Monday, December 21, 2015

A Front-Runner To Vegas

On my flight home from a fun experience at the Lone Star Park handicapping contest on December 5 (recap to follow before year's end), and in subsequent conversations with friends on the NHC Tour, I resigned myself to turning the page on qualifying for this season's National Handicapping Championship (January 28-30, 2016) and focusing instead on next season's NHC.

Sincerely, I was content to cheer on my friends who qualified for next month's $2.5 million championship from afar, but I had a gut feeling this past Saturday about other events of December 19 and at the last moment entered the NHC qualifier on  

Saturday would be my day, I thought to myself that morning.

My CYO basketball team of 7th-8th graders had a really good week of practice and seems to be developing as at least a competitive second-year team in an established league, so as coach I rolled the dice on a full-court diamond press to cure our sluggish starts thus far this season.  

The boys responded, forcing several turnovers and jumping to a 10-2 early lead and winning 32-25.

Emboldened by our first win of the season in four tries, my mission for the NHC qualifier Saturday was to start fast as well.

I did so in the opener with 10-to-1 Little Popsie in Race 7 from Aqueduct to tie 32 others atop the leaderboard at $32.30.  

Popsie's early speed from a rail draw and no other $40k claimers of merit proved wise in a 5-length victory. 

In the third of 12 mandatory contest plays, I landed on another front-running type, 7-to-2 Financial Modeling, in a 6-horse stakes at Aqueduct with sexier names (Kid Cruz and Mylute among them) and watched him roll by 4+ lengths to gain $13.20 of bankroll.

Two and three contest races later, 5-to-1 Solemn Tribute and D'bunnyphone were nursed toward the leads of their respective races and vaulted me to the top of the leaderboard halfway through an event featuring six more races and three from FairGrounds, including two with larger fields scratched down to half their size, making it hard for my rivals to make up ground through enormous long-shots. 

Two "place" scores in the second-half of the contest were enough to cap my bankroll at $93.30 and a 5th-place finish of 519 contestants, securing my passage to Las Vegas next month.

Priceless Conversations, Valuable Friendships

In hindsight, I had some great discussions with friends on the NHC Tour last week (Paul Zerbst, Damian Sasso and Dan Camoro among them) that proved extremely valuable to Saturday's success. 

Foremost, however, was a pep talk of sorts from NHC XVI and BCBC qualifier James Timinck, an extremely talented contest player and handicapper who, as any true stalker would, scouts my play and noted that I had gone "too long" with the long-shots of late in small-dollar online tournaments.  

As anyone who has visited this site knows by now, my premise is to find playable long-shots; not to fish for huge prices and hope to get lucky, but maybe an 8-to-1 or 10-to-1 morning line runner who takes zero money but can win at a price.  I live to find inefficiencies in the market. 

On Saturday, I kept in mind James' observation that incremental scores of $7-$8 often are the contest players' friend, and so I scaled back my expectations a bit for which long-shots could win, especially in a month where I find the fields nationwide (outside of 2-year-old prospects) generally bottom-of-the-barrel and that horses who get the lead tend to score.  

To be sure, Saturday's race victors were almost exclusively on or near the lead and Little Popsie proved to be the longest-shot to win.

Grinding through small-dollar scores is normally not my recipe to contest success, but in doing so I accomplished my last-minute goal, which made James' advice all the more valuable. 

Lessons Learned

Outside of my enthusiasm for qualifying for the NHC for a second straight year, and getting to hang with usual playing partner (and first-time NHC qualifier) Terry Flanagan and reunite with some other great Tour players I met at last year's NHC, I can approach Vegas from a far savvier perspective.

I have been through the ringer once already, so to speak, and now know what to expect in terms of travel, accommodations and set-up/layout of the contest venue and format.

It's no longer that oasis in the desert.

Last year, I was more excited and almost content just to be there among the pros.

Next month, I will return to Treasure Island with a mindset of a competent handicapper looking to crack the Top 10% and return to Monmouth County with a larger prize. 

I also return to Vegas with a bigger bank of knowledge, gleaned from conversations with my newfound friends on the NHC Tour -- an extremely welcome and honestly unexpected byproduct of my $50 annual membership fee.  

There are others, like me, who compete part-time on the circuit but are excellent contest players and, first and foremost, quality individuals willing to help others succeed at the track.

Surely there are others with bad info or who will never take me (or other part-timers or long-shot players) seriously on the NHC Tour, but in my five years on the Tour I have become adept at vetting the advice and the personalities.  

Approaching Christmas, I am lucky and thankful to have found such a classy group of peers, so a tremendous "Thank You" to folks like those named above and the likes of Stephen Fitzpatrick, Marie Jost, Peter Pruzinsky, Josh Kamis and others so giving of themselves in shaping me as a better handicapping contest player. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Lone Star State of Mind

I am not afraid to think or act outside the box at times.

It's a necessity for part-time NHC Tour members, like me, who are competent handicappers but maybe constrained by budget and/or schedule; in short, those of us with full-time jobs, kids and other obligations that keep us from entering every single handicapping contest on the planet.

Consistent with my core premise for finding playable long-shots, and thanks to a horse named Kenjisstorm, I am rolling the dice on 2 final qualifying events in a last-ditch bid to qualify for Vegas, including a qualifier halfway across the U.S. on Saturday, December 5.   Certainly not high stakes, I'm gambling around $300 (total) on me posting two decent contest results.  

NJ Horseplayer hitting the road
for December 5 NHC qualifier
in Texas!
To me, it's a lower-risk (and more fun) proposition than, say, similar entry fee tournaments on where, for one, I hate the outdated contest interface and, two, I am likely to face full-time sharks who have already dual-qualified for Vegas and are playing for Tour points and cash. 

Last week, I vaulted up the standings of the current Del Mar 2015 Bing Crosby Season Online Challenge to end the week in 91st place (of 2,495 players) by virtue of Kenjistorm's dominant win in Friday's contest race at 23-to-1 odds.  

With four races to go in the Del Mar contest, I probably need a fortuitous score on a long-shot or (less likely) run the table in the closing week to crack the top 2 for an automatic NHC berth.  Otherwise, a Top 100 finish would net me around 2,000 points to push me toward 5,000 in the Tour standings -- good enough to keep my NHC dreams alive via a Top 150 finish.

I'm figuring it'll take around 8,000 NHC Tour points to crack the Top 150 of the standings, and so I'd need to find another 3,000 points to have a puncher's chance at reaching Las Vegas.

Strategically and budgetarily speaking, I needed to find spots that fit my mindset.

So, in addition to the final NHC qualifying tournament of 2015 on this Sunday, November 29 (up to 5 spots up for grabs at a $155 entry fee), I have already entered and booked my passage for the "Last Chance" NHC qualifier at Lone Star Park outside of Dallas, TX.

The latter might appear to be a ludicrous choice considering that I live in New Jersey, but credit the management at Lone Star Park for the free entries for all Tour players (and rewards card members) to next Saturday's season-ending tournament...and to American Airlines for same-day nonstop flights from Newark to Dallas for around $130. 

As far as I can tell, Lone Star Park is still accepting entries for the December 5 tournament.

So, on Saturday, December 5, I'll be flying to Grand Prairie, TX to compete for 1 of 2 NHC berths against horseplayers in the Lone Star State and to check out a new track in my life's travels.  

The rationale is simple.  

I am unavailable in the final live qualifier in my area (Monmouth Park on January 2, 2016), and candidly, it costs me less to fly to Dallas in one day to compete compared with a like offering at the track 15 minutes from my house (Monmouth's Jan. 2 tournament costs $200).  

Wish me luck!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Friday Breeders Cup Picks

As I'm not a public handicapper, but want to air out my picks so that when I cash for stacks I can point to this and say "a ha!"

Anyway, consistent with history, I'm sticking to a $50 bankroll on Friday.  Stellar Wind is my top selection among the four races and I think she can take the Distaff as she got a brutal trip in the Oaks back in May and, in my view, is clearly talented and a great value at a 12-to-1 morning line.  

Otherwise, I like Valid in the Dirt Mile and think Liam's Map is a "play against."

