Wednesday, February 11, 2015

NHC XVI Recap: Part 2 - Flat Out Poor Handicapping

I will always have positive vibes about the 2014 handicapping season, culminating in my first-ever qualification for the National Handicapping Championship (NHC).
NJ Horseplayer: 3 for 40 vs. the
NHC equivalent of the "Big Unit"

Two-plus weeks later, however, after analyzing the outcomes of my 40 picks over three days (30 in the "main" tournament on Friday and Saturday and 10 in Sunday's "consolation" tournament), I give myself a resounding "F" for performance over the first two days and about a B-/C+ for Sunday's consolation tournament.

To be blunt, I was awful my first two days.

As is my demeanor, I would never sugarcoat my performance, which was the equivalent of a single-A rookie getting schooled by a Randy Johnson fastball.

The NHC in Las Vegas really proved too tough a test in my first effort, not so much from a perspective of being overwhelmed by the number of races, or psyched out by the level of competition, or ending up in a roadside ditch after a night of partying a la The Hangover.

Rather, the following assessment, more is less, provides an honest analysis, and is maybe the equivalent of tossing a golf ball into the lake in front of the tee box as a superstitious appeasement, of sorts, to the golf gods before tee hopes of clearing the water with the real tee shot.

From this day forward, similar to the golf ball embedded at the bottom of that tee box pond, my NHC XVI gets locked in a vault, never to resurface.

It's all positive thoughts from here forward.


There were no "bad beats" on Friday -- just a bunch of middling picks to bad selections (6 third- or fourth-place runners), with the primary solace being there was only one "cap" (odds greater than 20-to-1) horse of the 15 races I played.  Otherwise, 12 of the 15 winners of those races went off at odds of 4-to-1 or below (average win mutuel was $11.82, but $9.60 excluding the cap horse).

Red = Mandatory NHC Races
If nothing else, I was not deterred, since the Day 1 leader had a low (by historical standards) ~$115 final bankroll, giving everyone in the tournament hope of a big Day 2 turnaround.


The biggest difference for me Saturday from a handicapping perspective was a better card than Friday's, where in advance I plotted out all 60-plus races from the 7 contest tracks chronologically, by race surface and distance and field size.

Aqueduct had cancelled on Saturday but was as bad as Friday's awful card anyway, making it easier to be patient and map out the types of races I wanted to play, namely turf sprints.   This was a bit of a change from Friday, where I found the card generally ho-hum and used more of my 8 optional plays earlier in the day, where I determined there was more value.

I went into the card very loose, with no preconceived notions, but little handicapping either under the premise that my five hours of intense handicapping of Friday's 8 mandatory races was a waste.

I also did not want to go to Vegas to hole myself up in my room reading past performances after spending about 8 hours doing that on Friday.  My eyes and mind needed a rest.

The fruits of my lack of labor were five picks nowhere close to winning to start Saturday.

Selection #6 essentially sealed my fate and put me in a relative tailspin from which I could not recover for another 3-4 races.

Stuck between two horses I liked in the 20-to-1 neighborhood in Race 3 from Oaklawn Park, I ultimately sided with the wrong one, as Awol Adam connected at nearly 22-to-1 while my selection, Costilla Range, faded to finish 7th of 10.  Add Joe Rocco Jr. to my "never wins when I bet but no doubt loses when I do" list, alongside Joe Bravo.  Rocco rode Awol Adam beautifully.

Out of frustration, I rushed two (in hindsight) indifferent plays on horses not even close with my next two selections.

At that point it was game, set and match.

Building to Sunday

Knowing that I had little chance to advance to Sunday's championship round (top 50), I relegated myself to using my final 4-5 picks on Saturday (and 2-3 successful side wagers) to prep for Sunday, regardless of whether I got on the board or not (which finally happened on my 28th tournament selection).

This strategy proved somewhat successful in Sunday's consolation bracket, as I nailed the biggest price on that afternoon's generally chalky 30-plus card.  The 10-to-1 winner put me within the Top 40 and I held my place with a near-miss place runner in my eighth (of 10) selections, but could not connect with my final two picks.  I finished somewhere around 95th.

No Looking Back

Cover your eyes.

The spreadsheet recap of my NHC debut is not at all pretty.

Friday was a tough day for most contenders in the ballroom, but over the first two days I went a little too heavy on long-shots as is my penchant, but even when I went to lower-priced horses I liked, nothing connected.

Sunday's effort proved somewhat inspiring for me in that I did not come home to frigid New Jersey without a first-place runner, and that I have definitely improved on the patience scale, in terms of not trying to diagnose (and subsequently) play every single race as I had in my earlier days.

