a contest race (the Fleet Treat Stakes) last July at Del Mar.

3 Horseplayers, 3 Scenarios

In the handicapping contest world, players can use show wagers not only to beat a bridge-jumper, but also to meet contest parameters, such as minimum number of wagers.  Monmouth's on-track contests, for instance, require at least 10 win, place or show wagers to qualify for prizes.  

Horseplayers underplayed the show-wagering angle until later in Episode 4, but in the case of The Fleet Treat, three players took vastly different approaches in a race where, according to Thornton's DRF piece, $440,000 (50% of the entire win-place show wagers in the race) was bet into the show pool on 3-to-5 favorite Doinghardtimeagain.

  • Conte, as noted, went for the gusto on Qiaona (14-to-1) and Warren's Veneda (15-to-1)
  • Christian Hellmers, looking to meet the contest mandate for minimum bets, wagered $500 on Doinghardtimeagain
  • Kevin Cox, presumably aware of the bridge-jumper on Doinghardtimeagain, bet $100 to show each on Qiaona, Warren's Veneda and 6-to-5 second choice Sweet Marini

Doinghardtimeagain finished fourth, rewarding Cox handsomely with a $2,720 profit as his horses all finished in the top 3.  On a $2 show wager, Sweet Marini paid $8.40, while second- and third-place runners Qiaona and Warren's Veneda paid a whopping $25.40 and $26.60, respectively.

Conte and Hellmers each lost $500 on their wagers, with Conte missing out on a $6,200 score had he wagered $250 each to show instead.  That would have been a significant score in the live-money tournament that provided the setting for Episode 4 of Horseplayers.  

The scene proved that even the best of handicappers have lapses in rational judgement. 

The Nearest Bridge is That-a-way!

The outcome of The Fleet Treat Stakes was far more on point in the wisdom of useful show wagering than Esquire's later portrayal of the Bing Crosby Stakes, where Horseplayers' producers and editors embellished a bridge-jumper situation on a horse named Comma To The Top, who did not hit the board.  

The above footage showed an enormous sum on Comma To The Top in the show pool, but based on eventual show payouts ranging from $6.60-$8.40, The Fleet Treat race provides far greater validation of the show-wagering strategy, in my opinion.  

Viewers of Horseplayers probably missed out on that subtlety, but no matter, as the silver lining is that they witnessed the unselfishness and true elation of horseplayers supporting one another in the contest setting -- a positive element the industry should play up. 

Taking the concept even further, look at the chart on this race from Mountaineer, where 1-to-5 favorite Nicole's Dream, in a race from 2006, won by six lengths but was disqualified to fourth place, presumably sending her show-pool supporters to the nearest bridge.  The 34-to-1 horse awarded first paid $71.20 to win, $23.20 to place and $109.20 TO SHOW!  Show payouts on the next two finishers were $25 and $43.60, respectively.

In sum, and based on a mildly successful show wager at Calder as chronicled in my last blog entry, I am finding that the show-wagering strategy is extremely useful in spots, but should not be relied upon as a central thesis to winning handicapping contest play.  

The drawback to the Monmouth Park contests is that players can only bet one horse per race, unlike the Del Mar tournament showcased on the latest Horseplayers episode, where players were able to bet the entire field against bridge-jumper horses.  

However, the nimble player should focus on show pools throughout contest play (I tracked show pools on my phone during my last Monmouth contest) in order to pounce on rare opportunities where bridge-jumpers have taken the first of hopefully two plunges.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Pockets of Strength

Sunday's Simulcast Series Challenge handicapping tournament at Monmouth Park produced not only a whopping $3 profit for my afternoon's work, but anecdotal evidence that the contest circuit is one of the few pockets of strength on the thoroughbred racing circuit.

Renovations at Monmouth kept me from my preferred perch in the quieter terrace dining room, but the sold-out downstairs simulcast parlor proved extremely lively and a welcome break from my erstwhile fortress-of-solitude mindset for contest play.  

Generally speaking, I keep to a few close friends at live contests but, contrary to my typical life, do not circulate in search of a social scene.  

I especially approach the live-money handicapping tournament with a business-oriented approach -- head down in the past performances and eyes on several tote boards and my bankroll in search of a contest win.

It's a lot to handle a contest card of 30-plus races at three tracks in a 5-hour window, which (along with the real-money wagering format) is what makes SSC the best puzzle on the NHC contest circuit.  To be sure, the cancellation of Aqueduct's card prompted the last-minute use of Calder as a third contest track.

Productive Handicapping

From a handicapping standpoint, SSC#2 was a relative positive, as I hit on 4 of 18 contest wagers and, generally speaking, avoided stupid bets (often my pitfall).  