Race 6: $2 double 7 with 9, 10 = $4
Race 6: $1 exacta box 7, 8, 9 = $6
Race 6: $0.50 Pick 3: 7, 8, 9, 12 with 3, 9, 10 with 4, 10 = $12
Race 6: $0.50 Pick 4: same as above but with 9 as a single in final leg = $12
Race 7: $5 exacta box 9, 10 = $10
Race 9: $1 exacta box 1, 7, 9 = $6

Good luck to all, and I will blog my Saturday picks tomorrow. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

NHC Qualifying Season Winding Down, But Del Mar's Fall Freebie Worth A Try

NHC Tour players like myself still looking to qualify for the $2.5 million National Handicapping Championship or simply pick up NHC Tour points are running out of opportunities to make it to Las Vegas in January 2016, but there's a great no-cost online tournament about to set sail this Thursday.

In conjunction with the 2015 Bing Crosby Meet at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club from October 29 through November 29, the track is offering 2 slots to the 2016 NHC through an online handicapping tournament that's akin to its summer tournament that attracted nearly 5,000 players.

Whereas most of the NHC Tour world is focused on this weekend's Breeders Cup Championship, players need to remember to sign up for the Del Mar fall contest by Thursday in order to be eligible for the top prizes in addition to NHC Tour points that will be awarded.  No late sign-ups.

Only 1,260 players have registered to this point, but I anticipate the final number of entrants will at least approach 2014's of nearly 3,500 players.  Hey, for me, the fewer the merrier in my bid to qualify through a Del Mar online contest for a second-straight season. 

In my view, Del Mar is providing a unique and great service for Tour and non-Tour players alike in offering two expenses-paid trips to the 2016 NHC in Vegas.

The contest format is unique, too, in that players are required to make at least 10 (of 22 possible) mythical bets of $100 each on 20 races (1 per day) run at Del Mar and 2 at this weekend's Breeders Cup (the Distaff on Friday and the Classic on Saturday). 

Win, place and show (or any combination thereof) are the only "wagers" offered, and there are no restrictions on the number of horse per race that can be "bet."  

For instance, if you are torn between American Pharoah and Beholder but are intrigued by 30-to-1 longshot Effinex in the Classic, you can split your $100 bankroll on Saturday between the three in any combination of win-place-show. 

A running bankroll is kept throughout the Del Mar season and updated daily.  

In short, you start at zero dollars and rise or fall in the standings based on your daily outcome.  If you hit a $10 winner (4-to-1 odds) on Day 1 on a $100 win bet you'd be at +$400 ($500 minus $100); lose your first bet and you start Day 2 at -$100.  Go 0-for-22 and finish tied for last at -$2,200. 

There is no exacta, trifecta, superfecta or any other kinds of "exotics" wagering; the emphasis, really, is to pick winners.  From past experience, I find that you'll need at least a handful of long-shots to have a shot at winning, so roll those dice. 

For more information or to register, visit the contest website or contact contest coordinator Chris Bahr at  Good luck to everyone that enters!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Stay Composed When Handicapping Contests "Get Late Early"

I have marathon experience, having slogged through New York City's 5 boroughs 3x in my life.

My average time was in the 5-hour ballpark, which is why I equate thoroughbred marathon stakes races to bottom-level claimers, since citing my own pedigree and lack of breakaway speed one does not need to be a sprint champion of any sort to get to the marathon finish line.

Handicapping contests are similar and require a mix of guts, self-belief and patience.

Later this afternoon I will be competing as 1 of 66 entries in the NHC Qualifier on, with 2 berths to January 2016's NHC in Las Vegas up for grabs.

I earned my $295 entry with a 3rd-place of 46 in Wednesday's $22 pre-qualifier.

Two Keys

I am picking up experience with time, but not a proficient enough pedigree player to be extremely confident in maiden special weight races with several first-time starters and especially two-year-olds.

In Wednesday's 5th race from Belmont, however, Trappe Shot first-timer Trappe Play seemed appealing based on my nascent knowledge of pedigree.  I recall her father's greatness in 1-turn races and, especially, his gutsy loss by a nose to Sean Avery in the 2011 Vanderbilt Stakes.

Trappe Play was confidently handled from a wide post (#10 of 12) by Jose Lezcano in a 6.5-furlong sprint and scored an easy 2.75-length win at nearly 14-to-1, yielding $42.20 of win-place bankroll to vault me into fourth place at the time. 

Plainview's win in Race 6 thrust me into third and, fortunately, no one near me in the standings hit the $19 winner in the contest finale, so luckily I held onto the final prize for Friday's $295 NHC qualifier.

The ultimate key, however, was patient handling -- a concept I have touched on past writings but, sometimes, is easier said than done.

In the opener of Wednesday's contest (the full Belmont Park card), Sol the Freud stole the race at nearly 10-to-1,  Four of the 46 contestants had Sol, while several of us picked up $3.30 of place money on Be a Hero but were already $26.70 of bankroll behind the leaders, 

Granted, there were 8 races remaining on the card, but with some thin-ish and chalk-looking fields, I could not argue with players reaching for prices earlier than planned.  I stuck to my guns with horses I liked in the 4-to-1 to 6-to-1 range, landing a place in Race 3.

"I do believe some players tend to respond to missing an early price with an immediate swing to tray to match, not unlike a football team ditching its running game upon being down 14-0 in the first quarter," said Terry Flanagan, my friend and first-time NHC qualifier by way of the $200 Monmouth-Woodbine Challenge on September 20

Josh Kamis, of nearby East Brunswick, NJ and a 2015 NHC qualifier through Derby Wars, generally does not ditch his ground game after a sizeable early score by his opponents.

"After being down what seems to be insurmountable in any contest, you really need to take a deep breath and relax," said Kamis, also a guest blogger with The Tournament Edge.  "Yes, I've written about hitting tilt, but you really need to stay calm and keep to your guns.  You still have bullets left."

Channeling Yogi

Flanagan and Kamis are in agreement when players find themselves in a similar situation midway through or in the closing stages of a handicapping contest.  

"Of course you'll need to recalibrate along the way,"  Flanagan said.  "If it's 3-4 races after the early price you missed and you haven't made up any ground, you should probably start price-shopping.  As the late Yogi Berra might say, it can get late early in contests."

Off line, I have spoken at some length with Kami about contest preparation. 

Josh is a proponent of handicapping contests from back to front, giving him foresight to long-shots later in the card that make more sense, rather than (in an early deficit) prematurely tossing aside logical, shorter-priced plays and incremental bankroll gains that could build to that decisive long-shot score in the later stages. 

"Let's say a 10-race contest (you're) down $30 after one race...there are 9 races to go!," said Kamis.

"With that, I can relax and tell myself I have 2 possible long-shots and a few mid-price chances.  I like my chances to come from behind and cash some way in the contest.  By picking up $10 per race, in my mind at least I should be OK in the end with at least a chance, and that's all I can have a chance," Kamis continued.

After wrapping up work Friday, I get the chance to test my patience in a field rife with several multiple qualifiers (i.e. players playing 2 tickets) and where 13 races (Belmont 6-10, Gulfstream 6-10 and Churchill Downs 8-10) afford enough of a cushion to stick to my guns if other players hit a big price early in the contest.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

NHC Freebie Contest Goal: Hit 2 Cappers

Seriously folks, my post this morning is not out of crankiness because of Rutgers' last-second defeat to Washington State last night (the chicken and beef gyro/Greek tailgate kicked some tail, BTW)...

Nor that the NHC Tour put another of its five "free" members-only contests on the day of a live Monmouth Park contest -- the final one of its season, and where I will be spending this afternoon but had to quickly 'cap another 7 races outside the 23 races at Woodbine and Monmouth...

Nor that rain washed all races off the turf at Belmont...

Nor that I finished in the bottom 10% of the Del Mar Summer Handicapping Challenge and was nowhere close to defending my 2014 co-championship...

It's more out of the quality (or lack thereof) of races on today's 10-race program for No. 4 of 5 National Handicapping Championship (NHC) Tour "free" contests, open to all Tour members and offering four spots to the $2.5 million NHC in Las Vegas in January. 

The fields are mostly deep, but let's face it...pretty bad.

And, again, Belmont's off the turf.

Nonetheless, I find that it presents a great opportunity to take some shots on outsiders against morning-line favorites that, in my view, are nothing special.

My goal this afternoon (and assuming my top picks do not scratch) is to hit 2 of my bomber selections in the NHC Tour freebie and pick up some Tour points.  Otherwise, I do not put a ton of effort, admittedly, into a 1-day contest with 2,000 players; it's not worth a ton of my time.