There were 30+ races to play within a 3 hour window, and I passed on several deemed unplayable (either fields too short or conditions outside my comfort zone).

There's really no moral to the story, other than the NHC is a tough road that I absolutely expect to hit again, and I would posit that all handicappers (not just me) go through stretches where they cannot find a winner or their top selection simply gets a bad trip or loses a photo finish.  Sometimes the handicapping is great but the anticipated outcome is not.

In Vegas, my handicapping was the opposite of great, but I guess so was that of hundreds of others, even people with multiple entries in the tournament who failed to crack the Top 50 or make it to the final table.

With that, I am back down to the claiming ranks, building my bankroll through some online tournaments, getting back into the NHC swing through an unsuccessful qualifier this past Sunday, and bracing for Simulcast Series Challenges #2 through #4 this winter.


Next up: NHC XVI Recap: Part 3 - Recommendations To Improve NHC XVII

Monday, February 2, 2015

NHC XVI Recap: Part 1 -- Phenomenal Experience, Great People

It was an interesting experience to say the least.

First off, by now you've figured that I was not a factor at all in my first berth to the National Handicapping Championship on January 23-25.

My face was not plastered all over the Daily Racing Forum, an honor bestowed solely upon NHC XVI champion John O'Neil.

Oh, well, someone's
$10 poorer
It took me 28 races (of 30 through Friday and Saturday) just to get on the scoreboard, but that did nothing to deter what was a wonderful and valuable learning experience on several fronts.

I was just outside the Top 20 of Sunday's consolation tournament with a few plays remaining, but could not connect on another winner; even if I did, I still would have fallen short, as the last two race winners were 2-to-5 and 6-to-5 and would not have produced enough winnings to finish even 20th.

Rewind to Thursday evening, however.

After an uneventful flight from JFK on which I handicapped the 8 mandatory races for Friday the night before the contest, I was unlucky enough to be assigned a taxi driver who conned me into being "long-hauled" via the Interstate to host site Treasure Island at twice the normal cab fare.

Ominously, we hit some traffic at the scene of a nasty car accident, where a deceased person lay covered by a blanket in the fast lane of the interstate a good 10 yards past a half-dozen police on the scene.  The poor person could not have been left more out in the open.  It was a surreal experience for me, and all I could do was say a prayer for that person as we passed the accident scene.

As we're pulling into Treasure Island, the accented cab driver insisted I tell an approaching police officer that I asked him to deliver me by interstate.  The officer, however, made clear that I had been taken, told me to call the cab company for reimbursement (since received), and next time to ask any Vegas taxi driver to be returned to the airport by the most direct route.

Pretty interesting first 15 minutes in Las Vegas, eh?!

Anyway, I'll get more into my awful contest performance in a subsequent post, since I am still gathering my thoughts about that personal aspect of the trip.

At this time, I would rather focus on the positives, of which there were several.

Experience of a Lifetime

The NTRA provides an outstanding experience, in my opinion.

From the point of contest check-in through the Sunday evening banquet that concludes the 3-day NHC, service was top notch.

Tournament staff in the ballroom were extremely visible and accessible to players.

Contest betting terminals were readily available, with barely a wait to make a contest play.  The continental breakfast and lunch spreads were high-quality, and the main ballroom offered enough room for players to operate and mingle.

In short, the atmosphere was extremely conducive to thoroughbred handicapping contest play.

The piece that I relished the most, however, was bonding with some wonderful individuals and handicappers from around the U.S.

Top-Quality People

Now, by coincidence, 3 of the 7 players at my table were fellow New Jersey residents -- proof once again that one never truly escapes the Garden State.

Two seats to my right -- Peter Pruzinsky of Wayne, another NHC first-timer, whom I had met a few weeks prior through mutual friend Paul Zerbst at Monmouth SSC#1.

Two seats to my left -- Josh Kamis of East Brunswick, in his second trip to NHC and a qualifier through

In between were Kenny Shaw of Illinois, Bill McKinney of Pennsylvania, Eliot Honaker of Louisville, KY and Bob Schintzius, fresh off 8 feet of snow at his Buffalo, NY-area home.

Meanwhile, two random encounters warmed my heart.

About mid-afternoon on Friday, a fine gentleman sauntered over to my table to introduce himself as a big fan of the NJ Horseplayer blog.


No, Dan Camoro, who stumbled upon my blog from his Oregon home.