I started strong, scoring a 7-to-1 overlay ($10 to win) on Sand Bandit in Race 2 from Tampa Bay Downs

Then, I channeled my past show-bet blog styling in the opener from Calder to increase my $100 starting bankroll by $22, scoring with $10 to show on Leonides Da Roma as a play against the bridge-jumper on 1-to-2 favorite Forest Friends, who unfortunately hit the board.  

So, two wagers in (of at least 10 required at the three contest tracks -- Gulfstream being the third), my bankroll was up to $177.  

Three wagers later, I upped that to $239 on a late-running victory by Sweet Afleet in Race 4 from Tampa at an 8-to-1 overlay on a $10 win wager.  

An 0-for-5 skid preceded my biggest and final win, 13-to-1 Glacken Road in the "feature" from Calder to run my bankroll to $313, good for a temporary placement in 13th of 277 contest players with at least a half-dozen contest races remaining.

Play or Stand Pat?

By this time, I met the contest mandate for at least 10 wagers and could have gone conservative, sitting on a $313 bankroll in hopes of a Top 20 finish.

Now, the Top 20 out of four SSC tournaments through April earn berths to the SSC Invitational on Saturday, April 26 and a shot at 2 seats to the National Handicapping Championship, but I was not sold (based on the rich SSC#1 contest leaderboard) that $313 would be enough to stay in the Top 20, so I set out for one more decent score that never came.  I liked Queen's Parade in the last contest race (finale from Gulfstream), but my $30 win/$20 place wager evaporated in traffic turning into the homestretch (contrary to the DRF trip notes suggesting this first-time ran like a nag).  

In the end, I finished 25th and turned a $100 starting bankroll into $203; 20th place was $281.20

I have no regrets not resting on my laurels at $313 and having taken a few shots at the top of the leaderboard and was duly satisfied that my good friend Terry Flanagan finished 15th to earn a spot in the SSC Invitational.  There are still two more contests for me to reach the Invitational.

Contests: The Way To Go 

Meanwhile, the player sitting next to me in the simulcast parlor generally kept to himself and was not participating in SSC#2, but shared a relevant observation that leaders in the thoroughbred racing industry may want to consider.

Regretfully, I did not get the gentleman's name, but he noted being a regular visitor to Monmouth Park for simulcasting and that Sunday's atmosphere was nothing like he was used to witnessing when the track is not running live racing.  It sounded as if this man had his own personal teller any weekday, making Sunday's atmosphere unusual. 

Terms like "ghost town" and "morgue" were offered, as were references to a dying industry, signaling that whatever it is that Monmouth was conducting on Sunday ought to become more of a recurring experience to revive interest in the sport of kings.  

In that light, it is pleasing to note that Monmouth Park will be offering 20 seats to next January's $1.5 million National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas (NHC XVI) -- or more than double years' past from the Oceanport, NJ track. 

Interestingly, however, only two will come out of the SSC contest series, which even in light of Sunday's turnout of 274 players would suggest better value later in the Monmouth Park contest campaign.

Consider the prospect of paying $200 per SSC (#1-#4) and $200 for the SSC Invitational (or $1,000 in total), the $400 super-qualifier scheduled for Saturday, August 23 alone offers exponentially greater value, offering 10 seats to NHC XVI, compared with just 2 through the multi-round format SSC Invitational.  

Based on a turnout of nearly 300 players for SSC#2, however, either there were a lot of contest handicappers needing a break from the winter doldrums and cabin fever, or the handicapping circuit is a notable area of strength in an industry in need of positive press about increasing fan interest. 

I know there are no other places I would rather work to earn 50 cents an hour. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Bright Moon Over NHC Tour

The enormous body of freelance study put forth by publisher Lenny Moon on NTRA's apparent lack of transparency on National Handicapping Championship (NHC) Tour operating costs, in my view, is worthy of an award (i.e., Eclipse) for enterprise writing, but is more likely to be cast aside by the powers that be as mere muckraking in an age of in-your-face social media.

Equinometry: Looking Out For
The Horseplayers' Interests
Which would be a shame.

Everyone that pens a blog is not some unqualified dolt. 

In my case, I am a former local sportswriter with a different profession and set of responsibilities today, who merely wants to articulate some thoughts and raise discussion on a beloved niche topic of horse racing; handicapping tournaments, specifically. 

Lenny, meanwhile, is as passionate an advocate for the horseplayer and the game as they come. 

Granted, there is a lot of garbage on the Web, but if you sift through the blogosphere, there are clearly select diamonds in the rough that add value to the discussion.

