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


  1. Hey Bill:
    I was waiting for you to post something before I sent along my congratulations. As a part time tourney player myself I'll be rooting for you to get it done in Vegas against the big guns ( unless I manage to qualify before then...couple of more shots at Monmouth)
    Congrats again..
    Bill H

  2. I hope you make it as well, Bill, and thanks for the kind words. Hey, I saw on your profile you're a retired postal worker...which town? My Dad was in South Amboy until about 6-7 years ago.

  3. Great recap espec with the spreadsheet. A hearty congrats on an epic score! Will you be signing autographs at Monmouth this Sunday?

  4. Thanks Terry. It proved especially useful in mapping out final-week contest strategy. I wasn't sure whether it would yield any fruit, but alas it did. And, no, passing on the autograph session; more comfortable blending in for Sunday's upcoming contest and doing the ambassador thing

  5. HI I've been trying for 5 years and can see progress; thanks for your betting chart at DM, it helped to see that 5-1's don't compile like a 29/1 or two?! best wishes in LV,....THE CONTEST TODAY, ALL TURF, SHOULD BE GREAT FUN BYE

  6. Steven, I'm glad the spreadsheet helped. Trust me, it's nothing scientific, but in a 1-race per day contest, going into the final week I wanted to gauge potential trends and whether the 50W/50P strategy I used for all but the last week was sensible strategy or not. In general, I prospected horses in the 5-1 to 15-1 morning line range, and there were lots because, in my view, the bettors in California lean way too heavily toward the chalk. Most of the contest's chalk winners went decently below their morning lines, which as a contrarian seeking value played to my advantage and anyone who dismissed favorites.

  7. Entertaining blog, Bill. Thanks for posting. Looking forward to 2015 NHC. Perhaps our paths will cross.

    Stewart Winograd

  8. Bill - just got the NTRA email announcing your qualification. Congrats and well done! Hope to see you at Monmouth on Sunday...

    Scott Carson

  9. Thanks, Stewart and Scott!
    Scott, yes, I plan on playing on Sunday. I usually play in obscurity up on the 3rd floor at the TV bank. Let me know where you'll be and I'll stop by; figuring one of the teletheaters.