Here is a look at the horses I entered as top selections for the NHC Tour freebie.  Tour members can still sign up here before first post of Race 6 from Woodbine around 3:30 p.m.

Woodbine 6: #7, Aldous Snow (8-1), is bound to sit closer to the front in a seemingly pace-less field and was not in as good a form going into last year's Grade 1 Northern Dancer; has a good shot.

Belmont 6: #11, You Lie (20-1), has early foot as evidenced two back at non-winners of 3 lifetime and broke her maiden over a sloppy Gulfstream track.  Off the turf and with a field scratched down to 5 runners, I hope to get 7-to-2.  

Churchill 7: #8, Trawee (20-1), seems to be improving, but I use the term loosely in a bad $5,000 starter allowance field, and I like that 3 back she was game against $25-$30k beaten claimers where she finished second at an elongated sprint distance.  No shoe-in, but facing a 9-to-5 favorite who has beaten up on fields at Thistledown and Something-Or-Other Valley.

Belmont 7: #7, Second City (30-1), is live, in my opinion, off a game effort last out vs. similar at Saratoga and has won before with Kendrick Carmouche aboard.  Worse long-shots than this one, especially for a gelding with a win over an off surface.

Belmont 8: #9, Saratoga Dreamer (10-1), WAS my top pick anywhere until scratched from the Allied Forces, so I will side with #5, Conquest Tsunami (12-1) in a race shortened to 5 furlongs, as I figure any horse tried in the Delta Jackpot (a tight bullring track) has enough speed to maybe surprise #8, Ready for Rye, whom others will view a shoe-in at 9-5 morning line.  Taking a stand against.

Churchill 9: #3, Emmajestic (6-1), was overmatched two back on the same oval against $75,000 optional claimers and drops down even more from Grade 2 company at Indiana Downs to an easier condition and very evenly-matched field.  

Woodbine 9: #2, Button Down (12-1), cuts back three-eighths of a mile and faces tougher here, but I'd take Joel Rosario over Luis Contreras any day and I sense this 4-year-old filly gets a nice stalking trip and can fire late, similar to her maiden-breaker in May. 

Churchill 10: #12, Renn Lake (30-1), faces awful $5,000 claimers here and returns to the site of his best speed figure (November 2014).  The last two efforts show, to me, that against this field Renn Lake will at least be game, as evidenced by in-the-money finishes in 50% of his 20 dirt starts.   

Belmont 9: I loved #7, Constantine (20-1), but with the field scratched down to 5 horses and off the turf, I take a shot at "front-running" #9, Majestic Guy (30-1) for VERY low-percentage connections but where the horse's lone win was on a sealed sloppy track. Play at your own risk. 

Woodbine 10: #2, Grand Arch (6-1), is my top pick in a Woodbine Mile that, in my view, is merely so-so.  I tossed half of the field (3 thru 5 and 7 thru 9) and simply figure Luis Saez will cleanly stalk rail horse Obviously and win a Grade 1. If my earlier picks are flops, I might switch to #6, Tower of Texas (15-1) at a price but am sort of spooked by his late collapse in his last out at Woodbine. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

From Out Of The Clouds

To quote Rambo, "nothing is over."

So I'm not being hunted down in a small mining town.

Rather, I am relaxing on a deck after a 5-mile run and sipping coffee while writing to you a few hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean on Long Beach Island on a gorgeous Jersey Shore midweek morning.

This morning, squarely in 3,793rd place in the Del Mar 2015 Online Handicapping Challenge and despite my state of relaxation (and perhaps delusion), I refuse to believe I am out of the contest.

More contest players need to take this approach.

Play (and handicap) to the end, I say, rather than losing complete interest or tossing darts at horses with little chance of winning.

NJ Horseplayer agrees; "You just
don't turn it off."
Find a playable long-shot and take an educated risk.

11 Races To Go

There is plenty of time to make up ground; maybe not to repeat as one of two champions in 2014's tournament for spots in the National Handicapping Championship, but perhaps to come away with a Top 200 finish and secure some points in the NHC Tour standings.  

Right now, for example, 200th-place in the Del Mar contest only has an $1,100 bankroll.

According to the NHC Tour points calculator, 200th is worth nearly 2,000 NHC Tour points; not a bad haul considering the field of nearly 5,000 players.

Granted, I am $810 in the minus, but in this contest format, where one good longshot gets me back to the plus side and the cap on winners is 30-to-1, a $1,900 deficit (to 200th) is not insurmountable.

Now, Wednesday's contest race is not entirely conducive to a cap horse.

The contest organizers picked as today's contest race the $80,000 Brubaker Stakes at a mile on dirt and featuring only 7 horses (sans potential scratches and most horses here better on the turf).

Contrary to 2014's wide open contest races, this year's contest has featured thinner fields, but handicappers need to play the race(s) in front of them, and so I will follow the flock.

So far in the hole, I cannot sit out the race, but my goal is to end this week on the plus side of the ledger and surge to a positive bankroll, perhaps giving me a shot in the contests final six races over next week, culminating in what I am guessing will be the Del Mar Futurity on Labor Day (Sept. 7).

Including today's mythical $100 wager, I can easily make up $810 this week; or that's my goal anyway in playing this contest through the end.

Safety Belt Makes Sense

The Brubaker is not a great race.

The 2-to-1 favorite, Motown Man, is clearly the most accomplished dirt horse in the field.

On dirt, Motown Man boasts 4 wins and 5 in-the-money finishes in 13 lifetime starts and has amassed $276k of lifetime winnings on the surface for trainer Ted West.  The horse has a Cal-bred stakes win to his credit at today's one-mile distance.

There are come chinks in the armor, however, as I see it, in that more of the horse's wins are at the optional claiming and allowance ranks, and in my view he benefitted from a dream trip in his last win at Del Mar on July 31.  Otherwise, this is no 2-to-1 world-beater.

Second-choice Big Cazanova is 5-to-2 and a need-the-lead type who is the only frontrunner in the field, in my view, but is 1-for-15 lifetime in dirt starts and will be overbet as the pacesetter and with a 3-for-3 record at Del Mar (albeit all on when the track had a synthetic surface).

And do not let the perceived class plunge for Big Cazanova fool you; save for a graded stakes win on the horse's favorite surface (synthetic), the horse has been largely overmatched.

Co-third choice (4-to-1) Smooth Roller is a 4-year-old Hard Spun gelding making only his third career lifetime start, but 2-for-2 lifetime (both on dirt) and I anticipate will take money.

For long-shot players, this leaves few options among the other four, who are a combined 0-for-10 in races on the dirt, but for my money there is appeal in the rail horse, Safety Belt.

The 12-to-1 morning line in my view discredits a 6-year-old who at the end of his 2014 campaign nearly ran down multiple stakes winner Regally Ready in the $75,000 Big Bear Stakes at Santa Anita at a whopping 50-to-1.  Please excuse the grainy video, but in that replay note the late kick by Safety Belt in the stretch, and consider the horse had a very strong gallop-out.

In making his first start of 2015 for 0-for-31 (2015) trainer Ron McAnally, I suspect that bettors will be chilly on Safety Belt, an Argentine whose two wins in 2014 were on turf against optional claimers.

Plus, the horse's seven works since June 18 have all been on turf, signalling that this horse will be perceived as a field "filler" in what on paper looks to be a race to be had by one of the three top choices.

As a longshot player, I relish angles such as this where, in a short field, there's a chance of a horse being set off as the longest shot, but for no great reason.

There's enough in the Big Bear to make the case for Safety Belt, and so I am playing him ($100 to win) in today's Del Mar contest race and hoping to upset the applecart early this week en route to a return to a positive bankroll by week's end.

Exemplifying with my comments to Josh Kamis with The Tournament Edge, here we have what I perceive to be a vulnerable favorite and a long-shot (Safety Belt) with three in-the-money finishes in five lifetime dirt starts, and who showed some late foot against a dirt stakes field last fall.

All that jockey Felipe Valdez needs to do with this horse fresh off the bench, in my opinion, is save ground and sit just off the front-runners ahead of a late bid in the stretch.

Perhaps a stretch, but one worth taking with less than a dozen races remaining and significant ground to make up in this handicapping contest.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Primetime Churchill Case For Pharoah's Final Breeders Prep

Fanning speculation is a compliance no-no in my real line of work (equity research), but as the blogosphere is free game and handicapping horses involves elements of guesswork anyway, I have no reins in projecting American Pharoah's next race in preparation for the Breeders Cup on Halloween.