Transparency, Please

In Lenny's case, his trumpet blares for simple answers on the whereabouts of NHC Tour members' money, vis-à-vis annual membership fees and costs to enter thoroughbred handicapping tournaments. 

This is not the first time anyone has posed this question, or why the NTRA-sanctioned NHC Tour's $1.5 million annual national championship cannot pay out more to the players who actually fund the Tour.

Edward De'Ath, a former member of a Horseplayers' Advisory Committee to the NTRA (National Thoroughbred Racing Association, a not-for-profit trade group touting the interests of thoroughbred racing, from owners and breeders down the food chain to bettors), has called out the Association for dismissing horseplayers' concerns and even devaluing its own worth to member tracks.

Hell, as Lenny also shares with his readers, even my great friend and fellow horseplayer-turned-blogger "Red Rock Or Bust" (the erstwhile Terry Flanagan) questioned in mid-2012 the true value of an NHC berth.

The premise of these arguments is simple.


The "take-out," or what the horseplayer is willing to concede to the host of any tournament, is shrouded in mystery and in certain cases inflated, relative to conventional bets (i.e. win, exacta, Pick 4) made at the track, but should be clear to all paying customers (NHC Tour members, in this case).

To win a "seat" in the national championship, a horseplayer must pony up $50 to join the NHC Tour.

In Danny Noonan parlance from Caddyshack, when D'Annunzio wouldn't pay 50 cents to buy a Coke (after the boss raised prices because he was, ahem, losing money at the track), "oh, then you ain't getting no Coke. Know what I'm talking about?!"

The benefit of membership, far as I'm concerned, is solely the right to qualify for the national championship.

Membership Has Its Benefits?

Take this Sunday's Simulcast Series Challenge qualifying tournament (SSC#2) at Monmouth Park, which feeds into 2 NHC berths (but, ironically, could lose players who opt for a similar-cost rival tournament that is being staged online the same afternoon).

I can plunk down $200 to play for cash prizes and not be a Tour member, but I would miss out on the opportunity for 1 of 500 coveted seats to the NHC next January, or at the least some "Tour points" in the NHC Tour's yearly standings (the top 150 point earners qualify for the national championship).

As far as I am concerned, $50 outweighs the missed opportunity cost by a mile.

The other "benefits" of the $50 fee are much less a factor, as the supposed five "free" NHC qualifying tournaments sponsored by NTRA as part of my membership dues are almost impossible to win, and I do not perceive myself as a direct beneficiary of NTRA's lobbying efforts pitched to Tour members.  

Lenny's first published piece on the topic, "NHC: Show Me the Money", lays the groundwork for expressing the need for NTRA to be far more transparent about operating the NHC Tour.  Lenny's Excel spreadsheets alone are worth their weight in gold in terms of articulating the apparent devaluation of winning the prestigious Eclipse Award as Horseplayer of the Year, and his notion of NTRA turning the NHC Tour and, for example, into a profit center.

Validating Lenny's research, I have found to provide exceedingly better value (and convenience) for my online handicapping contest pursuits than, whose user interface and schedule are dated and rigid, when stacked up against other online venues.  A takeout five percentage points below NTRA's host online qualifying site otherwise increases's appeal.

The point on takeouts is embellished in Part 2 of Lenny's research: "NHC Qualifiers: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," where the thesis is that, broadly speaking, the NTRA and fellow NHC title sponsor Daily Racing Forum are moving toward a model that will not only monopolize the online contest circuit, but eventually maim on-track tournaments -- a cautionary tale earlier shared by De'Ath.

Necessary Discussion

The two (and soon to be three)-part expose on Equinometry, if nothing else, fosters frank and candid discussion on well-intended research across a host of consumers, including champion horseplayers and a key NTRA official to the anonymous poster.

Considering the nearly 30% year-over-year decline in NHC Tour membership (i.e., the $50 fee noted above) quoted in the ensuing discussion to Part 1 of the expose, the NTRA had better respond in a more-open format than tit-for-tat entries on someone's blog.

The appropriate step to take would be to spell out the financial parameters of the NHC Tour itself, whether within the NTRA's annual report or as an "off-balance sheet" presentation for member consumption.

The horseplayer is the NHC Tour consumer.

Without consumers, the product will cease to exist, and based on some of the commentary I read it seems that Tour members are looking elsewhere for their contest play, shrugging at the perceived prestige that comes with qualifying for and possibly winning the $1.5 million National Handicapping Championship.

For the time being, I'm still in the NHC game, but other, lower-takeout products are increasing in appeal, as exhibited by Lenny Moon.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Those Voices Inside My Head

In all facets of life, there are times where bits of seemingly random information or dusty recollections come to mind to help navigate us successfully through certain situations.