Hanging with Dan Camoro
before Sunday's finale
Dan was even more brave than I could ever imagine, not only having the courage to walk up to a complete stranger, but wagering $10 of his hard-earned dollars on "B Holobowski" to win the NHC!

Not the soundest investment, but hey, nothing wrong with blind faith!

We struck up a wonderful conversation that afternoon and in the days after, and I even met Dan's wonderful daughter, a very artistic young lady much like my daughter.

Perhaps it's time to expand the operation to

Meanwhile, I finally got to connect with Damian Sasso, a great young man from Rutherford, NJ, who when all was said and done took home $6,500 for a third-place finish in Sunday's consolation tourney.

Damian (and his wife) allege to be readers as well, so go figure.

Unfortunately I did not connect with some other folks who read my blog and that I had hoped to meet, but admittedly got a little bit lost in the business at hand -- trying to win what is an exceedingly difficult handicapping contest.

Close Call For One

The aforementioned Kenny Shaw came closest of our table, taking home nearly $20,000 for 17th-place finish in the "Final 50" and a few noses or head-bob away from legitimately making the final table and having a shot at the top $800,000 prize won convincingly by Mr. O'Neil.

I felt really guilty on Sunday at the conclusion of the consolation bracket because my lone winner of the entire tournament, 10.6-to-1 Jilleah, nosed former NJ-owned (Kenwood Stables) Raro in a 7.5-furlong turf race at Gulfstream Park.

A win by 4-to-1 Raro would have improved Kenny's Top 50 tournament standing, and by that point one thing I learned from my first NHC experience is that once out of the running to win NHC, players will live vicariously through hopefuls with a real shot at winning the whole tournament. Kenny played the entire tournament like a champ, yet came out on the short side of at least 2-3 photo finishes and collected only place money rather than win-place.

Overall, however, with each person's selection came a "good luck," or a "great call" congratulatory remark whenever someone at the table hit a race.  I found the atmosphere extremely supportive and really appreciated the moral support of my playing partners, especially after some really bad selections on Saturday morning.

In sum, what impressed me the most were the players and the quality of the contestants as people.

On the return flight home into the impending blizzard last Monday, I had the time to read all of the bios of each of the hundreds of NHC players, compiled in a book given to all qualifiers.

Here's just a flavor of what I came across and wish to share (courtesy of NTRA):

  • Mark Aylward, Waxhaw, NC, on his most memorable horse racing experience: "...taking my dad to Saratoga for his last trip before he passed. It was just so special to go one last time with him."
  • Greg Bone, Dallas, TX, on his proudest accomplishment: "I'm constantly amazed and thankful for all the great people in my life -- family, friends, colleagues. I don't know that I can claim it an accomplishment, but I've certainly been very lucky."
  • Francis Boustany, Lafayette, LA, on his most memorable racing experience: "In 1998, my dad was terminally ill and I decided to claim a horse, Foreign Pass. He was a huge fan of horse racing, so I knew I could try to boost his spirits and tell him that he needed to get out of the hospital so he could go to the racetrack and watch the horse. He passed October of 1998, and the first race with Foreign Pass, I looked up to the sky and said "Dad, ride Foreign Pass today!" Not only did the horse win the race, but he also set a track record at Fair Grounds for the 5 furlong distance.  He ultimately went on to become claimer of the meet."
  • Steve Decaspers, Forest Park, IL, on his proudest accomplishment: "When my four-year-old nephew Jacob needed to have a bone-marrow transplant, I led a fund-raising effort to support his family and cover their expenses during a full-time, year-long journey. I'm proud to say that Jacob is 11 now and healthier than he's ever been."
  • Frank Scatoni, literary agent from Del Mar, CA, on his proudest accomplishment: "I'm a big advocate of literacy, and I think it's important for everyone to try and contribute -- in their own way --- to the cultural landscape of our society. I'm extremely proud of the fact that I've worked on books that not only have entertained but, more importantly, have also affected change, helping people open their minds and view the world in different ways."
  • Larry Burns, Voorhees, NJ, on his most unique experience: "...or should I say my most frightening experience, happened in February 2005 when I was carjacked, held hostage for over two hours, & eventually shot four times by my assailants and left to die on the NJ Turnpike. Miraculously I survived that horrific night, and now I'm coming to Vegas to hopefully win the 2015 NHC."
These are the types of individuals and stories that the thoroughbred racing industry need to promote, and ones that make me feel extremely proud to have competed in such classy company at NHC XVI.

Next up...a far less-rosy endeavor: the unhappy recap of my handicapping at NHC XVI.