Call it a wild guess, but I'm saying American Pharoah will run on Saturday, September 19 at Churchill Downs, contrary to comments by owner Ahmed Zayat published Tuesday by the Courier-Journal's Jonathan Lintner that he'd prefer the Travers if his horse is sound.  

Here Me Out

The Asbury Park Press's Steve Edelson, who has covered pre- and post-Haskell 2015 masterfully, in my view, already articulated Monmouth Park's desire to bring Pharoah back to Oceanport for at least a $1 million under conditions dictated to Mr. Zayat.

Reading between the lines of Mr. Lintner's story this afternoon, however, a comment by Mr. Zayat about money not being the issue presumably eliminates the Pennsylvania Derby at PARX and, in all likelihood, the horse's return to Monmouth Park, as I see it.  

Haskell 2015 was very special to most who witnessed it, but my non-expert opinion is that a return could be a letdown and not as interesting a proposition to customers, who in the New York metro area are thinking NFL, college football and carting their kids from soccer game to soccer game.  

Photo from Courier-Journal
If 30,000 came out for a parade,
imagine how many would watch
American Pharoah race again
under the lights at Churchill
And using the movie business as a parallel, sequels frequently bomb, so I think a mid- to late-September return to Monmouth loses its luster as average attendance dips after Labor Day. 

Scratch Saratoga and California

I get the whole prestige thing with Saratoga and Del Mar, but my gut tells me the connections are interested in maximizing their opportunities for publicity and money with Pharoah before he goes to the stud farm following the Breeders Cup.

Similar to a boxing champion, I think they'd also be entirely justified (whether perceived or not) as ducking the challengers du jour, Texas Red and Frosted, in a potential Travers match-up.  

Mr. Zayat's comment on money otherwise underpins my contention that the extra $600,000 to sweeten the pot to ship Pharoah to the Spa would not be an overriding factor, much as it will not be in sending Pharoah to PARX or Monmouth instead.  

Made-For-TV Event The Key

I like to bet long-shots, and so I'll make such a pitch here that there are two major parties to the equation -- Churchill Downs and NBC -- that make Churchill, in primetime, viable on Saturday, September 19 and American Pharoah's best option for a final prep.

If you look at horse racing as a broader marketing vehicle, and NBC's stake in the mix as the Breeders Cup network, I think sending Pharoah to Saratoga or Del Mar does nothing to enhance the horse's brand or anything more than a slight ratings bump, at least in the case of the Travers, run in the late-afternoon on a Saturday in late-August when a lot of folks are on vacation.

Perhaps I am too cynical, but I absolutely think television exposure is a big part of the equation, and the Travers lacks the brand equity to intrigue Mr. Zayat.  

Ties That Bind To Churchill

Now, think back to Triple Crown season, when Pharoah shacked up at Churchill Downs before the Belmont and after, then paraded in front of 30,000 there on June 13 in an NBC telecast

Churchill is clearly American Pharoah's home away from (California) home and the fans in Louisville are hungry for this horse and the sport, as evidenced by the whopping 24.4 rating and 44 share for Belmont Day -- by far the top viewing market in the nation that afternoon.

Combine a track that can accommodate 100,000-plus people and Churchill's financial heft as a publicly-traded entity, plus the potential for NBC to promote the track's already scheduled "Downs After Dark" and probably to quickly create and finance (and draw decent horses to) a race under the lights featuring the Triple Crown champ and heads would turn.  

Such an option, in my outsider position, would appeal highly to these connections, especially since that date is also just about halfway between the Haskell and the October 31 Breeders Cup, or "less squeezed" and taxing a schedule on Pharoah if, say, entered in late August for the Travers and perhaps a tune-up race in late September/early October.

Picture This

No matter what you're doing on the afternoon of Saturday, September 19, you cannot wait to get home from your kids' sports, family function, college football tailgate (yes, we do that here in New Jersey with Rutgers) or from whatever else you're doing that morning and afternoon and put your feet up on the couch and flip on American Pharoah's final prep race before the Breeders in primetime.

NBC already draws eyeballs on Saturday afternoons, so the Notre Dame crowd already tuned in for the 3:30 p.m. (ET) tilt vs. Georgia Tech might stay put just a little longer to catch a glimpse of the dynamic Triple Crown winner's return to Louisville, Kentucky...just down the road from where presumably he will cap off his illustrious racing career in Lexington on October 31.

American Pharoah would not need to ship from California to Saratoga back to California and potentially somewhere else in September in search of another prep for the Breeders.

Much as I dislike several things about Churchill Downs as a fan and horseplayer, from the high takeouts to the well-publicized treatment of Secretariat's jockey, Pharoah's home away from home, in my view, makes a lot of sense, or perhaps is just a pipe dream in hopes of getting new people interested in watching the sport and enjoying the greatness of this champion horse.  

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Outcasts To Use In The Haskell

Handicapping the 2015 Haskell Invitational sort of got me thinking about the OutKast lyric "throw your hands in the air and wave 'em like you just don't care" from '90s hip-hop standard ATliens.

As a horseplayer and passionate Monmouth Park fan and New Jerseyan, I absolutely care about the historical significance of the event because I love horse racing and pray for a half-decent contest on Sunday

Candidly, however, substitute "past performances" for "hands" and there's my sentiment about this year's field.

Might as well just toss 'em in the air.  Pitch 'em.

Past performances of this year's field, or the hieroglyphics, if you will, tell us the story of not-of-this-world American Pharoah and a band of ragtag followers.

Now, I'm no visionary, but American Pharoah crossing the finish line first by several lengths difference will not be a mystery.

The mystery is building a profitable ticket for Race 12 on Sunday with a short-priced favorite, which I hope to do here with a look at the 2015 Haskell Invitational field, first ranking the field, in my view, from top to bottom.

#4 American Pharoah (morning line odds: 1-5):  The only way Pharoah fails to run the field off its feet is if he stumbles out of the starting gate and gets pinched inward by #5 Mr. Jordan or has such a bad start (i.e., takes a bad step) that Victor Espinoza completely pulls Pharoah out of the race for preservation sake.  I merely speculate that Espinoza is under strict orders to pull up if he feels anything is amiss where Pharoah is exposed to potential injury that would compromise his Breeders Cup campaign, breeding future or survival.  I may make a few backup $2 show wagers on other horses, assuming the bridge-jumpers pounce on Pharoah in the show pool, but otherwise he completely routs this field after taking the lead or sitting close second behind clear front-runner #2 Competitive Edge into the first turn, settling into the backstretch and turning on the jets without prompting.  Pharoah's the only Grade 1 winner in the field and has won decisively in the slop, God forbid the weather turns bad on Sunday.  Projected final odds: 1-9.

#5 Mr. Jordan (15-1):  This has nothing to do with local connections or drinking the Jersey Cool Aid, but rather a horse who is still learning and improving and I think is in way better form than #1 Upstart and #2 Competitive Edge.  Monmouth-based trainer Edward Plesa, Jr. has what, to me, looks like a formidable 3-year-old with upside and that lost to Competitive Edge in March at Gulfstream Park but still finished second in his 3-year-old debut off a 4-month layoff.  Since then, Mr. Jordan sports two straight wins -- one at a 1-turn mile (overnight stakes at Gulfstream on April 25) and the other at 2 turns (a mile and a sixteenth) in the Grade 3 Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth on June 21.  Mr. Jordan is 4-for-6 in his early career and has shown both front-end and tactical speed (i.e. stalking, then passing, the leaders) and I anticipate will seek a spot just off American Pharoah's right flank and hope to hang on for second or get extremely lucky if Pharoah's off his A (or C) game.  Mr. Jordan drifted out into the lane very late in his last two races, but I figure the last race was a good stamina builder and the horse sports good works, including one in the mud, where I'm guessing Mr. Plesa was testing the waters in the event it rains on Haskell Day (unlikely).  Keeping Paco Lopez aboard Mr. Jordan is otherwise another bullish indicator to me, as I'm sure Monmouth Park's top jockey could have had his pick of a few of other horses here.