"A-HA" sort of moments, if you will.

Photo courtesy of
Such was the case today in a late-afternoon "bankroll builder" tournament that I won on  

I have to credit two outside sources for contributing to my success -- handicapper and blogger Lenny Moon's "Contrarian Handicapping Contest Strategy" in February's HANA Monthly (pages 4-5), and Tuesday night's episode of Esquire Network's Horseplayers

First, the setup.

On the heels of an 0-for-3 start of a 10-race contest card, in the fourth contest race I vaulted to third place in the 30-player field, scoring with 10-to-1 Profound in Race 7 from Gulfstream Park, giving me $30.20 of notional winnings (on mythical $2 win-place wagers).  

Three races later, I hit back-to-back winners (3-2 Chairman Garey in Race 8 from Gulfstream and 6-to-1 Pyrite Green in the finale from Tampa Bay Downs) to seize the contest lead.

With two races to go, Lenny Moon's advice first came to mind. 

Granted, Lenny's HANA piece was from the perspective of a handicapping contest player trying to skyrocket up the leaderboard, but by straying from his fundamental analysis and taking stabs at long-shots late in two particular contests, Lenny missed out on a National Handicapping Championship berth and $1,500 fourth-place payday. 

Atop the leaderboard with two races to go, I was the one with a target on my back, but Lenny's writings about his experiences proved valuable nonetheless.

Lenny posited that his reaction in the aforementioned contests was not abnormal for handicapping contest players, but maintaining a slow-and-steady posture of simply picking winners instead of reaching for prices would have been the sounder strategy.

I failed to hit the winner in the penultimate contest race, but identified three horses, at best, that had a shot to win Race 9 from Gulfstream and were bet appropriately, all going off in the neighborhood of 5-to-2 in a nine-horse field.  

In past situations, I would have taken a "defensive" posture, picking a long-shot as "protection" against someone trying to score a big number, but took Lenny's advice to heart.

Speak Logistics, my selection in Race 9, lost, but to one of the other two horses that made sense, therefore prompting little change in the contest standings ahead of the finale. 

Still holding a tenuous $3 bankroll leader over second-place contestant and NHC XI Champion Brian Troop going into Gulfstream Race 10, "The Team Rotondo Rule" immediately came to mind. 

Anyone who watched Episode 3 of Esquire's Horseplayers on Tuesday night saw Peter Rotondo Jr. make a critical mistake in the 2013 Belmont Park Handicapping Challenge, and should certainly empathize with Rotondo's situation.  All of us have been there as horseplayers at one point or another.  

Keen on a turf horse ultimately sent off at 16-to-1, Rotondo Jr. broke the "code" of his playing partners Peter Sr. and Lee Davis and switched to a different horse at the last minute, in the process missing out on a $34 winner that could have put his team in better position to win the contest. 

The takeaway from watching that piece, for me as a predominantly weekend horseplayer, was not so much about one's misfortune, but about simply sticking with one's convictions.  

I loved Malibu Blues, 12-to-1 on the morning line but bet down to 7-to-2 in an 11-horse $25,000 maiden claiming turf field.  

The nine players behind me in the contest standings were within $24 of my mythical $58.60 bankroll, so the outcome was wide open.  The players in 4th-6th were my biggest concern, frankly, because I figured neither would go with my horse because he might not pay enough to move these players into the Top 3.  

Players below them had to go with more-prohibitive long-shots, I thought, since all but two horses were reaches and I estimated had no shot to win Race 10. 

My inner "bingo player" (to coin a term used by Peter Rotondo Sr.) attempted to talk me off my top selection in search of better value elsewhere, and to play "defense" against trailers in the contest field hoping to hit a long-shot, but the Team Rotondo experience at Belmont set me straight and proved valuable.

Rather than switching off Malibu Blues, I kept to my horse despite the huge underlay, and Malibu Blues strode to victory to cap off a well-earned handicapping contest victory for NJ Horseplayer.  

In hindsight, even if I had switched as done so often in my contest history, I would have held third place (good for the same $225 site credit prize I won) by the skin of my teeth ($0.60), but it felt better to end the day strong by hitting 3 winners in the last 4 races, increasing my self-esteem and confidence as both a handicapper and contest player.

I have Lenny Moon and Team Rotondo to thank to some extent.  

In my quest to qualify for and someday win the National Handicapping Championship, Wednesday's outcome validates my bid to absorb as much insight as I can about handicapping and contest strategy, and to share experiences via this blog that add incremental value to your own handicapping contest play.