#6 Keen Ice (12-1):  I really dislike Keen Ice's late-running style for speed-favoring Monmouth, but I sense he can simply outlast the rest to the wire and maybe pick up third-place money (second-place, at best).  This Dale Romans trainee is 0-for-7 since breaking his maiden last September at Churchill Downs in a 1-turn mile, but gets a huge pass for running in 4 Grade 2 and 3 Grade 1 races.  Keen's 3rd-place finish in the Belmont was curious in that jockey Kent Desormeaux seemed to take his horse back from a good stalking position almost to the rear and a subsequently wide trip, but the horse responded to urging in the lane and at least kept up with Pharoah.  The question with this one becomes whether he's just a lazy sort who needs more urging earlier in a race, or is chronically over-matched and should maybe pass the allowance condition before taking on another graded stakes field.

#2 Competitive Edge (8-1):  This one's the rabbit for American Pharoah, as I see it, and should benefit from a speed-favoring track and maybe hang on for a minor award.  Edge boasts a Grade 3 win at Churchill on Kentucky Derby Day, but that was at a 1-turn mile, and the horse's three wins prior also were at one turn, albeit sprint distances (6 and 7 furlongs).  Edge flopped in his last start, the Grade 2 Woody Stephens on Belmont Stakes Day in a race far faster than anything this horse won earlier in his career, so I expect Edge's speed to carry him for most of the race before fading late.

#1 Upstart (6-1):  It's hard to dismiss the second choice with Monmouth master Jersey Joe Bravo aboard this Grade 2 winner (Holy Bull at Gulfstream on January 24), but his Kentucky Derby effort showed me that he does not like getting dirt kicked in his face.  Watch the replay and you'll find a horse who jerks his head several times into the first turn, apparently averse to the kickback from the leaders.  He had a decent break from not the worst of post positions but basically quit thereafter.  I would have given him a much better chance in the Haskell had he drawn an outside post (where he won most of his prior races), but in my view, Edge, Pharoah, Mr. Jordan and perhaps even #3, Nonna's Boy, establish the lead and Bravo takes Upstart at least 3 or 4 paths wide, which will compromise a horse whose 3-year-old wins were just off the pace.  I get the second-choice morning line, but think it's based on a gaudy win in the Grade 2 Holy Bull at a time where 3-year-old horses are far from mature.  To me, Upstart might be the equivalent of the 10-year-old giant who dominates rec ball until the other kids outgrowing him by age 14.  This horse, to me, is an all or nothing proposition, similar to Materiality, who was the hot horse heading into the Belmont and flopped.

#3 Nonna's Boy (30-1):  Lamplighter Stakes on July 18 shows this one is better suited to turf, and wheeling the horse into this race two weeks off the Lamplighter is questionable, but he has at least shown some early foot in past races and was game in the $150,000 Easy Goer Stakes on Belmont Stakes Day.  The runner-up in that 3-horse field, Stanford, barely won the Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth earlier in the meet but flopped in Friday's $100,000 Curlin Stakes at Saratoga.  PASS on this horse, who might actually take some money on solely trainer-owner (Pletcher-Repole).

#8 Dontbetwithbruno (30-1):  Another Pletcher Monmouth B-teamer whose best was a conditioned allowance win at PARX in April.  Bruno never came close to Mr. Jordan or Nonna's Boy in head-to-head match-ups and should be 50-1 or more come post-time.  Take a flyer on Pletcher here at your own risk, as this one's an even bigger reach than his Repole stablemate (Nonna's Boy).

#7 Top Clearance (30-1):  I wanted to consider this one for fourth-place money but cannot in good conscience.  I'll walk home from Monmouth if Top Clearance wins.  OK, so I live less than 10 miles away and walking might be a faster means than navigating all of the car traffic exiting Oceanport, but you catch my drift.  The gaudy win on July 11 was against $20,000 optional conditioned claimers.  In short, the horse beat up on 4 others, including some much older horses, but did take well to his first two-turn race.  I have nothing against trainer Wayne Catalano, but expecting anything more than finishing the race fifth on an enormous step up to Grade 1 company is insane.  Free country, though.

Haskell Bets

Admittedly more into the spectacle of the event, I will tier a few wagers with American Pharoah and Mr. Jordan finishing one-two and probably keep to a $20-$25 bankroll for the race.  

Any multi-race exotics will feature Pharoah as a single.

I am tossing Nonna's Boy (#3), Top Clearance (#7) and Dontbetwithbruno (#8) completely. 

Here's what I'm thinking...

$10 Trifecta: 4-5-6 (Pharoah, Mr. Jordan, Keen Ice)
$2-$3 Trifecta: 4-6-5
$2-$3 Trifecta 4-5-2
$1 Superfecta: 4 with 5 with 2, 6 with 1, 2, 6 = $4 total investment
$2 Show: 2, 5, 6 = $6 total investment (only if American Pharoah's 1-9 and there's an enormous show pool; this is strictly a hedge in the event Pharoah is rank for some reason and pulls up and out of the race.)

Good luck to everyone playing the Haskell and enjoy the moment for what is, historically, a monumental day for Monmouth Park!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Handicapping Contests A "Bettor" Alternative

Similar to both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, I find American Pharoah unbeatable and, therefore, better used atop higher-denomination exacta and trifecta bets and strictly for use as a single in multi-race exotic wagers.

You may read a lot of handicappers (or mainstream media posing as handicappers) over the next 48 hours coming out of the woodwork to make a case for early-speed types Upstart and Competitive Edge or, if the race falls apart under ridiculously fast fractions, late-runner Keen Ice.  

I would tread carefully banking on what many say and think most of the competitors do not belong in the same discussion let alone on the same track, since it's pretty clear that American Pharoah is infinitely better than the 7 rivals entered for the $1.75 million Haskell.

That being said, there are three primary wagering-hub alternatives to betting on the race that should draw one's attention to enjoy the action on Sunday.

"What's A Handicapping Contest?"

Finally I am back in my wheelhouse, talking about my favorite extracurricular activity and less about hotels, restaurants and New Jersey Transit trains.

Simply put, in a handicapping (a.k.a. picking winning horses) contest, players pay a fee -- but some are free -- to compete in a field of other contestants for a share of prizes ranging from straight-up cash to entries to the $2.5 million National Handicapping Championship (NHC) in Las Vegas.

You might (or might not) have read that I qualified for my first NHC last season.  It was the thrill of a lifetime and a decent achievement for a weekender to compete against professionals, and a place I am attempting to revisit through this year's qualifying season.

The typical contest emphasizes picking winners and uses a pre-set selection of races from one or more tracks in which each player make a notional $2 win/place wager on one horse.  

If your horse wins, you get the dollar value of that horse's real win/place payout; pick the runner-up and get that horse's place payout.  Player with the highest total bankroll at the end wins.

Simple, right?

There are a host of options to choose from this Sunday and I'll highlight those worth considering.

Free Contests - Haskell Challenge

If you have never played a single handicapping contest, Monmouth Park's "Haskell Challenge" is probably the best place to start.

Free to enter at
In the Haskell Challenge, there's no cost to enter, and you will try pick a winner for all 14 races on Sunday's program, and Monmouth Park provides free "past performances" that you can use as a guide to make your selections. 

Here, your mythical bets are $2 "across the board" wagers on one horse.  

If your horse wins, you collect the combined win, place and show values and move up the leaderboard.  Pick the second-place runner and you get the place and show payouts.  Pick third and get the show payout.  

Scoring is cumulative over the 14 races, with the winner getting a sweet prize package for two to the 2015 Breeders Cup in Lexington, Kentucky's Keeneland Race Course.

Second- and third-highest finishing bankrolls win $500 and $200 cash, respectively.

NHC Tour-Focused Contests

If you have never heard of the "NHC Tour," a $50 annual membership gives the more-frequent contest players the opportunity to qualify for the $2.5 million NHC Championship, which is a 3-day no-entry-fee handicapping contest in Las Vegas.  

Most NHC Tour-focused contests require an entry fee, ranging anywhere from $40 to $3,000, depending on the host site.  

However, NHC Tour membership also includes access to 5 "free" members-only online contests where the Top 4 finishers earn spots in Las Vegas.

This weekend happens to be one of those freebies.  

It's never too late the join the NHC, so if you want to play on Sunday fork over 50 bucks to become a member and gain access to the contest.

Sunday's contest is hosted by and features 10 races from 5 different tracks, including Woodbine, Saratoga, Del Mar, Ellis Park and Monmouth Park.  

Consider the 8th contest race -- the Haskell -- a "free square" (akin to a bingo card) and pick American Pharoah for a small notional return, or roll the dice on one of the bomber long-shots, and try to connect with some prices in the other 9 contest races.  Good luck to those who enter!

Cash-Prize Contests: Derby Wars and

Federal laws allow for fantasy sports websites to legally run cash-based handicapping contests, so there's nothing offshore or suspicious about it. 

You've probably seen a zillion TV ads for FanDuel or with the snooty pitchman for Draft Kings, but there are horse racing-focused fantasy/contest sites worth attention. 

If you're interested in small-ante tournaments as low as $1-$3, or are a higher-stakes sort willing to pony up $375 for a shot at $5,000 first-prize, then visit Derby Wars.

The Derby Wars interface is probably the most interactive on the market, offering in-game chat between contestants and other user-friendly features.

Derby Wars is one of several NHC qualification hubs as well, although the less-than-favorable percentages (1/100 for the August 7 and 14 qualifiers) to get through Derby Wars and to Las Vegas in January keep me away from using the site more often, but I know the site is good and several people who prefer playing for real cash prizes instead of entries to NHC or other big tourneys. 

For reasons expressed above, as an NHC Tour member my loyalties are more with, which is the most prominent NHC qualifying hubs for online handicapping contests but also has cash-prize tournaments for multiple players and, similar to Derby Wars, head-to-head action. 

Recall that, Thursday, I addressed the "takeout" theme.

Whereas 19% for Monmouth Park's daily doubles is among the best in the industry (i.e., the track keeps, as profit, 19 cents of every dollar bet), the typical contest charges a mere 9.1% takeout.  

In essence, far more of players' contest entry fees go back to the players, which is why you should pay attention.  

For example, in Sunday's $850 "pick and pray" (i.e., enter your selections on all 8-12 contest races before the first goes off and let it ride), it costs a mere $12 and the top five finishers come away with respective cash winnings of $400, $200, $150, $75 and $25. 

Higher rollers can spend $190 to enter a 44-player tournament where top prize is $3,750 and the takeout is 10.3%. 

Options Abound

Sunday provides a good opportunity for prospective players to kick the tires on the nascent handicapping contest circuit and view wagering from a completely different perspective.

Strategies vary by player, but most will agree that in addition to needing a bit of good fortune in the race outcomes, it's important to sprinkle in some long-shot selections along the way; playing all favorites is not going to work, much as I would argue with Sunday's Haskell Invitational and is primarily the reason the Haskell is, in my view, not a great "win" bet scenario.

American Pharoah's probably going to be bet down to 1-to-9, so a $2 win bet to win 10 cents of profit just is not worth it (see more from Thursday's blog on the on-track betting menu). 

On that note, in my upcoming and final pre-Haskell blog, I will break down the Haskell 2015 field and propose some real-money betting thoughts for Sunday.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Phinding Phair Betting Value At Sunday's Haskell

Addressing an entirely different menu than yesterday's restaurant suggestions, here I tackle the betting options for Sunday's card at Monmouth Park, highlighted by what is now the $1.75 million Grade 1 Haskell (purse was increased yesterday from $1 million), scheduled to go off just before 6 p.m. and Race #12 on a 14-race program.

Please be clear that I am not making selections yet (I expect to do that in a later installment), but rather addressing the types of wagers that will be available, along with a brief reference to "takeout", or the house's cut of each bet you make.

Readers would be well-advised, first, to read Lenny Moon's explanation on the Equinometry blog of "Picking the Proper Parimutuel Pools" to get a tutorial on each specific wager.  Lenny provides thorough, simple explanations for wagerers based on each person's bankroll range. 

I share Lenny's belief that a person with a $40-$50 bankroll for the day should not be lured into multi-race "exotics," but rather focus on win-place-show or, at most, daily double and exacta bets.  If exacta and daily double are too confusing, then scale down your expectations and consider bets based on the program handicappers' selections or listening to the free race-by-race analysis provided over the loud speakers by Mike Curci and Brad Thomas for some win-bet ideas.  

In sum, you might hear people talking about bets like "Pick 4" or "Jersey Shore Pick 6" but those are akin to the lottery, even for the deeper-bankrolled players and pro handicappers.  Just ignore those.

3 Equitable Betting Options

Based on published "takeout" rates on Monmouth Park's website and the ease of these concepts, and consistent with the advice I typically give customers as a volunteer racing ambassador, I recommend 3 bets: win (or "win-place" in spots), exacta (straight or "box"...more on that later) and daily double.

There are several reasons -- the concepts are easy to grasp, one can profit a bit (more so with the exacta and daily double bets) and the "takeout" favors the bettor more than other betting options at Monmouth Park: 17% on win-place-show and 19% on exacta and the daily double.  

The lowest takeouts at Monmouth Park are 15% on the more-complex Pick 4 and Pick 5, where bettors need to pick the winner in a specified 4- or 5-race sequence.

Here you'll generally find your bigger-bankroll players, since the cost is higher for exponentially higher return potential; Monmouth, to simplify, only keeps as profit 15 cents of every dollar bet into the pool, which is way better than in the trifecta and Pick 3 pools (25% takeout, 75% final payout to bettors).   

Win or Win-Place (17% "Takeout")

Monmouth's takeout outstrips top rival summer tracks Woodbine (14.95%), Del Mar (15.4%) and Saratoga (16%), but is around the median for the industry, according to Horseplayer Association of North America's 2015 Track Ratings.  

On a minimum $1 win, place or show wager, in other words, Monmouth Park keeps 17 cents of profit, and your final win payout (say, $5 on a $1 win bet on a horse at final odds of 5-to-1) is from the other 83 cents in the parimutuel "pool".

The betting concept otherwise is simple -- bet on the horse you want to win, finish second (place) or third (show).  To be clear, betting $2 on a horse to "show" produces the "show" payout if the horse wins, not the higher win payout. 

The "show" payout is usually a waste of time (unless there's a "bridge-jumper" effect, as I'll discuss below as a likelihood for American Pharoah in the Haskell), since the "pool," or total dollar value of show bets track wide, is generally small.  In short, a 2-1 favorite who wins will pay (on a $2 bet) $6 to win ($4 profit, plus your initial $2 investment), $3 and change to place and $2.20 to show. 

Is it really worth betting $2 to show on a favorite (or most horses)?  Probably not, unless that 20-cent profit is going to set you up for life or merely boost your ego in making a winning bet.

I generally encourage straight win bets, or in the case of a long-shot (say, 10-to-1 odds or more) a $2 win-place bet that will still yield a profit even if your horse finishes second.

Exacta (19% "Takeout"), Straight or "Box"

Monmouth's is third-lowest in North America, according to HANA, behind little-known Kentucky Downs (18.25%) and the three New York tracks (Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct: 18.5%), giving a great option to bettors to bet in a high-return pool.  

I am increasingly surprised at customers' lack of insight on the exacta concept whenever I'm volunteering at Monmouth Park.  

Simply put, bet as little as $1 to pick the first- and second-place runners in order of finish to produce a much higher return on the wager than a win, place or show bet.

Say you logically think the #6, Asskicker, is going to pummel the field; but you're also into hunches and there's the #7 horse at 20-to-1, Gladys, like your great grandma.  

You're torn which to bet your last $2. 

Sure, you can come away with $2.20 and a slightly bigger ego on your win bet on the big favorite (#6), or $42 in the event that Gladys (#7) shocks the world.  

However, there's a more-profitable option: the exacta.

You can play a $2 "straight" exacta (go to the betting window and say "$2 exacta #6 and #7"), in which Asskicker must finish first and Gladys must finish second in order for you to cash a winning ticket.  

Another option is to hedge your bet and play a $1 "exacta box #6 and #7," in which case you win so long as Asskicker and Gladys both finish first and second.  

The payout will be much higher if Gladys upends Asskicker, but either way you'll come away with a more-lucrative payout than a win bet on Asskicker (and potentially Gladys).

Naysayers will argue that you're wasting $1 of your $2 right off the bat (since one of the bets will come out a loser if the other wins), but to me that's too technical for the Haskell Day crowd and I'd fully endorse the exacta box wager.

Daily Double (19% Takeout)

Monmouth Park again deserves credit here for one of the lowest takeouts in North America (see "DD Takeout" on the HANA chart).  

On Sunday, Monmouth will have daily double wagering starting on Races 1 through 13.

This is another simple concept -- for a minimum $1 wager, select the winners of back-to-back races.

The "double," back in the day, was only offered in 2 races (1 early, 1 late card) and the only "exotic" wager offered at the track, but seems to now play second fiddle to "multi-race exotics" like the Pick 3, 4, 5 and 6 featured on TVG and other horse handicapping venues.  

However, a 19% takeout is low relative to the Pick 3 (25%) and 10-cent Pick 6 (20%) and easier. 

Let's invoke American Pharoah's name here.  

You're convinced, like me, that he's going to route the Haskell field (Race 12) and will not be bet-able as a win, place or show proposition; who wants to risk $2 to make 10-20 cents of profit, after all.

Instead, you can play either a Race 11-12 daily double or Race 12-13 daily double, using American Pharoah as your single selection for Race 12.

You can bet 1 horse per race, or the entire field.

Say Gladys is the horse you like in Race 11.  As a 20-to-1 long-shot, you'd be well-advised to make a $1 daily double bet (go to the teller and say "Race 11, $1 daily double #7 with insert American Pharoah's # here").  

If Gladys upsets the field and Pharoah dominates the Haskell, you're in for a really nice return.

If you have $10 burning a hole in your pocket and love Pharoah but no idea which of the 10 horses to take in Race 13, you can play the Race 12 double with Pharoah on top of the entire 10-horse Race 13 field, hoping to maybe catch an enormous long-shot that turns your 10 bucks into, say, 30 bucks ("Race 12, $1 double Pharoah with ALL").  

The downside is maybe about $5-$6 of losses if the big favorite wins Race 13 in the above scenario and you only get a few bucks back for your winning double ticket with 2 prohibitive favorites.

1 Haskell Bet Worth Considering -- $2 ALL (except Pharoah) to SHOW

Extremely wealthy (and/or nutty) bettors will sometimes bet solely into the Show pool on a horse they sense is guaranteed to finish in the top 3 of a race.  

You'll generally find this at lower-tier tracks, such as in West Virginia, where the state mandates a 10% return on investment on show bets (10 cents to the dollar), contrary to most states (5%).  Very few places you'll be able to make a 10% return on investment in a minute or two...

I'm making up numbers, but in some cases, you'll see $500,000 bet into the show pool on 1 horse, compared with $10,000 in the win pool and $5,000 in the place pool.

The end result is 1-to-9 odds on the prohibitive favorite and what's known as a "bridge-jumper" (whereby the person(s) who bet gobs of money on that horse would jump off the nearest bridge if the horse finishes 4th or worse).

Show pools often skew a horse's odds, and based on the suspect field that Pharoah's facing in the Haskell, I am speculating that Pharoah could get sent off at 1-to-5 or 1-to-9.

Watch the Haskell
"show pool"
Keep an eye on the show pool, found on the infield tote board at Monmouth Park.

If infinitely more money is bet on Pharoah to show than to win, it might behoove you to bet $2 to show on all of the other horses in the field.

God forbid Pharoah stumbles out of the gate and pulls up in the backstretch to avoid potential injury and does not finish the race, all of that show money in Pharoah's pool would go to the top 3 finishers, and likely to the tune of at least $20 apiece.  

If each pays $20, your $12 of total show wagers (6 horses at $2 to show each = a $12 investment) would yield at least a $48 profit ($60 total return), and profiting is what betting horse racing is all about.

I would completely understand it, though, if you make a $2 win bet on Pharoah to have the ticket for history's sake, but consider backing that up with "$2 ALL, except Pharoah" to show.  

I have seen instances where bridge-jumper losses resulted in an $80 show payout on a horse, so for the risk of a $7-$8 loss, to me it's worth considering.

Next posting, I will take a look at a more-nuanced subject: "handicapping contests" being offered this weekend surrounding the Haskell Invitational. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Phat Eats Near Monmouth Park

Now that everyone knows where to stay and how to get to Monmouth Park for Sunday's Haskell Invitational and American Pharoah's $600,000 workout, here are some restaurants within 15 minutes of the track and near and dear to the NJ Horseplayer camp worth sampling if you're in town for the weekend.

Mirroring my writing style, some are off the beaten path, not to mention casual.

Others, namely in the pizza realm, are always subject to great debate among locals as to which one deserves supremacy.

The premise here is to share a dozen or so local eateries (most are first-come, first-served) and help you avoid the highway chains littering the landscape.

There's plenty of flavor a short distance from Monmouth Park.

Vic's, Bradley Beach:  Best sauce and thin crust pizza in the area.  I recommend the "special" (homemade crumbled sausage and green pepper) and chopped antipasto, but the pepperoni pizza is extremely fresh as well and the restaurant's ambiance is casual.  It's an amazing old-school tomato pie. About a 10-minute drive from Monmouth Park, down either Rt. 71 or Rt. 35 South.

Pete & Elda's, Neptune City:  Locals tend to be in either the Vic's or Pete & Elda's camp, but you cannot go wrong with the tomato pies/pizza here either.  It's akin to being either a Pat's or Geno's guy for Philly cheesesteaks.  Situated on Rt. 35 South, be prepared to wait at Pete & Elda's; very popular place year round with tight parking.

Zachary's, West Long Branch:  On Oceanport Avenue, literally across Rt. 36 from Monmouth Park,  Zachary's is where Red Rock or Bust and I lick our wounds after many a handicapping contest at Monmouth.  If you have not noticed yet, pizza is a staple for me, but Zachary's is very underrated and has a great bar that's big and serves $5 pitchers of ice cold Pabst Blue Ribbon.  Dinner menu is diverse and food's good in general.  Recommend sausage & pepper pie and buffalo wings. 

Casa Comida, Long Branch:  About a mile from the backside of Monmouth Park, this Mexican establishment serves a fine golden margarita that'll knock your socks off, and although I have only been here once, I trust the opinion of friend and fellow NHC Tour member Paul Zerbst in recommending the food as well; Paul even went post-contest in a blizzard once.  That must tell you something (one individual's insanity aside).

Kelly's Corner Tavern, Neptune:  The absolute BEST open-faced corned beef Reuben on the planet, and I've had people far and wide attest to that fact.  The "mini" is sufficient enough; get the "large" version at your own risk, or plan on sharing.  A great bar, and Kelly's is open from 7 a.m.-2 a.m., serving Irish-style breakfast as well; so, take that, Parting Glass Pub (Saratoga)!  If you're a hard-core foodie, this is a half-mile from Vic's and Pete & Elda's; try all 3 in a day!

Brick Wall Tavern, Asbury Park:  The filet mignon sandwich with frizzled onions and blue cheese crumbles on a potato roll is mouthwatering.  The bar menu is extensive, and any establishment that serves a Kentucky Hot Brown should resonate well with visitors from the Bluegrass State.  Within walking distance of the famous Stone Pony and Asbury boardwalk as well.  Sister restaurant Porta, known for its Tuscan-style pizzas, is also in Asbury Park.

Lincroft Inn, Middletown:  Practically walking distance from the NJ Horseplayer homestead in Tinton Falls, hands down this is the best burger in the area.  A lot of folks will sell you on Barnacle Bill's in Rumson, but for my money Lincroft Inn's boss.  The building is a few hundred years old, but the bar is outstanding and TVG is always on.  Barely 15 minutes from Monmouth Park; a good place for anyone staying at any of the hotels along Newman Springs Road over the weekend.

Juanito's, Red Bank:  I'm partial to the Camarones Cinco de Mayo and Enchiladas Del Mar (no horse racing pun intended), but by all accounts the food here is solid and it's BYOB.

La Pastaria, Red Bank:  I am a big proponent of TripAdvisor, but would dismiss several of the negative ratings for this Italian gem, as I have dined next to strangers in Red Bank who can be on the rude and pretentious side.  La Pastaria is another BYOB establishment that, for my money, has some of the best Italian food in the area; seafood dishes also are above-average.  It's on a side street and a little hard to find but worth the visit.   

Mumford's Culinary Center, Tinton Falls:  Actually a culinary school that serves mostly breakfast, lunch and baked goods (closes around 3:30-4 p.m.), Mumford's is a hidden gem that makes outstanding sandwiches and fresh fare picked from the gardens right outside the restaurant.  They're not open on Sundays, but do not hesitate to stop here en route to a day at the track; it's about an 8-minute drive from Monmouth Park and located at 33 Apple Street (07724) if using your GPS.

Mike's Giant Submarines, Belmar and Pat's Market, Lincroft:  Perhaps a low-brow suggestion, but subs (not "hoagies," "grinders," etc.) are a great idea for anyone looking to pick up some deli for a day in the Monmouth Park picnic area/BYOB sections.  For my money, Pat's (a butcher shop in a strip mall too short on parking but that happens to make great food) has THE best sandwiches in the area, but Mike's also makes a nice sub on fresh Nino's (the gold standard) rolls. Mike's or Pat's are infinitely better than the better-known Jersey Mike's, and unless you plan on insulting New Jerseyans, do not stroll into the picnic area with a Subway foot-long under your arm.

Manhattan Clam Chowder, Monmouth Park:  I **** you not, Monmouth Park's clam chowder is one of the best around, in my opinion.  Now, you can find a lot of decent New England clam chowder along the Jersey Shore, and in fact Stefano's on Long Beach Island's is so good the restaurant won for "best chowder" in Newport, RI in 2014.  (If you want to take the hour's drive south from Monmouth Park, I'd suggest a reservation at Stefano' seafood restaurant in NJ hands down).  However, I have yet to find award-winning red chowder nearby and rank Monmouth Park's as my favorite.  Stop by the downstairs concession stand near the grandstand bar on the ground floor, fork over $5 and prepare for what is, perhaps, the best dining experience from the track's concessions.

Check back in after you've tried these places and share your thoughts in the comment field.

In my next post, I'll share thoughts on a different kind of menu...

The betting options on Haskell Day!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Pharoah's Shacking Up In Kelly Breen's Barn...How About You?

America's Favorite Triple Crown winner is coming to Oceanport on Wednesday, in case you hadn't heard (and rumor has it he's already on trainer Bob Baffert's back about scoring chili cheese dogs for the two of them from Max's).

In perhaps the most monumental day in Monmouth Park's history, American Pharoah clearly is the hot ticket for Sunday's Grade 1 Haskell Invitational.  

Baffert and his steed head for Haskell, Max's glory?
After landing at Atlantic City Airport, Pharoah will have a motorcade to Monmouth Park, where he'll be crashing on trainer Kelly Breen's couch for a few days in advance of being the 1-9 favorite, but rumor has it you might have a harder time with accommodations and getting into and around Oceanport.

Fear Not, NJ Horseplayer Is Here To Help

In the spirit as one of just a few volunteer "Racing Ambassadors" at Monmouth Park, I'll provide unsolicited advice on accommodations, dining and other words to the wise, leading off with travel options and some area hotels to consider.

Getting to Monmouth Park on Sunday is going to be treacherous, make no bones about it.

Word is there's no cap on general admission tickets, and 60,000 are projected to attend.

I live barely 10 minutes away and am somewhat fearful of driving in and parking at 9 a.m., but will likely do so since my wife, kids and other family are coming in later from Middletown train station, where parking is abundant and the train is 3 stops north of Monmouth.  A one-way train ticket's a good option in that regard if you have a ride out after the races, and I'm their lift home.

Drive At Your Own Risk

There's one primary thoroughfare in and out of Oceanport: Route 36, accessible from Garden State Parkway Exit 105.  

It's a short highway that turns from four lanes off the Parkway into two and backs up all the time even without the strain of a Haskell crowd (usually 35,000-40,000). 

Sunday's looking like a solid beach day, so prepare for the worst and heavy beach traffic, especially getting out of the parking lot after the Haskell and if headed north up the Parkway. 

Local roads are generally a hassle-free escape on a typical track day, but with record-high crowds expected for Haskell Day, the police from host Oceanport have already issued a press release pertaining to road closures and not parking on Borough streets.  Oceanport Avenue will be closed entirely from 7 a.m.-9 p.m. up to Port Au Peck Avenue, so avoid driving if possible.

Stay tuned to Oceanport Police's Twitter feed (@OPDnj) for additional warnings.

Monmouth Park's management already sounded that warning (albeit buried in its press release), and in a supposed bid to discourage people from driving/parking and to encourage the use of New Jersey Transit trains, will charge you $20 to park in the general lots and $40 for valet. 

Carpool and plan on tailgating after the races for an hour or two if you must drive, but with WordOnTheShore reporting road closures as well in Eatontown (the part of Rt. 36 between the Parkway and Oceanport), consider the other major option.

Use NJ Transit Trains

As noted, there's a lot of parking at Middletown train station, but several other nearby options from which to choose.

I have never had to take the train to the track, but as a New York City commuter from the Jersey Shore area can lend some advice.  

My only hope is that Monmouth Park management does a better job than the NYRA did with last year's Belmont Stakes mass transit, which by all accounts was a disaster.  Monmouth is reporting the addition of trains to and from the track, but I am a bit unclear whether the typical train package that includes train fare, track admission and a program, will be offered as usual...or how many "additional" trains will be added on Sunday.

(Tuesday update 1 p.m., New Jersey's Transportation Commissioner confirms to Asbury Park Press that northbound trains will be added on the evening runs and encourages people to buy round-trip tickets in advance; please note too that the Monmouth Park stop is not ADA compliant.)

Regardless, the train stop is on the back side of the track and it's just a short walk.

The line runs from Bay Head to the south all the way to New York's Penn Station.  

Here's the latest timetable I could find for the North Jersey Coastline

If you are starting by car from anywhere north of the Driscoll Bridge or, say, the New Brunswick area, favorable park-and-ride options South Amboy, Aberdeen or Middletown stations have more-abundant parking than the likes of Little Silver (right next door to Oceanport).  

South Amboy, my original hometown, is 32 minutes by train to Monmouth Park and a good place to grab packaged goods for the ride and has decent eateries after the train ride back north. 

If you're driving from the south and need to park and ride for the train, take into account potential competition with people spending the day at the beach (Belmar, for one); on that front I'm less useful, so please do you own research on best train stop for your needs. 

Hotel and Train

Monmouth Park lists some partner hotels on its primary website, but there are other options in the surrounding area to consider.  I'm not a Monmouth Park employee or a travel agent, but here are some outside-the-box places to consider if you are coming to the area for more than the day.

Red Bank:  Molly Pitcher Inn -- some rooms available on Sunday night and an easy walk to the train station, plus access to great dining and nightlife. 

Route 35 Corridor (between Keyport and Middletown): There are some basic hotels such as the Holiday Inn (Hazlet) that put you within earshot of the NJ Transit line to Monmouth Park; more your standard-fare business traveler hotel, but acceptable for an overnight stay instead of a long drive home in Sunday evening beach traffic.

Lincroft: There are two business-traveler/suite-style hotels off Exit 109 of the Parkway right near my house -- Courtyard Lincroft Marriott and Extended Stay Red Bank that are less than five minutes from the Red Bank and Little Silver train stations.  More convenient than the 35 Corridor.

Tinton Falls:  Last but not least, my current hometown.  Courtyard and Residence Inn are probably tops, but there are a handful of others as well right off of Route 36 just off the Parkway.  The disadvantage is you're a 5-minute drive without traffic to Monmouth Park, but mass transit's a little more of a hassle, since you're circumventing Eatontown to get to the Long Branch station to the south or the Red Bank Station to the north.  Still, solid accommodations and you can say you slept in the same town as NJ Horseplayer headquarters.

NJ Horseplayer's House:  Tongue in cheek, my kids rooms are available for $500 a night.  Includes breakfast and my free selections for Haskell Day, which'll only put you even deeper in debt.

Beach Hotel and Train

Generally speaking, these places are too close to my house for me to actually stay a night for a vacation, but here are some places I found that have rooms available, at least for Sunday night, where you're right in the hub of a beach town and with access to the train.

Long Branch:  Ocean Place is expensive, but right on the boardwalk.

Asbury Park: The Berkeley is right on the oceanfront and the revived Asbury is akin to Red Bank to the north in terms of great dining and nightlife and boasts the famous Stone Pony.

Belmar, Spring Lake and Point Pleasant are other shore towns to the south with hotels; I recommend scouring for more details.

Airbnb might be an option worth exploring as well.  Already there are even a few people in Oceanport trying to fleece Haskell visitors over the Haskell Weekend.


I hope you find this info helpful, and come back for my next post on NJ Horseplayer's favorite eateries in the area.